Mayoral Election Underscores Historic Weekend For New Orleans

The New Orleans Saints' first NFL Super Bowl win on Sunday rounded off a weekend of sports and political history in the Crescent City. Saturday, New Orleans' residents elected Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu as their new mayor. Landrieu will become the white first white mayor to serve the city since 1978 (interestingly, the previous white mayor was Landrieu's father). Host Michel Martin talks about the recent election New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Stephanie Grace.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now from the gridiron to New Orleans City Hall, where politics has often been a contact sport. As we just heard from Gralen, this Saturday, Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu became New Orleans' first white mayor since 1978 - this in a city that is two-thirds African-American. But that's not all. Landrieu won every one but one of the city's 366 precincts.

In a local television interview following his victory speech Saturday night, Landrieu said his win signals a changing racial dynamic in his city.

Mayor MITCH LANDRIEU (Democrat, New Orleans): I don't see myself as a white man. I see myself as a kid from the 13th Ward who just got elected mayor by the largest crossover vote in the history of the city. And I'm here to represent everybody. And I've said very forcefully on the campaign trail, people who said that race is not an issue in this city are either blind or deaf. It is an issue. But the thing here is, you can't go around it, you can't go over it. You have to go through it. We have to deal with it. And it seems as though the people of the city of New Orleans took such a huge leap forward today by saying that look, we actually have significant common ground.

MARTIN: So here to tell us more about this is Stephanie Grace, political columnist with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and she's with us on the phone. Congratulations to you, of course, on the Super Bowl victory.

Ms. STEPHANIE GRACE (Political Columnist, New Orleans Times-Picayune): Thank you.

MARTIN: Can't ignore that.

Ms. GRACE: Isn't it awesome?

MARTIN: Awesome. What about what Mitch Landrieu said? What do you think his victory signifies?

Ms. GRACE: Well, it's just - it's enormous. I have to tell you, even a lot of people who do politics for a living, you know, thought he might make it over the 50 percent, which is what he needed to avoid a run-off. But 66 percent - I mean, nobody foresaw that. The pollsters didn't, and as you mentioned, every precinct in the city except one and that one, he lost by one vote. And it was - you know, it's a tiny precinct. It only has - only 31 people voted. And he - you know, he had 15; the next guy got 16.

So, it's as much of it - and across the board: Republican, Democrat, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, everybody it is that - the city is that united and really, that has never, ever happened before, although it happened the next day for the Super Bowl. I mean, you really can't talk about one of these events without talking about the other because they - I think they fed on each other.

MARTIN: How come? How so?

Ms. GRACE: Well, you know, this is - we're looking at four years after Katrina, the end of this - the Nagin administration, which left a lot of people very -kind of disappointed in the city's progress. And you had these two, kind of enormous statements of, you know, defiance, optimism, unity - really, unity more than anything. I mean, in previous elections, they seemed - New Orleans elections always seem to devolve into us versus them. If one fraction has power, that means one fraction loses power. And you couldn't walk around the city the last few weeks and feel that. I mean, you know, total strangers, completely different walks of life, smiling, hugging each other, high-fiving each other. You know, it didn't resonate.

MARTIN: What was it about - was it - did Landrieu - what do you think his strengths were? Was it that he - was it the name recognition? Of course, his father was the last non-African-American to run the city, some 30 years ago. Was it name recognition? Was it just a sense that he had paid his dues? What - was there something - that he had a particularly effective message? What do you think was key to the victory?

Ms. GRACE: He had a very effective message. And the message was, I know what to do, and I know how to do it. That was his slogan and it was a perfect slogan for this election because the thing people were really reacting to was the previous administration, the Nagin administration. And Ray Nagin had come in as a political outsider. He is - you know, a lot of people felt like he never really got the hang of what government is supposed to do. He - and that translated into some real delays in the hurricane recovery. And really, there was - kind of a lot of frustration with that.

And towards the end of his tenure, he really did start to play racial politics. And even until last week, he was on the radio urging African-Americans to vote for - you know, using kind of racial code, using - encouraging African-Americans to kind of hold on to the franchise that African-American voters have had for decades, ever since Moon Landrieu was mayor. And the city really rejected that. You know, it was a competence election. It was - this is a guy who -Mitch Landrieu is a guy who has been in government for a very long time. He knows everybody. He, obviously, has a sister sitting on the Appropriations Committee in the Senate. He knows all the Cabinet secretaries. He has a good working relationship with the Republican governor. He used to be in the legislature. He kind of knows how to work the political system, and that's what's really been missing.

MARTIN: OK.

Ms. GRACE: Everybody kind of understood that. And the other important point is something that you all mentioned. He is not really a divisive figure. He is not - he is someone who - his father was the last white mayor, but his father was also the mayor who integrated City Hall, who brought African-Americans into, you know, very high-level positions. You know, he grew up in the civil rights movement, and he understands what this means to people. And he, I think, will be very - will try very hard to have the people feel included. One of the things he said in his speech was - I'm going to read it to you: We took a huge leap forward into the future today. The City of New Orleans showed America what it takes to rebuild a great place.

MARTIN: OK.

Ms. GRACE: We are all going together, and we are not leaving anybody behind.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we appreciate you, Stephanie. We are delightful that you did not lose your voice yelling - either last night or over the weekend. So, thank you for that. Times-Picayune columnist Stephanie Grace was kind enough to join us on the phone from her office in New Orleans. Stephanie, thank you.

Ms. GRACE: Thank you very much.

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