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Moreno win latest sign of interesting aberrant trend

Forget “Chocolate City” – New Orleans continues to become the Rainbow City as Helena Moreno knocked off James Perry to win the special election for House District 93.

In a city whose black population exceeds 60 percent, in a district where over half the registered voters are black, Moreno – born a non-citizen and who only moved into the district a few years ago – defeated Perry who was favored by most black establishment politicians and was the darling of the liberal establishment but perhaps better known for past profanity-implied commercials and a boatload of traffic tickets. To add injury to insult in a district that should have been a slam dunk for a black candidate, Moreno’s previous political experience was working for Hillary Clinton, her losing the Democrat nomination for the Second Congressional District in 2008 to disgraced former Rep. William Jefferson, and then endorsing (as did some other Democrats) present Republican Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao.

Cao, by the way, also was born a non-citizen and also is not black. Add to this mix the fact that a majority of the New Orleans City Council is composed of whites and so are city-/parish-wide officials Mayor Mitch Landrieu, District Attorney Leon Cannizaro, and (included for completeness sake, even if he was first elected before Moreno was born) Coroner Frank Minyard. Except for Minyard, all have been elected and the Council balance shifted since Hurricane Katrina power-washed the city.

This brings the larger question of whether some kind of post-racial political shift has occurred. It’s not nonpartisan, because among these folks only Cao is not a Democrat and he deserves his election to the scandal-tinged nature of Jefferson’s candidacy. It also might be a bit much to argue that demographic changes have produced this. Although much has been made about a several-point percentage drop in black population in Orleans, the fact is that from the 2004 presidential election to the 2010 mayoral contest the proportion of the electorate that is black has fallen only 1.5 percent, so that would seem to be a small amount on which to turn the fortunes of candidates.

Rather, this result seems to reinforce the idea that the reduced ability of black politicians to win office around Orleans where they have numerical majorities comes from the lack of cultivation of the quality of candidates that can win. A few reasons explain this, but they all stem from the enormous influence that personalistic politics plays in the process.

First, black politicians came to power with the assistance of political machines built around a handful of prominent figures. As these people have exited the political scene, because the organizations were more extensions of them than standalone operations, they have had difficulty in passing along organizational benefits to aid others in achieving election.

Second, a number of these founders and their associates have brought discredit to their groups and politics in general through activities that invited, sometimes successfully concluded, legal challenges for corruption. Jefferson’s travails aside, there has been controversy about former Mayor Marc Morial’s time in office, the recent imprisonment of former City Councilman Oliver Thomas, and, none of this being new, the antics of Sherman Copelin and others. This further impedes the organizations, with reduced resources from reduced stature due to their close connections to controversial figures, from being able to identify and to assist political talent.

Third, the success of former Mayor Ray Nagin came without an appeal to these machines, nor did he attempt to build one of his own. As a result, in terms of city government they were mostly on the sidelines in the reception of government preferments that could strengthen them.

Fourth, the hurricane disasters of 2005 and all the disruption they fomented clearly negatively impacted the groups’ ability to transmit political and electoral benefits to preferred candidates. The 93rd contest featured another serious candidate in former state Rep. Louis Charbonnet, but he couldn’t even make the runoff, and while Perry piled up endorsements the traffic ticket issue which Moreno said showed a disregard for the law and Perry’s response to it demonstrated he wasn’t ready for prime time. There just wasn’t enough political heft left to have this qu8ality of candidate beat out a semi-celebrity former television reporter that had shown some political acumen.

This being the cause that means the current conditions appear more aberrant than enduring. New Orleans black politics may be undergoing a transition era the system evolves away from the personalistic politics of the past that was in part a product of the past exclusion of blacks from elected office, towards leaders who are more adept in working with an open system with campaigns based less upon who recommends who and more on demonstrated ability or promise and more mass-based campaigning techniques. There are a number of younger black elected officials who with a little time and experience may revert the environment back to one where majority-black constituencies almost never will send anybody but a black politician to fulfill a political job.

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