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Landrieu mayor run gambles career on uncertain outcome

It looks as if Lt. Gov. Mitch “Ahab” Landrieu formally will pick up pursuit of his great white whale known as the mayoralty of New Orleans when qualifying for the office begins tomorrow, despite a previous vow not to – even though chances are again he will find disappointment.

As noted in this space some time ago, the normal dynamics of the contest do not favor white candidate Landrieu because, if we toss the clever literary allusions, in reality a better aquatic mammalian description of New Orleans would be as a black whale. When voter registration totals show blacks about doubling up on whites, even if Landrieu could match his roughly 20 percent black support in the 2006 mayoral runoff in a similar contest against a black candidate, assuming black turnout runs only slightly behind white turnout he still would lose.

The simple fact of life in large majority-black cities in Louisiana, if not in the entire south or nation, is that for the highest office in the city, is that relatively few black voters defect from a quality black candidate against a white candidate in a runoff. It was proven in New Orleans in 2006 when the very politically-damaged current Mayor Ray Nagin defeated Landrieu, and when later that year Cedric Glover won the top job in Shreveport. In the former case, the runoff brought disproportionately more voters to Nagin who had not previously voted in the primary to extend his primary lead to victory; in the latter, Glover did the same to overcome a deficit from the primary in a city where black registration was not much more than white.

But even to get to a hypothetical black/white candidate runoff might be a stretch for Landrieu this time. In 2006, he bested other white candidates who were competitive but newcomers to politics. This time, he looks certain to face the biggest spender he’ll ever encounter, former gubernatorial candidate John Georges, and repeater from the 2006 contest Rob Couhig who probably will capture a large majority of the small (12 percent or so) Republican vote. Facing experienced and proven vote-getters and with Georges’ deep self-financed pockets magnifies the primary consequence of Landrieu’s late start after his previous discounting of running this time: his relative lack of funds. At the beginning of this year, he had only about $100,000 in his lieutenant governor’s account (which he can use) for a race where in 2006 he spent $3.6 million.

Landrieu may be counting upon the fact that the field to this point has not attracted a slew of bigger names to make up for his being behind in the money chase and that reputation alone, as evidenced in some independent polling that put him out front among hypothetical candidates, can close the gap. It’s true that the field of white candidates probably is more illustrious than those who are black, but the racial voting dynamics are such that this does not matter that much, history shows. Nagin himself was a late entry, almost afterthought when he first ran in 2002, and certainly did not run from a position of strength in 2006. As long as a quality black candidate exists – and there appears to be at least one in the unflashy state Sen. Edwin Murray – the dynamic will deliver enough votes for any such person to defeat Landrieu in a runoff.

This attempt comes with considerable political risk. A victory could position Landrieu well to make a run at the governorship in 2015, but not only does entering the contest now essentially eliminate any run he (unlikely) had in mind for 2011, a loss would again cast a pall over any attempt he may make for that higher office in the future. It would cement his reputation as a candidate who can win only the small or relatively insignificant offices because of his name, but who does not have the ability beyond that to capture a significant policy-making prize. His entrance here could place definitively a cap demarcating the upper limit of his political career – no higher than the Capitol Annex Building, not up to the fourth floor of the Capitol itself. Four months out from the election, it seems a risk at best uncertain to pay off.

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