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Black majority regained on New Orleans City Council

31st March 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Mason Harrison
Contributing Writer

For the first time since 2007, the New Orleans City Council will boast a Black majority in a city comprised of more African Americans than any other group. The latest round of municipal elections could signal a shift toward more attention being paid to the economic plight of Black New Orleanians who continue to represent large slices of the city’s poor and working class populations. Councilmembers James Gray and LaToya Cantrell will be joined by incoming councilmembers Jason Williams, Nadine Ramsey and state Rep. Jared Brossett, who will leave his seat in statehouse.

“I think that certainly symbolically it can mean a lot for folks to see people who look like them implementing public policy in this city,” says criminal defense attorney, Jason Williams, who won the race for the Council’s Division 2 at-large seat in the March 15 run-off against outgoing District D Councilmember Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. “But I think what matters most is how people end up voting and what those votes mean for the economic participation for all people in New Orleans.” Williams ran on a campaign to expand politics in New Orleans beyond race, class or geography and, along with Ramsey, has championed economic issues as key political targets.

But some observers believe the proof will have to be in the pudding for the new 5-2 Black majority “It really doesn’t matter what color the members of the city council are if they are not voting in a way that benefits Black residents,” says local NAACP branch president, Danatus King. King, who made a failed bid for mayor in the Feb. 1 primary election, believes Black voters in New Orleans will take a wait-and-see approach as the new Council digests the current mayor’s agenda.

But few of the current or soon-to-be Black councilmembers have developed a political style reminiscent of the Civil Rights-era brand of Black politics. James Gray, currently the only Black male on the Council, is among its eldest members and has shied away from patently racial politics. Cynthia Hedge-Morrell led the charge to strengthen the city’s procurement process for disadvantaged businesses, many of which are owned by women and minorities, but in her bid to advance to the Council’s at-large seat in Division 2 failed to extend political red meat to Black voters.

Barbara Major, who helped to lead the citywide effort to strengthen the procurement ordinance, calls the makeup of the new Council promising, but says voters will examine more than just appearances. “We, of course, will be very interested in seeing how these new councilmembers vote, but it is still very early in the process and all of us who have worked on issues of fairness and equality over the years are optimistic that we will be able to continue those gains.”

Cantrell, Williams and Brossett are arguably all members of the so-called Fourth Generation of Black politics, one in which Black elected officials speak about the need for personal responsibility and are more inclined to work to implement policies beneficial for wide swaths of the electorate in lieu of advancing specific initiatives designed to boost racial and ethnic minorities.

Jay Banks, chairman of the Black Organization for Leadership Development, strikes a cautious tone when examining the new make-up of the Council. “I don’t take for granted,” says Banks, “that because we have a Black majority that they will always vote in the interests of the Black community. Just because someone is Black doesn’t mean that they have Black consciousness or that they have a commitment to economic equity. But I trust that they will keep their word and support our issues. So, I guess, I would have to say that I am pessimistically optimistic.”

But a former member of the City Council who hails from the last time the city’s legislative body had a Black majority seems far more optimistic about what an increase in the number of Black members can mean for the city as a whole and for Black professionals seeking business at City Hall. “Five Black members of the City Council is more than just visuals,” says Oliver Thomas, who represented District B and later served as an at-large member on the City Council until 2007.

“When companies across the nation see that many African Americans on the Council, they are then forced to do business with us. They are forced to hire attorneys and lobbyists and people who look and think like us to advance their issues. That means we are then included in the policy conversations about the things that affect our lives and are able to earn a living in the process.”

But, in the end, Thomas says, the role of the new Black majority may be largely symbolic if various public policies backed by Black voters are not reflected in the voting records of the Black councilmembers. “Even if the people on the Council don’t identify with the people, then a Black majority at least presents the opportunity for the people to identify with members of the Council.”

This article originally published in the March 31, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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