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11.12.08

Cao win puts another nail into Melancon's House coffin

Besides the obvious fact that the biggest loser of Anh “Joseph” Cao’s upset win over Rep. Bill Jefferson was the incumbent himself, next in line is the neighbor to the south, Rep. Charlie Melancon, and Louisiana Democrats as a whole.

A Democrat as is Jefferson, he is the most endangered species in the Louisiana House delegation since every single member other member now is a Republican. The giddy dreams some state party officials must have had now have turned nightmarish; the party had hoped to wiggle out of this election cycle with another Democrat to succeed Jefferson on the Second District, Paul Carmouche to pick up the open seat in the Fourth, and Rep. Don Cazayoux to retain the seat he has won by special election only months early, to give the delegation a majority in the state. Instead, despite all being at least even-money possibilities, all three wishes came up craps.

In the short run, the surviving Melancon (unopposed for reelection) really gains nothing more than he already had. Even had Jefferson won, the indictments hanging over his head would had rendered him largely ineffective as a powerbroker, so Melancon among the state’s House members, being of the same party as the current Congressional majority and incoming president (plus now among the most senior even just starting his third term), would still have been the most influential. But in the long run, the Cao upset along with these other GOP victories makes Melancon’s deteriorating position even worse.

With Louisiana very likely losing a House seat due to reapportionment in 2012, Melancon’s seat remains the most threatened. Three interests will jockey over this process, and two of them have a community of interest that will drive it. Republicans will want to create conditions that will ensure at least five of the six seats remain in their hands, while black Democrats will want a secure seat for themselves.

This cuts out white Democrats entirely, and the other two forces have the muscle to put this through the state legislature. Republicans already effectively control the House and while Democrats control the Senate, black legislators among them will defect on this issue. And of course Gov. Bobby Jindal whose approval is necessary on any plan and could only be bypassed with an impossible supermajority is a Republican.

The idea all along has been to carve up Melancon’s Third District and shifting other districts at the margins. This would allow the Second District to take in majority black areas of the Third and reach into the Sixth and First to do the same to reinforce its current black majority – necessary not only because of general population loss, but as a result of the hurricane disasters of 2005. These with the Seventh then can swallow up the Third.

Just in case black Democrats hesitate, Jindal and his allies can offer them a deal they can’t refuse. With depopulation costing New Orleans as many as five legislative seats, Republicans can offer to save most of these black legislators’ seats in exchange for dismantling the Third. Those affected incumbents will throw Melancon overboard faster than the Silver Zipper can charm a female ex-reporter.

But with the election of Cao, they may not need such inducements. The special circumstances of this contest are not likely to repeat, but they still demonstrate that the seat is not as safe as they might like for a black. Any thoughts they may have harbored about trying to eliminate a Republican seat against the odds to save Melancon’s surely are reduced now.

As 2010 approached, had a black Democrat been ensconced in the Second and Cazayoux or Carmouche or both in office, there would have been less concern about shoring up the majority black status of the Second and perhaps the Sixth or Fourth (likely the latter) would have been more vulnerable for elimination. But the 2008 cycle produced the worst possible outcome for Melancon, meaning this could be his last term. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, in 2010 he may take a chance opposing a slightly vulnerable Sen. David Vitter as the only opportunity to extend his political career past 2012.

10.12.08

Caddo failing schools plan itself not likely to succeed

Newcomer Caddo Parish School District Superintendent Gerald Dawkins has introduced a plan to deal with schools threatened by state takeover, which should receive an answer concering it from the state next week. As befitting a situation where dramatic results must be changed the plan is bold. Unfortunately, it addresses too few of the impediments that have created the underachieving problem in the first place.

To prompt better performance out of failing schools, first one must be clear about why the underperformance happens. No one cause, but several in part interrelated must be addressed before any substantial improvement can occur. They deal with the students’ backgrounds themselves, the competency of the teachers, and the administrative/political environment in which it all operates.

Dawkins’ plan faces long odds because it cannot adequately address all of these considerations. It seeks to create a theme at each subpar school (typically utilizing some already-developed education system), clear all present positions of their occupants and invite open hiring into them, and add instructional and development time among other things. The hope is to attract students from other attendance zones in the district interested in theme areas which (even if this goes unstated) can increase the school’s test scores, as well as to attract better teachers to get students to achieve more.

These outcomes may be realized, but given all of the other inertia they are unlikely to cause the big improvement necessary. The least controllable factor of school performance is the students themselves, more specifically the backgrounds and cultures from which they hail. Simply, in these schools, children disproportionately come from families that do not possess the attitudes and/or abilities to facilitate success in learning.

Regrettably, too many of these children have parents who do not value education and/or are unable to assist their kids in their schoolwork or in providing support that encourages students to stay in school and learn. (Not surprisingly, most of these parents were poor or indifferent students usually if now working in low-paying jobs that afford them little opportunity to give support, creating a cycle of low achievement.) Shamefully, until welfare reform in the past dozen years, these attitudes were encouraged (what was so important about doing well in school if the state would support you regardless?) and it will take a generation to undo the entitlement mentality present in the subculture of underachievement, something Dawkins’ plan can do nothing about.

Teacher competency in their subject knowledge base also contributes. In its initial certification guidelines (and note that schools are not forced to hire only teachers certified in the subject area they teach), Louisiana requires some undemanding demonstration of knowledge, but none to renew certificates. And a large number of teachers still operate under the old certification system where no demonstration of competency is required at any time. Louisiana as many states have done already needs to implement a periodic testing of subject area knowledge of all teachers to make sure only those who demonstrate proficient knowledge of the subject areas they teach be allowed to do so.

But this necessity is a pipe dream as long as current school governance remains unaltered and teachers’ unions given power to prevent the needed changes. Ideally, the best teachers, both in terms of subject competency and in pedagogical skill, would be placed in the worst schools. The central office could create a process offering substantially better pay for teaching in these schools, based upon these two merits demonstrated by some objective process, with it doing the hiring for these schools. That would be needed to get the better teachers in place.

However, this would invoke the wrath of the beneficiaries of the current process, where hiring is done in a decentralized process by principals primarily based upon seniority and who knows whom where the low-performing school are generally the last choice of teachers, and would be opposed bitterly by unions whose main goal is to transfer as much money as possible into the pockets of as many (unionized) teachers as they can and who have vehemently obstructed any efforts at kinds of merit pay or competency testing. Another potential improvement would be to introduce much sterner disciplinary measures for disruptive students, whose behavior disproportionately plagues these schools, but then different political and legal forces would fight these changes as well.

For a vexing problem it’s good to be a big thinker. But one also must understand the root causes of the disease, some of which are beyond schools’ control and others where fundamental political change must occur requiring courage seldom seen within the educational establishment. Dawkins’ plan addresses little of this, and such represents a reshuffling of chairs resting on the deck of a sinking ship.

8.12.08

Fat lady sings but Carmouche doesn't yet listen

Democrat candidate Paul Carmouche for Louisiana’s Fourth Congressional District is of a mind to ask for a recount of the results from last Saturday’s contest with Republican Dr. John Fleming, where Fleming came out 356 votes ahead. The way the numbers are, it is the equivalent of coming into the last hole of a golf tournament in second place trailing the clubhouse leader by four shots on a par 5 hole.

At least this is according to national Republican officials, who sent out information Monday about what a recount would entail. Important to note is that the only recounting done is for ballots not counted electronically. Excluded are paper ballots courtesy of early voting procedures by mail, which since they are counted by a scanner typically have a very low error rate. All other ballots are electronically cast and could be recounted only if there is some verified irregularity revealed when they are “opened” tomorrow. (See here for an excellent front-line explanation of what gets counted.)

Therefore, the only place where Carmouche could make up ground would be with provisional ballots – those cast because an election commissioner had reason to believe the voter was registered but for whatever reason was not recorded as being registered to that precinct – and any challengeable spoiled ballots. There are only 36 verified of the former and 171 of the latter (and perhaps an additional 10 potentially spoiled).

But there could be many more provisional ballots in each precinct box containing information from the voting machines. A general rule of thumb from national statistics is that one percent of the total cast end up as provisional, meaning 926 in this case (although Republican operatives estimate there may only be about 200). Further, other rules of thumb indicate that only half of provisional ballots are verified and half of spoiled ballots are reintroduced and declared valid.

If these numbers hold – 463 provisional and 181 spoiled – Carmouche would really have to pull a rabbit out of his hat to win with these. Even if he got 50 percent greater than Fleming on each set (such as a 75/25 split) that’s only 322 votes he makes up. He would have to capture close to 80 percent of the votes (assuming voting machine tallies check and no errors made in tallying already-processed paper ballots which all would have to be non-randomly in his favor) in order to pull ahead.

That seems very improbable given the closeness of the contest. Of course, a higher number of provisional ballots discovered would decrease the margin necessary to win, as would more of them and the spoiled ballots being validated, but these things also would entail a departure from statistical norms, and potentially dramatic ones for a difference to be made. After spending in the neighborhood of $1.5 million to try to take this office, Carmouche can’t be blamed for putting a little more down on a recount, but it looks like it will be just a little more good money after bad for him and an unnecessary taxing of registrar resources and the public’s patience for everybody else.

7.12.08

Numbers show disgust at Jefferson likely ousted him

Analysis shows the reason why Rep. Bill Jefferson lost a chance at a tenth term, even if it might have been attenuated, was his black voting base abandoned him at his time of need while disproportionately more non-black voters showed up to give Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao enough margin to knock Jefferson off.

It’s fascinating to review the 91 precincts in the Second Congressional District that have at least 95 percent black majorities with fewer than 2.5 percent whites in them over the Oct. 4 Democrat primary, the Nov. 4 nomination runoff, and the Dec. 6 general election. In this time period they averaged 61,477 registrants or about a sixth of the district’s voters, and it’s no surprise that almost all of them in all three contests returned 95 percent-plus majorities for black candidates (several in the first election, Jefferson in the remaining two). Indeed, in the general election Jefferson swept every vote in 10 of them, while Cao was shut out in another 7.

The problem for Jefferson was, too few of them voted in the general election compared to the others. Turnout in October was only a little under 17 percent in these districts, but swelled to over 37 percent in November. But in December, it plunged to just under 12 percent. In numerical terms, the drop from October to December was over 3,000. Considering that Jefferson would have gotten at least 95 percent of this vote and he lost by 1,826 votes, even a turnout level, all other things equal, matching October’s would have brought him the victory by about 1,000 votes.

Why did turnout fall so incredibly? One clue is to look at the October election’s other contests and compare it to other contests on the ballot. Comparing precincts, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the sum total of votes received in the Second District primary and those for other local contests. Important to remember is that Republicans could vote in these other local races, but they comprise only about 11 percent of the district’s total. In other words, in a contest where a range of choices besides Jefferson was available, turnout was roughly equivalent to other contests on the ballot, meaning few of those voting were there only to vote on local races and rolled off on the congressional contest.

Therefore, if all other things were equal, turnout should have been close in December to October levels in these precincts. Instead, it dropped five percent. This would appear to indicate that some who voted in October did not vote in December because their choice was either a damaged Democrat in Jefferson or non-Democrats. Rather than be forced to make such a choice, they stayed home.

This played into Cao’s favor given the dynamics with which he had to work. He saw a boost come from white and Vietnamese constituencies. In October, turnout in the 24 precincts (that comprise over 25,000 registrants) with at least 80 percent of registrants being white and fewer than 5 percent being black, adjusting for Republicans not being able to participate until December turnout was over 28 percent, zooming to about 52 percent in November, and then declining back to about 29 percent in December.

The differentials are striking, especially in December. Typically, black turnout will fall a few percentage points behind that of whites. But the gaps here are unusual, of 11, 15, and 17 percent. The last in particular was stunning and cannot be explained, as Jefferson seems to want to believe, that there was “confusion.” Whites turned out at almost exactly the same adjusted rate October to December, so is it being argued here that whites somehow were less confused? The only explanation that makes sense is that some black, mostly Democrats, in October found someone they could for in the Democrat primary, but in December they felt there was nobody on the ballot for which they could touch the screen, and therefore stayed home.

Even though whites comprise only 31 percent of the district while blacks have twice as high a proportion, white turnout apparently was over 2.5 times that of blacks (this was the scenario for a Cao victory previously outlined). The magnitude of the increased differential suggests that some whites and other race voters who had participated in the Democrat primary defected to Cao. So he not only benefitted from a depressed Jefferson base, but appeared to also differentially benefit from defections. There maybe have been “apathy” among blacks about this election, but let’s be clear about why – it was because of the Democrat nominee.

(Only four precincts have a large Vietnamese population. In the two where other races outnumbered blacks, turnout increased from October to November, and then stayed the same from November to December – likely a boost of about a hundred votes for Cao.)

In the end, Jefferson appeared to lose support in the general election well in excess of what normally would have been expected – likely because of the federal indictments hanging over him – while Cao’s base remained more present and firmer. It’s why this unprecedented situation has occurred where for the nest two years a non-black Republican will represent a district with over half of his registered constituents being black Democrats.