In The News › The unusual nature of Ray Nagin’s victory
May 29, 2006
Source: Louisiana Weekly
The unusual nature of Ray Nagin’s victory
The Unusual Nature of Ray Nagin’s Victory
By Christopher Tidmore, Political Columnist
May 29, 2006
The victory of incumbent New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin took most of the political world, both in Louisiana and
across the nation, by surprise. From his February 22nd announcement speech until the May 20th runoff election, Lt.
Governor Mitch Landrieu, the son of the last white mayor of New Orleans, was considered the prohibitive favorite
against an incumbent damaged in the white community thanks to his infamous “Chocolate City” comments and with
long-standing unpopularity amongst African-American voters.
Despite the Landrieu family’s close ties in the black community and the Mayor’s usually strained relationships with
African-American leaders, Ray Nagin carried 80% of the black vote-and managed to carry enough of a minority of
Republican whites that the incumbent mayor rode to victory over a challenger that seemed unbeatable just a few
It was almost a mirror of his showing four years ago.
In 2001, in a city then nearly 70% Black, Nagin first won election to the city’s Chief Executive post with less than
40% of the Black vote and 84% of the white. At the time, the former Cox Communications Executive billed himself
as “the pro-business alternative”. His opponent Police Chief Richard Pennington often called him “Ray Reagan”, for
Nagin’s campaign contributions to George W. Bush’s 2000 Presidential campaign and his support of normally GOP
In the end, Nagin rewarded his white supporters, assembling an administration that drew heavily on Republican and
Caucasian appointees. He even endorsed Republican Bobby Jindal over Democrat Kathleen Blanco.
The latter’s narrow victory led to the strained relationship that many insiders put as a prime cause of the lack of
effective communication that paralyzed Southern Louisiana in the days after Hurricane Katrina.
Still despite Nagin’s high profile embrace of Republican and conservative Democratic whites in the Crescent City, his
policies proved less than the pro-business agenda he advocated. In his first election, Nagin embraced the contracting
reform process designed by the non-profit, good government group, the Bureau of Governmental Research; however,
by year three of his administration, New Orleans’ haphazard and often corrupt fashion of granting lucrative
professional service contracts had not been changed at all. In early summer of 2005, Nagin announced he would have
a reform plan in place by September. Katrina happened on August 29, 2005.
Nevertheless, even in his re-election campaign, this high priority of the business community received no attention.
Nagin refused to endorse the BGR plan-that he had embraced four years before as his own-when seeking re-election.
Nevertheless, while Nagin’s relationship with the white community had deteriorated somewhat, this Black Mayor’s
relationship with the local African-American Community was almost non-existent. His administration went from
crisis to crisis with fellow Black leaders. At one point a delegation from the city’s influential Black Clergy
condemned the Mayor. Several African-American advocacy groups visited The Louisiana Weekly, the city’s oldest
and most prominent Black newspaper, asking the editorial board to support anyone else in the New Orleans’ Mayor’s
Interestingly, many of these same individuals became Nagin’s most vocal supporters in his re -election campaign.
After the storm, the Mayor’s extreme claims-“thousands of dead bodies in the Superdome” (since proven to have been
false) and lack of organization that literally had units of the New Orleans Police Department unaware where they
were supposed to go while people sat on the roofs of their homes watching the floodwater’s rise-eroded much of
Nagin’s white support away.
Arguably, claims that New Orleans’ had permanently changed demographically to a white majority city did as much
damage to Nagin’s support amongst whites. While Caucasian Lakeview received the bulk of the initial flooding, most
of the damaged areas of New Orleans were predominantly Black. With the exception of Lakeview, whites tended to
live on the higher plane of the Mississippi River Ridge, containing the older parts of the Crescent City including
Uptown, part of Mid-City, the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, and Bywater. African-Americans lived in the low
lying, newer sections of New Orleans, which took the brunt of the storm’s damage when the floodwalls at the 17th
Street Canal ruptured and let Lake Pontchartrain flow into New Orleans.
Several white candidates announced for Mayor, but with the exception of the politically marginal Rev. Tom Watson,
Nagin was the only Black candidate. Meanwhile, several business leaders approached Mitch Landrieu to run on the
theory that only a Landrieu could unite black and white voters. His father had been the first white mayor to include
Blacks in his administration, and the Lt. Governor and his sister US Senator Mary Landrieu had close relationships in
the Black Community in most of their campaigns.
Landrieu mainly fought a crowded Caucasian field, though, seeking throughout most of the primary to be the white
candidate opposing Nagin. Most of his fire went against a former ally, conservative Democrat and Audubon Institute
head Ron Forman, causing, in part, conservative white votes to split between Forman and Republican lawyer Rob
In the primary, Nagin won a strong majority of black votes despite a low-key campaign, as the white vote splintered
across the other candidates. In fact, with seven percent of the white vote, it appeared that Nagin was at a
disadvantage. Landrieu, if he could garner a quarter of the black vote and 90% of the white vote, would win.
In the end, 80 percent of whites voted for the Landrieu; 80 percent of racial minorities voted for Ray Nagin. On
election night, the Lt. Governor celebrated the crossover minority vote that he received; yet his results were not so
extraordinary in a black/white runoff. They roughly equaled the last black/white showdown in New Orleans for
Mayor—1994 when Marc Morial defeated Donald Mintz. The surprise in the May 20th runoff for Mayor came not in
a monoracial voting pattern, as political demographer Dr. Jeff Sadow put it to this newspaper, “but in how Nagin
As he explained, “Typically, voting turnout declines in Louisiana’s blanket primary system from the primary to
general election runoff, especially in New Orleans. (For example, in 2002, white turnout dropped about 3 percent and
black turnout about 1 percent from primary to runoff.) Yet turnout increased about 2 percent overall in this contest.
And (we can’t definitively tell yet without the post-election statistics) what probably will show up most remarkably is
the bulk of this increase came from among the lower-turnout precincts that are heavily black. As any political
scientist who studies electoral participation will confirm, this is unusual.”
Nagin received roughly 80% of the “new” votes added in the runoff. Statistically, that would have tied the Mayor, but
his comfortable victory came in part from a minority of white Republican voters who returned to the Mayor. As talk
show host Jeff Crouere put it, “The explanation for the increased white vote, and to the election itself was Rob
Couhig’s endorsement of Nagin. Couhig, a Republican businessman who ran a strong 4th in the primary, gave
Republicans and conservative white voters the security they needed to vote for Nagin.
“In addition, many Republicans were uncomfortable voting for a Landrieu and continuing what they saw as a political
dynasty. Mitch’s father was mayor, his sister is U.S. Senator, another sister is a judge and his aunt is President of the
School Board. It was all too much for many GOP voters.”
Republican political consultant Mike Bayham believes that Landrieu could have garnered the 90% of the white vote
that he needed if the Lt. Governor had only emphasized his cross-party, GOP endorsements. “Mitch had the support
of [former Republican Governor] Dave Treen and the Orleans Parish Republican Executive Committee, yet you went
to his website and you didn’t see anything…He didn’t give a reason for Republicans to support him.”
In the last televised debate, Nagin and Landrieu both publicly admitted that they shared the same beliefs and ideas of
reform, providing the public little justification for voters to switch candidates on ideological grounds.
Still, little reported by the national press was that Nagin’s victory was an aberration compared to the other down ticket
races. In the three City Council races in runoff, the incumbents all lost to newcomer challengers. In theory, that
provides a justification for a sense of anti-incumbency that would swing against the Mayor.
In theory, an increase in Black voting should have helped those in office with strong relationships in the Black
community, the way it did with Nagin. It did not. Political consultant Sidney Arroyo believes that is because, despite
the commonly assumed notion that race played the largest role in Orleans’ elections, flooding had more to do with
one’s vote that the color of one’s skin.
Arroyo told The Louisiana Weekly that incumbency played the largest single factor in the May 20th elections. As he
explained, “If you were an incumbent, you lost…The public wanted new faces, and they got it…My analysis of the
election is that it wasn’t a black/white election as much as it was a wet/dry election…Look at the council race.”
“In the districts with the most devastated areas (New Orleans East, the 9th Ward and Gentilly), the incumbents, the
two Cynthia’s [Hedge-Morrell and Willard-Lewis of District D & E respectively], easily won re-election. In the
districts where dry ground and repopulation have occurred, all the incumbents faced real battles, and ultimately lost.”
According to Arroyo, “Everyone was so focused on making sure that displaced voters had the mechanism and
technical ability to vote, but no one would address the most important point of voting: how to inform the electorate
regarding their choices about who they could vote for. The one true failure of this election was the intransigence of
FEMA and the Secretary of State’s office to allow candidates access to voter contact information.
“In other words, for example, people from District E only really knew the incumbent, and the incumbent’s opponents
never really had an opportunity to present themselves and their positions before the district’s overwhelmingly
displaced voters, except by helter-skelter-cross-your-fingers-slapped-together-let’s-pray-it’s-accurate mail and phone
lists, that obviously were dramatically ineffective and deficient.
“By comparison, those incumbents in areas where dry land was abundant were engaged in fiercely pitched battles
where an electorate hungry for change, or to blame someone, and ready to sweep incumbents out, had fertile ground
and an accessible electorate. New faces without past political records won because they could FIND voters and get
campaign messages delivered effectively via mail, flyers, personal appearances, and media.”
The Christopher Tidmore is the Political writer for The Louisiana Weekly Newspaper and www.bayoubuzz.com. He
hosts a political talk show on the radio each afternoon from 4 to 5pm CST on WVOG 600 AM New Orleans and
KKAY 1590 AM Baton Rouge. The program is streamed live at www.kkay1590.com. He can be emailed at
May 29, 2006
Source: Louisiana Weekly
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