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Will New Orleans have 5-2 African American-White City Council ratio?

Written by  // Friday, 06 December 2013 12:10 //

vincent sylvain 200x196 On August 13, 2007 we were the first to publish a commentary (30-year racial balance on New Orleans City Council threaten with Thomas' pending departure) which brought to light New Orleans' "unwritten rule" on a 30-year racial balance that existed on the New Orleans City Council. 

The combination of the unexpected exit of former Council-at-Large member Oliver Thomas from the seat, a reduction of Black voters who had been able to return to the city following Hurricane Katrina, and the challenge of raising necessary funds to launch a campaign created a new paradigm for New Orleans, one that perhaps would create new opportunities for whites to gain a greater foothold in elective office.  This could be the case especially during "special elections" where Blacks had historically turned out in fewer numbers even under normal population circumstances.

  

The October 2007 election to select a replacement for Councilman Thomas placed west banker Councilwoman Jacquelyn Clarkson in a run-off against Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis who represented the devastated areas of New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward.  Clarkson won, creating a 5-2 majority in favor of whites and seemly began a run of white elected officials on the City Council, Orleans Parish School Board, several judgeships, the District Attorney's office and ultimately former Congressman William Jefferson's seat as well as that of the mayor's.  Over the next few years, the African American political establishment would stew over the loss of these seats but was particularly concerned with the loss of the Council-at-Large seat and a number of the judicial defeats. 

  

Black leaders largely blamed white policy makers from Baton Rouge who artificially created a Black middle-class-vacuum by firing some 7000 teachers and para-professionals with the decision of eliminating the public school system as New Orleans knew it, as well as the local City Council and then mayor who made the decision to tear down the existing public housing in order to create a "new New Orleans".  The combination of a large Black middle class and public housing residents had become and impenetrable political force for Blacks seeking elective office.  A sense of abandonment and betrayal would become the topic of discussion among Black politicians and political players in private gatherings. 

  

Jefferson's defeat to Vietnamese-American Republican Ann "Joseph" Cao was attributed to a combination of his legal issues and the fact that Hurricane Gustav pushed the election to one month after the 2008 presidential election in which Blacks turned out in record numbers.  During the Jefferson verses Cao run-off, Black voter turnout was only 12%. 

  

While the election of Congressman Cedric Richmond in 2010 would provide for a measure of redemption and a feeling of optimism in the Black community, still the lack of racial balance on the City Council would continue to burn within the African American community.

  

In April 2012 voters would get another chance to restore racial balance to the New Orleans City Council seat and the white political and corporate establishments would be provided another opportunity to do the right thing.

  

However once again, the outcome produced results outside the boundaries of the "unwritten rule" agreement.  This time it would be Councilmember Stacy Head defeating Councilmember Willard-Lewis for the Council-at-large seat by only 281 votes.    Head was able to garner the endorsement of State Representative Austin Badon who had finished a strong third in the primary, while another handful of African American leaders remained silent on the race, thus allowing Head to build momentum in pockets of the Black community.  It appeared that a new formula for victory for white officials was emerging, one that could last decades if Blacks did not grow their ranks among the population base.  The Black communities' margin of victory were residing in place like Baton Rouge, Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, Jackson and other parts in between.

  

  

"Since 1976, New Orleans has always had a black and a white individual in the two at-large positions. Reverend A.L. Davis, one of the leaders in the Civil Rights movement in New Orleans, was the first African-American to serve on the Council. He was appointed to the District "B" seat on the City Council in 1975 to fill the unexpired term of Councilman Eddie Sapir, who had been elected judge of Municipal Court. Davis was elected to the seat in 1976 along with Joseph DiRosa, a long-time political fixture in the white community. Due to a redistricting dispute, which had delayed the 1974 elections until 1976, the council members elected in 1976 served only until 1978, when a regularly scheduled election was held. Reverend Davis did not run for re-election in 1978.

  

In 1978, Sidney John Barthelemy became the second African American elected to one of the two seats; he served along with Joseph I Giarrusso, a former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department (1960-1975). Barthlemy served until 1986 when he was elected mayor of New Orleans, while Giarrusso served until 1994 following the adoption of term limits by the electorate.

  

1986 elections continued to preserve the bi-racial balance in the at-large seats, elected Dorothy Mae Taylor, who in 1971 had become the first African American women elected to the Louisiana House of Representative and re-electing Councilman Giarrusso. Taylor retired from the council in 1994, remaining out of the political spotlight but active in her church, Mount Zion Methodist Church.

  

Taylor and Giarrusso were replaced in 1994 by James Singleton and Peggy Wilson. Singleton, a political grandfather of the BOLD political organization based out of the poverty stricken Central City neighborhood had served as the elected member from District B since 1978, while Wilson hailed from the "silk stocking" community of the Garden District and Uptown. Wilson was first elected to the council as a district member in 1986. She was later defeated in 1998 by former councilman and Judge Eddie Sapir. Sapir won the election with a bi-racial voting base. Thus, maintaining the balance on the council of having an at-large from each predominant race.

  

That pattern of racial balance continued in the election of 2002 when then District Councilman Oliver Thomas ascended to the at-large seat and Councilman Sapir was re-elected. Sapir was termed limited and not able to run in the elections following Hurricane Katrina and succeeded by Arnie Fielkow in the elections held on May 20, 2006.

  

Since African Americans began to gain a foothold in New Orleans elective offices, it has long be an "unwritten rule" among the Black political leaders that the city's interest was best served if it had a racial balance in the at-large seat, a similar belief exist about the many judicial seats, thus there has never been an organized attempt by the Black political organization to try to win the second seat in an at- large race. As the Thomas situation continues to unfold, it will be interesting to see if that "unwritten rule" is a one way pack..."

  

Slowly the number of Blacks able to return to New Orleans began to grow.  The 2008 Fall Elections would produce mixed signals; while the race for seats on the Orleans Parish School Board resulted with a 4-2 white majority board with the only winners from the Black side were Ira Thomas and Cynthia Cade, the judicial elections produced different results.  The judicial races seem to honor the old courtesy code with judicial wins by Dennis Bagneris, Michael Bagneris, Darryl Derbigny, Arthur Hunter, Julian Parker, Rose Ledet, Sidney Cates, Lloyd Medley, Piper Griffin, Nadine Ramsey, Tiffany Chase, Herbert Cade, Kern Reese, Paulette Irons, Ethel Julien, Ben Willard, Robin Pittman, Keva Landrum-Johnson, and Lynda Van Davis with victories on the Black side.  White judicial candidates who were either elected or re-elected included Paul Bonin, Madeline Landrieu, Robin Giarrusso, Laurie White, Frank Marullo, Camille Buras, Karen Herman, Terry Alarcon, Gerald Hansen, and very close victory by Chris Bruno over Paula Brown.

  

When Judge Nadine Ramsey stepped down to run for mayor, Paula Brown was able to chalk up another victory on the African American side in her run for Civil District Court Judge in February 2009.  Even though Brown won against overwhelming odds many in the political circle still saw Judge Brown's victory which avoided a run-off against a white opponent and perennial candidate Morris Reed merely a political fluke and not a signal that Blacks were once again in a position to win special elections or run-offs with limited issues on the ballot.  To become believes they would need to see more proof.

  

The October 2011 Elections would see two highly financed African American candidates in a heated race when Attorney Regina Bartholomew defeated First City Clerk of Court Ellen Hazeur in a landslide victory for a Civil District Court judicial race even after being out spent.  In that same election, Claire Jupiter won the other judgeship by defeating her white opponent in a run-off.  Jupiter was highly out spent but was able to rely on her families' well known reputation and a solid Black turnout to defeat Kris Kiefer, the son of former State Senator Nat Kiefer.  During that same election cycle, Franz Zibilich was successful in winning a Criminal Court seat that was vacated by Judge Terry Alarcon.

  

The Fall 2012 Elections saw several new trends with two members of the African America community added to the Orleans Parish School Board with the election of Nolan Marshall from Gentilly and Leslie Ellison in Algiers.  Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell's victory over Dana Kaplan restored the District B Council seat to the hands of a Black elected official.  Councilwoman Stacy Head had held the seat since defeating former Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt in 2006.  Prior to Head's victory, the Central City seat had been held by a Black elected official for 31 years since the days of Rev. A.L. Davis. 

  

An even more stunning development took place on the West Bank of Orleans Parish with unexpected victories by four African American candidates in Algiers; Judge "Teena" Anderson-Trahan, 2nd City Court Clerk Darren Lombard, 2nd City Court Constable Edwin Shorty, and School Board Member Ellison.   Those sweeping results probably played a role in convincing sitting Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer that re-election to the District C seat with its registered voter role of 58% African American would be challenging. 

  

Any white candidate's chance of winning the District C seat would have to come from someone who could get a substantial number of Black cross-over votes; something that Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson and State Representative Jeff Arnold has proven to be able to do in order to hold on to their seats.  The other thing that happened during the most recent election was that Black Chronic Voter Turnout was beginning to either equal or surpass White Chronic Voter Turnout in certain key precincts, thus reducing the Black/White voter differentials on Election Day.  This pattern no doubt played a partial role in Palmer's decision.   It would be interesting to see if either Clarkson or Arnold would reconsider entering the District C race.

  

For those who may have thought that Judge Paula Brown's 2009 election was a fluke, or that the "Algiers Sweep" was some sort of political mirage, the election of Yolanda King in May 2013 as Judge for the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court would serve as a fact check.  King who had run four time previously, was considered no more than a speed bump for Doug Hammel whose campaign had unlimited financial and political resources.  While the turnout was only 11%, once again Black voter turnout was at par with non-Blacks.

  

Was King's election a precursor of things to come? 

  

For the first time since pre-Katrina a newer pattern seemed to have emerged; white elected officials may no longer able to count on the voter differential being in their favor.  If that is the casepermanently then white candidates will have to do as Mayor Mitch Landrieu did in the 2010 Elections; show that one has a demonstrated record of being sensitive to the causes of the African American community in order to earn their vote.  It will be interesting to see what happens in the upcoming Elections.

  

The two-new Council-at-large seats will provide for some interesting dynamics.  For the first time in the city's history the two seats have been separated and now have their own political identity; Division 1 and Division 2.  Under the old rule all candidates ran under one race and the top two vote gatherers receiving more than 25% of the votes were determined the winners.  If not a runoff was held.

  

Under the new rule, each candidate will have to declare which of the two seats they are seeking and each would have to receive 50% plus 1 of the total number of votes cast in order to be declared the winner during the primary in each individual race.  If no one received the required 50% +1 then a runoff will be held.

  

Council-at-large; Division 1 and Division 2

Of all the potential candidates for the individual races, former Councilmember Cynthia Willard-Lewis who has universal name recognition seems to have the most options available to her.  She theatrically could enter either of the two Council-at-large seats; the District E Council Race; or the Clerk of Criminal District Court race.  Regardless of which race she enters, she is all but assured at a minimum a spot in the runoff which ever race she decides to enter.  She also has the liberty of waiting until the last day of qualifying to make a final decision.

  

Financially the District E race would be the least costly to her campaign war chest, but it would put her against incumbent District E Councilmember James Gray who she considers a friend.  In addition most of her political supporters have already signed up to support Gray. While the least expensive choice for her, it would likely become the most politically blooded campaign she has ever faced.  A decision to one of the two at-large seats would place her in a race either against former fellow Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, or in a rematch againstCouncilwoman Head.  However if she did that, she would have to challenge her friend businessman Eugene Green who has been running for about a year and is counting on many of the same political friends as Willard-Lewis to fuel his campaign.  Green has seeded his campaign with $100,000 and plans an aggressive run  promoting economic equity for all residents of Orleans Parish.  

  

A decision to run against either Councilwoman Hedge-Morrell, or Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell by Willard-Lewis is probably unlikely.

  

In any event, Head's ability to win crossover votes from the African American community will be tested.  While Willard-Lewis is the better known candidate, Green's Harvard and Tulane University background will play well, and many will remember him from his days as head of Mayor Marc Morial's Economic Development office.

  

Councilwoman Hedge-Morrell who is recognized for her budget expertise officially kicks off her campaign today; she is facing challenges for the open council seat from State Representative Austin Badon, former interim Councilmember Ernest "Freddie" Charbonnet, and defense attorney Jason Williams, an unsuccessful DA candidate and the son-in-law of former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy.  Williams' campaign is well financed and will likely prove to be a worthy opponent for Hedge-Morrell and the others.  Hedge-Morrell is hopeful of getting the support of Mayor Landrieu.

  

District A

  

Incumbent Councilwoman Susan Guidry has no known opponent as of press time.

  

District B

  

Incumbent Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell has no known opponent as of press time. 

  

District C

  

With the withdrawal of Incumbent District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer from the race in order to spend more time with her family, retired Judge Nadine Ramsey moves into the frontrunner position.  Ramsey has been running for weeks and has amassed considerable support from the political and religious community.  Expect a lot of movement in this race between now and the end of qualifying next Friday and beyond.

  

Attorneys Craig Mitchell and D'Juan Hernandez have already announced their entry into the race; human relation expert Larry Bagneris and community leader Sheila Williams are rumored to be considering the race.  Some had thought that School Board Vice-President Leslie Ellison would have interest in the race, but with Nadine Ramsey being a personal friend of hers that is extremely unlikely.  With the incumbent out, the list will probably get larger.  

The irony is that with a 58% Black voter majority and Algiers expected to be competitive, the French Quarter vote will probably decide this race.  The unknown is whether Arnold or even Clarkson will give this race another look.


District D

  

State Representative Jared Brossett announced a few weeks back what had been known for a long time; that he would seek the Council District C seat, his only hesitation probably was to see if State Senator Ed Murray had any interest in the race.  Brossett who has served as aide to both Hedge-Morrell and Sheriff Marlin Gusman when he served as the District D Councilperson has put together a list of "who's who" including Mayor Landrieu in support of his campaign.  Former SUNO Senate President Dr. Joseph Bouie has also thrown his hat in the ring, as well as civic leader Dalton Savoie.  If the field remains the same, Brossett will likely lead the field if not win outright in the primary.

  

District E

  

Unless challenged by Willard-Lewis, Incumbent District E Councilman James Gray will cruise to re-election.  However before the end of qualifying, do not be surprised if Rep. Badon decides to take another bite at this race.  There is also chatter that the Asian American community is looking at fielding a candidate.

  

Qualifying for the races runs from December 11 - 13, 2013, the primary election is February 1, 2014.  Other races in Orleans Parish for that election cycle includes; Mayor, Sheriff, Clerk Civil District Court, Clerk Criminal District Court, Assessor, and Coroner.

 

by Vincent Sylvain, publisher of The New Orleans Agenda and political consultant

 

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