Hurricane Katrina Blows Apart New Orleans Politics

For almost a quarter century, New Orleans government reflected the racial makeup of the city. As such, the city council had an African-American majority.

Not anymore.

Anyone looking for evidence of the extent of the racial reconfiguration that occurred after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 got it over the weekend. Run-off elections on Saturday reversed much of the political progress made by African-Americans in the decades since the civil rights movement opened avenues of advancement for people of color in the southern city.

For the first time since 1985, the New Orleans City Council has a white majority.

Both of the at-large seats on the council -- which are elected by voters from throughout the city -- are now held by whites. That last time that happened was in 1978.

In a citywide race for an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judgeship that had been held by an African-American for many years, a white candidate won.

Special elections for open state legislative seats representing the city's Uptown and Central City neighborhoods, which had for many years elected African-American representatives, were won by white candidates.

To be sure, many cities see individual positions shift back and forth from election to election between candidates of different races.

But the pattern of white contenders defeating and replacing African-American candidates in New Orleans was unmistakable on Saturday. In contest after contest, whites politicians defeated African-American competitors who in the past would have been likely winners.

There is no mystery about what has happened. For the first time in decades, it appears that predominantly white precincts are casting more ballots in New Orleans than predominantly African-American precincts. Officially, the voter rolls still show a black majority. But the rolls have not yet been purged of the names of Katrina's victims. The names that will eventually be removed are, for the most part, expected to be those of African Americans.

Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Sandra Wilson suggests that the vast majority of the more than 100,000 voters are on the rolls but are no longer living in New Orleans -- either because they died in the aftermath of the storm or because they were displaced by it -- are people of color.

"Katrina rearranged the political deck in New Orleans," Silas Lee, the Xavier University pollster and sociologist who is an expert on New Orleans and Louisiana voting patterns, told the Times Picayune newspaper after Saturday's election. "Symbolically what it shows is that we have a realignment politically, and that advances made by African-American elected officials and the African-American political structure over the last 30 years... right now are in neutral or being lost."

Did it have to be this way? Of course not. The federal government's agonizingly slow response to the crisis created by Hurricane Katrina was disproportionately devastating for African-American residents of the city's poorest neighborhoods. They were initially left to suffer and die. Then, vast numbers of the survivors were sent far from New Orleans and encouraged to settle elsewhere. House Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Illinois, suggested immediately after the storm that much of New Orleans "could be bulldozed." While he was roundly criticized for that statement, and the attitude underpinning it, the reality is that many of the city's oldest and most-politically engaged African-American neighborhoods have been bulldozed -- or simply abandoned -- while white neighborhoods that took less damage have been rapidly rebuilt.

These patterns have dramatically altered the electoral politics of a city that had been in the forefront of African-American political strength and advancement since the 1960s. The change was rapid and radical, but it is only now coming into something akin to full perspective. An initial mayoral race following the storm saw a significant amount of absentee voting, but Saturday's run-off voting was more reflective of the new political reality of New Orleans.

And it is not just the political reality of New Orleans that is changing.

Louisiana was, before Katrina hit, one of the most politically competitive states in the south. Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton actually won the state in 1992 and 1996, as did Jimmy Carter before him. Democrats elected senators and governors in competitive statewide races as recently as 2002 and 2003. In the last round of elections for state posts prior to Katrina, Democrats won six of seven races; this year, they won two of the seven. Even accepting that outgoing Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco was almost as uninspired in her response to Katrina as was George Bush, it cannot be reasonably argued that the partisan realignment of the state was a normal or natural political development.

Before Katrina hit, Democrats frequently prevailed in Louisiana because the party had a large, historically-active and well-organized base of support among African-American voters in New Orleans. That base was blown apart by Hurricane Katrina, as Saturday's election results confirm. And the politics of New Orleans, Louisiana and the United States changed, thanks to a storm and to the way in which a Republican administration in Washington responded to it.

John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy -- The New Press.

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