Election 08: How Race Sways the Vote in New Orleans

Obama-Biden sign at Vaughan’s Lounge located in Bywater neighborhood – in the 2nd Congressional District

With less than a week before the election, the latest polls and projected electoral counts show that Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama is leading Republican John McCain. If Obama wins, many will claim he was able to transcend race and reach the hearts and minds of the American electorate.

However, in other parts of the country, especially New Orleans, race is still partially or fully the voting decision-maker.

“White people will never vote for a black person in Louisiana,” said William Everette, Political Science Lecturer at Xavier University of Louisiana, a Historically Black College & University (HBCU). “We talk about the same thing with the Obama election.”

As the first African American Democratic Party presidential nominee, Obama’s historical bid for the United States presidency has highlighted the nationwide issue of race and politics. As this election season has shown, there are still areas of the country where racial prejudice prevents people from voting for Obama. A September 2008 AP/Yahoo poll confirmed that race is an issue: “If there was no racial prejudice among voters, Sen. Barack Obama would retrieve about six percentage points more support.”

Nothing reveals the pitfalls of voting along racial lines more than the current New Orleans democratic contest for the 2nd Congressional district between incumbent William Jefferson and broadcast journalist-turned-politician Helena Moreno.

One of New Orleans’ most powerful politicians, Jefferson is Louisiana’s first black congressman since Reconstruction and a nine-term incumbent. He faces Moreno, a journalist, who moved to New Orleans to take a reporting job with TV station, WDSU-TV, eight years ago. She worked as an anchor and investigative news reporter until she resigned in March 2008 to run for Congress.

Although the race between Jefferson and Moreno is viewed as black versus white, many city residents don’t even know that Moreno isn’t white.

“Moreno is Hispanic,” said Darrin M. Hanson, who is a white Political Science professor at Xavier University of Louisiana. “A lot of the white people and black people who I talk to don’t realize that she is Hispanic.”

“She made the run-off because she was the only candidate close enough to white,” said Everette.

Political art featuring Obama at Xavier University of Louisiana

Jefferson and Moreno are campaigning to win a district that is approximately 62 percent black, and includes the majority of New Orleans. The area contains the 9th Ward, Gentilly and other low-lying areas, which were greatly damaged from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This district’s congressional leadership has been Democratic since Reconstruction. And the Voting Rights Act of 1965 turned this area into a “Majority-Minority” district to guard against racially-motivated gerrymandering, thereby ensuring minority voters the equal opportunity to elect congressional representatives.

With a predominantly black congressional district, many political insiders knew that Moreno would have an uphill battle due to race and other issues. And in order to win, Moreno would need a significant black “crossover” vote. Most New Orleanians assumed she would get the white vote.

“If [white people] get a chance to not vote for a black person, they don’t vote for them,” said William Everette, Political Science Lecturer at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Before the 2006 congressional election, Jefferson’s support diminished due to federal charges that he had $90,000 in alleged bribe money in his freezer. Although Jefferson still won the election, he was removed from his powerful House Ways and Means committee post. He was also indicted in 2007, and will go to trial in December on bribery, money laundering and other charges.

Yet despite Jefferson’s alleged corruption, he received 25 percent of the vote in the October election with Moreno garnering 20 percent. Although New Orleans residents may disagree as to the merits of re-electing Jefferson, most agree that the election was heavily decided based on race.

Hanson, who is a white Political Science professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, explains the run-off between Jefferson and Moreno.

“The problem with the previous election was that there was Jefferson and five young African-American males,” said Hanson. “They were all well-qualified. The five young male candidates cancelled each other, but together they had 55 percent of the vote. If the black vote had consolidated behind one person, Jefferson or Moreno would have been knocked off.”

On Nov. 4, New Orleans residents will vote for the next president and several state and national congressional seats, including the 2nd Congressional district. Most experts agree that both Jefferson and Moreno won the first election because the vote was splintered by race.
The Times-Picayune staff writer, Stephanie Grace said, “If voters often talk about choosing the lesser of two evils, this is one election where that saying really does fit the mood.”
Grace along with several others in New Orleans predicts Jefferson will win. The numbers and race are in his favor, as well as having Obama on the ticket.

“Jefferson is running the same day that Obama is running, said Hanson. “People are going to vote for history. They are expecting a 95 percent African American city-wide turnout.”

And if the 2006 election proved anything, Jefferson can be re-elected with federal investigations and alleges charges of corruption hanging over him.
For radio host, CJ Morgan, of WBOK 1230 AM’s show “Talk Back, Talk Black,” the Jefferson race is “very much a reflection of the racial polarization of the city.” Whites vote predominantly for whites and blacks vote for blacks.
Xavier University of Louisiana student Jayson Williams, 23, explained Jefferson’s support from the black community.
“The reason why they are supporting Bill Jefferson is because he has seniority as a representative,” said Williams who is a Political Science major.  “He has served a lot of time and been on boards. And he’s given us streets, lights and money. He helps his district. That’s all that really matters to me.”

Yet despite Jefferson’s congressional track record and Katrina efforts, the alleged charges against him weigh heavily in some minds.
“Although there are people who want to elect Jefferson, I was kind of shocked because of what’s going on and what’s in the media,” said Alysha Smith, a senior Political Science major at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Dr. Lance Hill, the Executive Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University, claims there are logical reasons why many African Americans in New Orleans support Jefferson.
“Bill Jefferson defended the black community, prevented it from being demolished, went to Congress, and used his power of the Black Caucus to get funding to rebuild the homes of black homeowners when the Republican establishment turned its back on New Orleans,” said Hill, who is white.

Considered an expert on race, prejudice and tolerance, Hill co-founded the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane in 1993. The Institute uses the Holocaust and Civil Rights Movement case studies to teach students about prejudice. The organization boasts that it has “the most comprehensive tolerance education program” of its kind in the South and trained more than 3,600 teachers.

“It’s no question that even stripped of his committee assignments that he has been able to leverage more change and more benefits for Katrina victims, white and black alike, than probably any other member of Congress,” said Hill.

Early Voting Event attendees- photographer: Jeremy McLean

And although Katrina occurred more than three years ago, it has affected the politics of New Orleans. It brought New Orleans problems to the surface, said Mike Flores, President of GCR Consulting.

Even though Mayor Nagin claims that 75% of New Orleans has returned after Hurricane Katrina, many residents say the city is not the same.

After Katrina, the demographics of New Orleans have changed, said Bruce Nolan, reporter for The Times-Picayune.

“The underlying concerns and fears are still there, said Nolan. “Black folk are still utterly convinced, utterly persuaded that the powers-that-be used Katrina as an excuse to lock them out of town. I mean that’s embedded. And that legacy is carried forward into our politics of today, even though it’s less black than it was before.”

Several blacks viewed the post-Katrina rebuilding plans like “Bring New Orleans Back” and the Master Plan or “Green Space” plans as a way for a portion of the white constituency to prevent poor, low-income blacks from returning to New Orleans, said Hill.

These post-Katrina demographic changes have resulted in a majority white city council and school board in New Orleans, said Hanson who considers himself a part of the group of whites that arrived in New Orleans after the storm.

Thus, many blacks feel their generations of political leadership are being stripped away by the white minority. Jefferson is using this fear to his advantage in the race against Moreno, explained Hill.

Although the Green Space plan has been abandoned, Jefferson’s use of the term the “greening of New Orleans” has been a strong campaign message against Moreno.

According to Hill, Jefferson makes claims, in political ads on black radio and in appearances, that Moreno is supported by the people who tried to prevent blacks from coming home, and is trying to turn their community into “green space.”

The Jefferson v. Moreno race points out politically strategies based on racial identity and in some cases racial misgivings. It also shows the strategy of power retention according to race.

“We want to keep our person, by our person, I mean racial identifier, in office. Moreno is not us, we can’t lose our seat,” said Hanson who described the sentiment of African Americans voting for Jefferson.

Hill agreed that the black community doesn’t want to forego its political influence.

“Jefferson said, ‘Look if I get elected you have the same kind of power and influence in congress that you’ve had in all the years that I’ve served. If I’m convicted of a crime, there will be a new election. And you will get somebody that represents you,’” said Hill.

For many New Orleans voters, the 2nd Congressional district and presidential races may all come down to race and the re-opening of prejudicial wounds. And it remains to be seen if Barack Obama can transcend the issue of race nationally.

Yet, it appears that racial politics of 2008 may boil down to one simple statement. As Obama said in an interview in July 2008 with Brian Williams about being viewed as a political risk, and as CJ Morgan said about the politics of New Orleans: “The devil that you know is better than the devil that you don’t know.”

Note: also posted on Pop+Politics




Caramel Bella in the Big Easy

If you read my site regularly, you may have noticed that my posts have been pretty slow this week (read: hardly any). It is because yours truly is in New Orleans for a reporting project on race, religion and politics. I hope you have been following my twitters on the site because they should have kept you up-to-date on my Big Easy adventures. Although I’ve enjoyed my stay immensely in New Orleans, I must say it has been an emotional rollercoaster. For me, seeing the Hurricane Katrina devastation has been very sad and depressing but it’s been balanced by the beauty and warmth of the N.O. people. And the food and partying is beyond compare. Thank you New Orleans for giving a me a lifetime of wonderful memories and allowing me to experience your wonderful city. Stay tuned for more posts and tweets from N.O.L.A.

Smooches (especially to New Orleans),

The Caramel Bella




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