In 1960, Moon Landrieu, a young state representative from uptown New Orleans, had a difficult decision to make. The state legislature was about to vote on the future of New Orleans schools and desegregation. Landrieu was no civil rights activist, but had grown to understand the disparities between blacks and whites through long conversations with his law school classmate, Norman Francis (the current President of Xavier University). For years, the white establishment had fought the federal government’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling to desegregate. It was in Uptown New Orleans that Norman Rockwell painted Ruby Bridges bravely being escorted into a school by a federal marshal as white protestors intimidated her. When the Catholic schools attempted to integrate a few years later, Democratic machine boss Leander Perez led a movement to force businesses to fire any employee who sent their kids to school with black children. When he was excommunicated, he claimed the church was “being used as a front for clever Jews.” Despite the racist climate, and lack of support from a majority of the white community to integrate, Landrieu voted for school integration — the lone dissented in a count of 93 to one. A decade later, Landrieu was voted Mayor of New Orleans by an African-American majority.
Almost 45 years later, New Orleans is still feeling the repercussions of this decision. Landrieu integrated City Hall, infuriated conservative whites, raised a daughter who became a senator and a son who followed his footsteps into the state legislature, and is now running for mayor for a third time. He was also the last white mayor, but certainly not the last to try. In 1994, his son Mitch ran for mayor against Marc Morial (son of the first black Mayor). Morial won, and in 2002, he was succeeded by the CEO of Cox Communications, C. Ray Nagin.
Nagin, an African-American, was elected by a white majority that believed he could clean up the contracting process and root out corruption. The business council believed he would run City Hall like a business and his entrepreneurial spirit would allow government to do more with less. Unfortunately, Nagin had run a business that had no competitors, and proved to have little entrepreneurial spirit. He has faced numerous allegations of siphoning city contracts to his cronies. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, Nagin commissioned the Urban Land Institute to devise a recovery plan. Hastily trying to meet a deadline, the planners put green dots next to New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward and Broadmoor. Infuriated by the implications that their neighborhood would turn into green space, residents organized. Nagin, worried that he would not get re-elected if African-Americans felt he was not allowing them back to their neighborhoods, made the infamous comment, “Our city will remain a chocolate city.”
In the spring of 2006, New Orleans was still reeling from the failure of the levees that left eighty percent of the city flooded when Nagin faced off against Mitch Landrieu in a run-off that split the city further along racial lines. Ron Forman, the president of New Orleans’ Audobon Zoo, finished a distant third, supported mostly by white uptown conservatives. After the election was over, Forman supporters explained, “we rather have a black mayor we can control for four years, than a white mayor we can’t control for eight.” Nagin won handedly, with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton at his side, and with an African-American majority vote.In the late 1960s, New Orleans had almost 700,000 people. By the time school desegregation, the oil crisis and deindustrialization had left its mark, New Orleans only had 450,000 people. This was 2005. In 2010, 330,000 people have returned to a city that still aches from inadequate city services, corruption, and a palpable divide when the political climate intensifies. In November 2009, Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a survey on race relations in New Orleans. 79% of respondents said that New Orleans is racially and class polarized. Only 14% of the state of Louisiana voted for Obama. This all sets the stage for the 2010 mayor’s race. This race will test the vitality and political power of the city’s vaunted political machines against the backdrop of a shifting racial demographic(67% African-American before the Hurricane, 61% currently). With a little less than three weeks to go until the general election where all candidates will compete for the top two spots, New Orleans’ elections can often turn into one of the greatest political shows in this country. For an in-depth look at the day-to-day drama, here are some good places to get acclimated.
#nolamayor ( during daily forums, attendees have been updating the twitterverse with their opinions about each candidate)