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Jefferson success recipe: environment, opponents, luck

The most interesting question about how Rep. William Jefferson, despite federal corruption indictments, managed to lead a Democrat primary for reelection is not really how he did it, but why he was able to. It’s an answer not so much connected to Jefferson, but to a political environment largely untouched by modern forces.

We must recognize that Orleans Parish, which comprises the majority of the Second District, is the least mature political culture not only in the state, but perhaps in the entire nation. “Maturity” is a concept defined by how much of a role personalistic forces play in determining a vote decision. Thos forces are defined as qualities of candidate image – inferences about a candidate’s experience, leadership, and other personal characteristics – that voters make. The more that candidate image plays a role in voters’ decisions, the more personalistic and less mature is the political environment. By contrast, the more that impersonal institutions like political parties and that issue preferences play a role in the vote decision, the less personalistic and the more mature the environment is.

Note in the Orleans area, when reviewing this office and that of mayor, the second-level offices after the so-called starter level of city council, state legislature, and others, for decades not only are the winners of these experienced politicians, but almost all of the candidates contesting them have been and are people experienced in government. The one great exception going back well into the middle of the 20th century is current Mayor Ray Nagin (and technically former U.S. Rep. Lindy Boggs, but to be honest she received impetus to win office right after the tragic death of her husband former U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs).

This is because the political environment creates conditions that make these kinds of candidates successful. They must build a political base on their ability to satisfy individuals and small groups not on grand matters of policy but on their skill in passing along rewards – patronage, contracts, government programs, and the like – to these intermediaries who then, either substantively or symbolically, pass down a portion of these rewards to key constituencies that can be mobilized for elections to vote for the favored candidate.

This does not mean that election decisions aren’t made with other tactical considerations in mind – as my colleagues have demonstrated – nor that external institutions aren’t important. In fact, New Orleans is distinguished from almost every major city in the country in that a passel of “alphabet soup” political organizations for decades have played a major role in elections. But keep in mind that these organizations themselves are built around particular individuals (such as Jefferson) and historically have had difficulty in separating themselves from them as the founding force (and/or his family) detaches from politics. They are, in other words, an extension of personalistic politics.

This is why it is not surprising that former television reporter Helena Moreno would run well enough to make the runoff with Jefferson. Hers also is a personality-based candidacy – the familiar face she is from years of constant television appearances. While she has no political background, the same personalistic dynamic worked for her as an alternative (non-black, female, unconnected politically) for those Democrats and independents who disdained the existing political forces in the district.

Jefferson did well enough because he could, as he has done for over 20 years, operate well in this environment. But, more importantly, he did so better than the other politically-connected candidates in the contest – and in no small accident due to fragmentation among his presumed opposition.

One hallmark of political organization in New Orleans has been it ability to coalesce eventually around a very small number of leadership figures that had some ability to transfer power from one elite to another, a trait forced on it beginning nearly a century ago when the reformist machine of former Gov. John Parker began to try to eat into this power base, then in its trying to resist the encroachments of former Gov. Huey Long’s and his successors’ apparatus. After the era of former Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial this has become increasingly difficult to attain (for interesting reasons), most recently demonstrated not just by Nagin’s initial win but especially by his reelection, as Nagin has disrupted the process by not actively seeking to create and sustain an organization with a designated successors.

The failure of political figures in the black Democrat community (whites and Republicans at best now can only influence elections at the margins, not as central figures) opposing Jefferson to unite around a common leader, either to run against Jefferson or to back an opponent, allowed their conquering on this occasion through their division, as my colleague suggested. This crisis enabled Jefferson to use his depleted but still viable organization as well as the perquisites of incumbency to score enough support to vanquish the opponents that were mostly likely to beat him in a runoff.

In short, had a solitary black politician rose from the infighting to challenge Jefferson, not only would that person have made the runoff, but Jefferson might have been aced out of the runoff. Most of those who did not vote for Jefferson or Moreno would have voted for this person, but of those who would not have, more might have disproportionately voted for Moreno than Jefferson leaving her and the other in the runoff. Even if Jefferson had encountered perhaps only two or even three of these politicians he might have gone to a runoff but with one of them not Moreno where his chances of winning the nomination in a month would be greatly reduced. But four other major competitors than Moreno gave him a decent chance for survival.

But perhaps what sealed the deal for Jefferson was the intervention of a woman – Mother Nature. Hurricane Gustav disrupted the election and pushed it back a month. What was left of Jefferson’s organization plus the resources he could draw from his congressional post made him best equipped to handle this curveball. Without this stroke of fortune, more likely Jefferson would have been eased out of the runoff. While the environment gave Jefferson the framework to succeed, his opponents’ disunity and luck gave him the tools by which to do it.

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