Filed Under:  Local, Politics

Have Louisianians lost their taste for the Alphabet soup?

6th November 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

North Louisiana Republican State Sen. Neil Riser had a curious strategy to earn a runoff slot in the La. Treasurer’s race. Actively campaign for—and pay to have his name and image put atop of—nearly every ballot of the ‘acronym’ Black political organizations in New Orleans.

Call it the John McKeithen strategy. The legendary Governor merged his Northern base with Crescent City Black support to form an unbeatable electoral coalition. The problem encountered by the State Senator (and Columbia, La. funeral home owner) was that COUP, SOUL, LIFE, TIPS, and BOLD failed to deliver him the votes on October 14, 2017. Should their failure constitute a growing institutional weakness, instead of an aberration in backing a Republican, the electoral collapse of the city’s traditional African-American political organizations has major implications for Council contenders Jay Banks and James Gray.

Traditionally, the “Alphabet Groups” in New Orleans grew out of the Civil Rights struggles to organize Black voters and later elect the first African Americans to local office. Through the publication of pro-rata funded sample ballots, these groups promised to turn out the traditional Democratic electorate on behalf of an endorsed candidate. Specific areas of the city tended to be stronger with one organization than the others. (BOLD in Central City, TIPS in Tremé, COUP in most of the rest of the 7th Ward, and SOUL as one progresses towards the 9th Ward and N.O. East; though, LIFE, as the oldest, enjoyed the most ubiquitous appeal across town.) The support of all, though, usually made a candidate. As recently as the 2003 Governor’s Race, the endorsements of several of these “alphabet organizations” pushed Republican Bobby Jindal into the highest result which a GOP contender for the top state office had ever enjoyed in Orleans Parish against a viable Democrat.

This year, when the La. State Democratic Party declined to endorse Derrick Edwards in the primary, despite his status as the sole Democrat in the Treasurer’s race, Sen. Riser wooed the leadership of these “Alphabet groups.” He spent thousands of dollars in Orleans Parish underwriting their ballot efforts, yet the Caldwell Parish Undertaker ended up statistically tied at 12 percent in New Orleans with his closest GOP opponent, former State Rep. John Schroder of Covington, who advanced to the runoff.

Riser’s pro-rata share for “printing and distribution” amounted to $15,000 for BOLD (Black Organization for Leadership Development), $15,000 for LIFE (Louisiana Independent Federation of Electors), $5,000 to TIPS (Treme Improvement Political Society), $14,500 to the New Orleans East Leadership PAC, and $6,000 for Algiers PAC. (State Senators J.P. Morrell, Wesley Bishop, and Troy Carter all backed Riser over Edwards, and have ties to the respective groups.) To also court Black voters in the suburbs, $5,000 went to Jefferson United, which is affiliated with Jefferson Parish Councilman Mark Spears. [Pro-rata expenditures for SOUL, ‘The Southern Organization for Unified Leadership’, were not available when this newspaper went to press, but the group also backed Riser.]

The cross-party wooing did not stop local Democrats from supporting the Democrat. Attorney Derrick Edwards won 62 percent of the vote in Orleans Parish, claiming the lead runoff spot in the Treasurer’s race thanks mainly to the 46,122 votes he received in his home parish. He won 125,500 votes from across the state after spending almost no money, proving what political prognosticator Jeremy Alford believes “showed us what could be the floor for Democrats running statewide.”

“While an inflated turnout in Orleans may skew that analysis,” Alford continued, “the Big Easy only had the third-highest turnout for the treasurer’s race, behind Pointe Coupee and St. James parishes.” It’s arguable that Riser’s plan failed because simply most African-American voters will always choose a Democrat over a Republican, if such a choice exists. (There is even compelling evidence from past races that Black voters will skip runoff ballots where there is not a Democratic option, and still vote on down-ticket races where one exists.)

Or maybe it was simple disinterest in the Treasurer’s race. In Orleans Parish, the collective Treasurer candidates received 7,700 fewer votes than those for Mayor. Statewide, 4,200 ballots were cast in the October 14 election for the first proposed constitutional amendment than for Treasurer, despite the fact that the contenders were the first race listed on ballots throughout Louisiana. Even more ironically, Riser enjoyed the support of the Orleans Parish Republican Party, and yet did no better than the Jefferson Parish-born, St. Tammany native John Schroder in the Crescent City.

Still, the demise in power of the “Alphabet Soup” groups cannot be underestimated.

For more than a generation, they stood as kingmakers in New Orleans politics. It was unthinkable that their universal support at this grassroots level would not translate into significant votes on election day, even in a statewide contest. Perhaps, their collapse in influence comes as a factor of Hurricane Katrina. Long-standing neighborhood “influence chains” were disrupted as Black voters were dispersed across the city. The same family rarely counts multiple generations in the same block—or even the same home—as was common prior to the storm.

Moreover, many of these neighborhoods, from Central City to Tremé to Gentilly have undergone massive gentrification, with much of the original population replaced by upwardly mobile professionals. The new Caucasian and African-American homeowners feel little connection to the neighborhood political dynamics of the pre-storm era, nor any sympathy for the political groups who drew their power from them.

Lastly, federal housing projects, where poorer African-American voters could be geographically organized with relative ease, effectively no longer exist in the city. Their replacements, the subsidized HOPE6 “townhouse developments,” only count a fraction of the former residents as current inhabitants. The ability to motivate an affinity group of voters within the same housing project was a particular skill of the “Alphabet Soup” organizations. An impossible task, if the voters are no longer there to organize.

Consequently, electoral ‘warning signals’ flash for the two remaining runoff candidates most dependent upon the ballots of Black political organizations, Jay Banks and James Gray II. Banks, a member of BOLD as well as a former aide to the organization’s standard-bearers Jim Singleton and Dorothy Mae Taylor, counts on the group’s Central City pull to help him counter Seth Bloom’s money and GOP support Uptown and in the Garden District. Yet, Banks can take consolation from his auxiliary networks of backers — whose loyalty comes from far more current sources than most of BOLD can inspire.

From Banks’ perch at the Dryades YMCA, the District “B” contender has maintained a closer connection to the neighborhood than most first-time candidates. As this year’s Zulu King, his connection to African-American voters across the city has a particularly royal resonance. Perhaps more importantly, that Carnival influence has extended to an unexpected degree of white support. His years of logistical and charitable work on behalf of the historically Black Krewe have brought Banks strong endorsements—and money—from many of the corresponding leaders of the Rex organization, thus cutting into a portion of Bloom’s natural backing from conservative Caucasians Uptown.

Still, a diminished BOLD hardly helps Banks, yet the impact on his campaign is minor compared to James Gray II. The current District “E” Councilman’s bare 40 percent result in the October primary would normally be the death-knell for an incumbent. Gray’s opponent, Vietnamese community activist Cyndi Nguyen, has so effectively organized her own community as well as New Orleans East neighborhoods that have been completely redefined since the storm, that Gray’s re-election is in serious danger. The momentum favors Nguyen in the runoff.

As the African-American incumbent in a majority-Black district, Gray would normally enjoy a racial advantage, but only if his African-American base turns out to vote on November 14. In the past, Black political organizations like SOUL and LIFE would step into the breach, sponsoring GOTV efforts, but as their influence may have finally waned post-Katrina, Gray might not have this safety net to push him over the proverbial electoral “finish line,” even against an ethnic Asian challenger.

Likely, though, the waning of these organizations’ influence should not impact the mayor’s race since, effectively, LaToya Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet have divided the “Alphabet Soup” endorsements. Cantrell enjoys SOUL’s and BOLD’s backing, and Charbonnet has COUP. (TIPS declined to endorse in the mayor’s race in the primary, but has long ties to the Charbonnet family.) Since the two runoff contenders already have divided so many core constituencies in the City, it is little surprise that contest is as close as it is to become the first woman mayor of New Orleans.

This article originally published in the November 6, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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