Moon Over New Orleans

Nagin

hide captionThe New Orleans that elected Ray Nagin mayor four years ago is not the same New Orleans of today.

MacArthur

hide captionGeneral MacArthur defied President Truman during the Korean War and was fired for it. But both men paid a political price for the action.

 Sen. Specter

hide captionTwo years ago today, Sen. Specter managed to beat back a tough primary challenge from the right, thanks to help from Bush and Santorum.

Before the unthinkable happened, Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City was expected to be best remembered for one thing: the primary that would determine which Democrat would run in the contest to succeed retiring Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

When voters finally had their say, in a primary that was pushed back to two weeks later, the city, the nation, and the world by then had changed, perhaps forever. But, devastated as it was, New York was, physically, still New York. This is not to diminish the emotional and psychological toll of losing thousands of lives. But for the most part, after a struggle, life went on, business went on, everyday life went on — and politics went on.

Almost exactly four years later, New Orleans was hit with its own cataclysm in Hurricane Katrina. This time it was God, not man, who took most of the blame for the upheaval (though man certainly came in for his share for what was done, or not done, in the storm's aftermath). As in New York, the election for mayor of New Orleans had to be delayed.

But that's where the parallels end. While both cities suffered through tragedies of unimaginable proportions, the body politic of New Orleans went through the greater transformation. Once a city of close to a half-million residents, it is now thought to have a population of about 182,000. Once overwhelmingly African-American, post-Katrina New Orleans may now be majority white. Many of those who were forced to leave may not return. The effects of this can be seen everywhere. Including its politics.

The changes reversed a trend that had been in motion for nearly three decades.

Moon Landrieu, a Democrat who was first elected in 1969, was, like every mayor of New Orleans before him, white. African-Americans had been a growing presence in the city's population, but it took a while for political power to develop. Landrieu helped accelerate that. He did more than any previous mayor to open up the city government to blacks. When he was re-elected in 1973, in a landslide, it came with multi-racial support. And when he left in 1978 (because of term limits), he was quickly scooped up by President Jimmy Carter to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

But something else ended when Landrieu left City Hall: the era of white mayors in New Orleans. The change was immediate and, seemingly, permanent. In 1977, Ernest (Dutch) Morial was elected to the first of two terms. In 1986, it was Sidney Barthelemy for two more terms. In 1994, Morial's son Marc began his eight-year tenure, which ended in 2002. Four years ago, it was a first-time candidate, cable executive Ray Nagin. Later in the column, a little history of the rise of black political power in New Orleans. First, a bit about Nagin.

Nagin was considered a shoo-in for a second term until Katrina made her appearance late last August. While everyone bore some responsibility for what went wrong, it was Nagin who took the brunt of the criticism, mostly for his hesitancy in ordering a mandatory evacuation. His indecision has been widely blamed for contributing to the casualty totals; at a candidate debate earlier this month, one black hopeful, the Rev. Tom Watson, stood up and, pointing at Nagin, said without blinking an eye that the mayor was responsible for the drowning of 1,200 people.

The political transformation of New Orleans affected no one as much as Nagin. The 2006 election became a referendum on him. If four years ago he was the overwhelming choice of the white establishment, this year he somehow morphed into the choice of much of the remaining black electorate. But that may not be enough for him to win again, now that the New Orleans electorate has changed. Any hopes of Nagin retaining significant white support were dashed earlier this year following his call for New Orleans to once again become a "chocolate" city.

Nagin led the 22-candidate field on April 22 with 38 percent of the vote — great in a multi-candidate field, but with questionable opportunities to increase his totals for the May 20 runoff. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu — son of Moon, brother of Sen. Mary — qualified for the runoff by finishing second with 29 percent. Like his father, Landrieu was determined from the beginning to assemble a multi-racial coalition.

The third-place finisher, Audubon Nature Institute head Ron Forman, was the beneficiary of white support — the kind of voters who embraced Nagin in 2002. Forman, who got 17 percent of the vote, appealed to conservative whites who were never especially enamored of the Landrieu family's style of wooing whites and blacks. Nonetheless, Forman — who based much of his campaign in trying to tear down Landrieu (they were battling over which one would face Nagin in the runoff), and whose wife once served as Nagin's press secretary — endorsed Landrieu two days after the initial election.

Unless something surprising happens between now and the May 20 runoff, Nagin is going to be hard-pressed to win a second term. And a 28-year streak of black mayors in New Orleans will be broken.

BONUS: A brief history of New Orleans mayoral elections since Moon Landrieu left office:

1977: 11 candidates run to succeed Moon Landrieu, with Judge Dutch Morial, the first black ever elected to the state legislature, considered the frontrunner from the outset. Other key candidates include city councilman-at-large Joseph DiRosa, state Sen. Nat Kiefer, and state Rep. Toni Morrison, the son of the late former mayor de Lesseps (Chep) Morrison, who is endorsed by Mayor Landrieu. It's the first mayoral election in which all candidates run on the same ballot, regardless of party. Morial finishes first and makes it to the runoff with DiRosa, who eight years earlier defeated Morial for a city council seat. This time Morial gets the upper hand, winning the runoff against DiRosa 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent, with about 20 percent of the white vote and 97 percent of the black vote. He becomes the city's first black mayor.

1982: By most accounts, Morial did a good job as mayor in his first term, though many voters are turned off by his sometimes-prickly, often-arrogant personality. The mayor is challenged by two other major candidates, both Democrats: state Sen. William Jefferson, who is black, and state Rep. Ron Faucheux, who is white. Many dismiss Jefferson's candidacy as little more than the outgrowth of a personal feud with the mayor. Race does not become an issue. Morial narrowly tops Faucheux in the initial election, 47 percent to 45 percent, with Jefferson far behind. Though exit polls indicated that many late-deciding white voters went with Faucheux, the runoff is devoid of overt racial appeals. In a surprise move just days before the runoff, former Mayor Landrieu endorses Faucheux. Final election polls have the race a tossup, but Morial wins 53 percent to 47 percent.

1986: Morial is ineligible to seek a third term. Again, two of the three major candidates are black: state Sen. Bill Jefferson, running a second time, and city councilman Sidney Barthelemy, a bitter enemy of outgoing Mayor Morial (who endorses Jefferson). The leading white candidate is attorney Sam LeBlanc. Jefferson leads the initial vote with 39 percent; Barthelemy, with surprising support from whites and anti-Morial voters, makes it into the runoff on the strength of a 33 percent showing. It's the first time that the runoff is between two black candidates, though a group supporting Jefferson ran a commercial on a black radio station, claiming that the light-skinned Barthelemy is "passing for white" and "will not be a mayor for the black community." The ad backfires with white voters, who are the kingmakers in the runoff, helping Barthelemy to an easy 58 to 42 percent victory over Jefferson. Blacks win a majority on the city council for the first time in history.

1990: The love affair between white voters and Barthelemy doesn't last long. They move towards first-time candidate Donald Mintz, an attorney who accuses the mayor of separating the city along racial lines and for doing nothing about a record murder rate. Both sides say the other is using racist appeals. Former Mayor Morial dies of a heart attack five weeks before the election, robbing his longtime protégé Mintz of a possible endorsement. Barthelemy wins an easy re-election victory, defeating Mintz 55 percent to 44 percent.

1994: Mintz never stops running, and he goes into the '94 campaign as a leading contender to succeed the term-limited Barthelemy. Other candidates include Marc Morial, the eldest son of the late Dutch Morial, and Mitch Landrieu, who at this time was a state representative and only known because of his last name. Morial, a first-term state senator who lost a bitter 1990 primary to now-Congressman Bill Jefferson, finds himself on the defensive during much of the campaign over rumored past drug use. Mintz leads the initial election with 37 percent. Morial makes it into the runoff on the strength of 32 percent of the vote. Landrieu, with 10 percent, runs a distant third. One day before the election, a Mintz campaign aide is indicted for distributing anonymous campaign leaflets, which is a misdemeanor. The indictment leads Landrieu to call for Mintz's withdrawal from the race. The runoff campaign is dominated by widespread distribution of racist and anti-Semitic fliers, and both camps lob charges at each other, some legitimate, some hysterical. Most of the endorsements, including that of Landrieu, go to Morial, who defeats Mintz in the runoff by 54 percent to 46 percent.

1998: Mayor Marc Morial wins re-election against two political unknowns, piling up 75 percent of the vote — the largest mayoral margin since former New Orleans Mayor Victor Schiro won 81 percent in 1961 (you can't get enough trivia at Political Junkie).

2002: Although 15 candidates are in the running, the choice for mayor is for the most part between two: Richard Pennington, the police chief, and Ray Nagin, a cable TV executive. Both candidates are black. Nagin's strong performances in campaign debates seem to turn the tide in his favor, and he quickly becomes the candidate of the white business establishment. After narrowly leading Pennington in the initial primary, 28 percent to 24 percent, Nagin pulls away in the runoff campaign. He wins the endorsements of most of the also-ran candidates and carries every white-majority precinct, defeating Pennington handily, 58-42.

Q: In the hubbub about retired generals calling for the head of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, there has been a lot of ink regarding President Truman's firing of General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. But I also read something about President Jimmy Carter firing a general over comments he made about Korea policy in the 1970s. What was that about? — Richard T. Williams, Boston, Mass.

A: Major Gen. John K. Singlaub, a 33-year veteran of the Army, was chief of staff of American forces in South Korea when he criticized Carter in 1977 over the administration's plans to withdraw troops from South Korea. Singlaub was quoted as saying such a plan would lead to war. Carter removed him from his post. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown later said that officers who disagreed with White House policy had a right to "resign and say anything they want."

Q: At a party last night, someone stated that Dick Cheney and his wife were Jewish. No one knew if this statement was accurate and they asked me to follow up on validating the accuracy of the comment. Could you help me? — Rex Wood

Q: What is the difference between Richard B. Cheney and Dick Cheney? — John Keen Tonui, KENYA

A: I was just going through all of the questions I saved from the Cheney hunting mishap incident back in February — there were a lot of them — and I believe I can say with some certainty that these questions have not been asked anywhere else.

First, the Cheneys are not Jewish. The vice president and his wife Lynne are Methodists.

And second, as for the difference between Richard B. Cheney and Dick Cheney, there is none. It's the same guy. "Dick" is a nickname for "Richard." Earlier in his career he went by Richard, but as the years went by he became less formal. Similarly, the legal name of the 42nd president of the United States is William Jefferson Clinton, but he is better known as Bill Clinton.

I believe you now know everything there is to know about Vice President Cheney.

WHAT'S A FENWAY?: Last week's column featured a question about a California congressional race from Sandy Maisel, a government and politics professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. As part of my response, I not only included a Maisel button from when he ran for Congress in 1978, but I mentioned the fact that his campaign literature featured the schedule of the Boston Red Sox (a fact this long-suffering Yankees fan remembered). That brought this response from Maisel: "Thanks for remembering those Red Sox palm cards. The funniest part of my campaign was going into someone's home in September, four months after I lost in the primary, and still seeing my face smiling back at me from their refrigerator — with those palm cards!"

HAIL AND FAREWELL: After 25 years at CNN, political director Tom Hannon is leaving the network. We wish him well in his future endeavors.

REMINDER: "Political Junkie" is featured every Wednesday on NPR's Talk of the Nation, a call-in program, at 2:40 p.m. Eastern. This week: Tony Snow joins the administration, New Orleans mayoral fallout, the politics of higher gasoline prices, and the strange goings-on in Ohio's 6th congressional district.

This Day in Campaign History: Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) wins renomination for a fifth term by the skin of his teeth, edging conservative Rep. Patrick Toomey in the Republican primary. Specter's strong support for abortion rights could very well had ended his career had it not been the strong endorsements he received from President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum (April 27, 2004).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org.

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