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Money matters sublimate N.O. mayoral jockeying

There appears to be pondering over a presumed slow start to the race to succeed Ray Nagin as Mayor of New Orleans. Understanding past and present contexts removes much of the mystery.
To start, the past two election cycles have made later starts more customary. In 2001, many potential candidates waited whether a referendum to allow former Mayor Marc Morial to serve a third term would pass before ramping up efforts (it failed). In 2005, when matters might have been expected to get kicked off in the fall, the hurricane disasters muted all electoral action until the end of the year. These may have conditioned participants in the political scene to wait awhile longer before going public.

The reason why one must launch efforts early regardless of visibility of them if there can be any chance of winning forms the second reason: running seriously for the position has become absurdly expensive. One has to make an early start just to collect enough money it takes to win – but the amount has become so high it drives the initial phase of the campaign underground.

In 2006, Nagin spent $2.2 million in getting reelected. But this made him a piker compared to Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, whom was vanquished in the general election runoff despite spending $3.6 million in 2006. He barely outspent one of his primary opponents dispatched early, Ron Forman who shelled out $2 million that year, while the other major candidate, Rob Couhig, could only muster up around $600,000 in spending then. If you’re keeping score, that’s $8.4 million and if you throw in previous year spending and the minor candidates, it creeps close to $9 million. (These costs were somewhat inflated by some attempts at national campaigning by major candidates due to a believed Diaspora of voters, but it would not be surprising for multiple candidates to hit the $2 million level this time out.)

This reality creates a subterranean campaign. Potential candidates sound out potential donors and other individuals who can round up donors, all behind the scenes. No longer can you (if you can) find a few core backers and announce. Now, entire infrastructures must be initiated and without as much ready-made help from the alphabet soup and other political organizations that only now are coming back from the disruptions of the disasters (if they survived other hazards, which at least one has not). Only until these things seem possible does it behoove a candidate to formally announce, and it takes time to put these things together.

Part of this involves a game of chicken. Certain individuals will be involved in political staring contests as they vie for the promise of money and endorsements. The goal for each is to convince would-be opponents not to enter by making them think you would be stronger, or at least significantly undercut their presumed bases of support so as to make a run by them futile – even as the reverse is true. But you can’t let your opponent know that and if you triumph in the war of wills, you will strengthen your own position without spending anything. As the dollar stakes get higher, this process becomes longer precisely because it does not involve spending. Rumors about who might be running come largely from reports of these activities.

Speaking to this point of winning stare-downs, strategy certainly also plays a part, seeing who might be in or out, but one aspect of that which may confuse is demographics. With city-wide victories for an at-large City Council slots and for Orleans District Attorney in 2008 by white candidates, a misperception has grown that a white candidate can win the mayor’s job. It could happen, but only in the unlikely event that a major black candidate does not run.

The fact is if there is one office where race matters most, it is for the mayor’s office. When 63 percent of the registered voters are black and they double up the white electorate, there is a perception among the large majority of the black community that there should be a black in the city’s highest office. As long as at least one quality black candidate runs, one will win given these numbers as conditions for a white candidate winning aren’t even as good as they were four years ago.

Frankly, any white candidate will have to get fairly lucky to win, and that’s a lot to gamble a couple of million dollars on. Within a month expect any potentially serious white candidate to pass, as did Landrieu this time, and this also will prompt announcements by black candidates that they will run. The only exception to this, because he is so wealthy that dropping a few million won’t faze him, is former gubernatorial candidate John Georges.

For those who already have announced, either they will not be competitive or they are gambling that they can steal a march on those who are engaging in staring at this time. If the latter goes long enough, they may be able to build sufficient momentum to carry themselves to victory. But any other major candidate who enters after having built up the infrastructure can make these others’ entrances seem premature, if she doesn’t dally.

The contest goes on, it’s just harder to see given the dynamics especially concerning money have changed. As most if not all major white candidates bow out and the realities of population changes threaten certain politicians with losing their current districts (the 2010 census being less than eight months away) so a move to mayor may seem appealing, the formal field will swell by the end of the year. Even as the stress of recovery from both disasters and economic conditions seems daunting, that condition precisely allows the opportunity for the next mayor to hold more power than ever.

1 comment:

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