NEW ORLEANS. The politicians and the pundits are still sorting through last week's municipal election returns, and the results hint at consequences reaching far beyond the bayous.
These are the first really significant election returns since Hurricane Katrina blew away life as New Orleans had known it for a long time. An older white woman, "the rusted steel magnolia," defeated an attractive young black woman, "the black Scarlett O'Hara," to complete a sweep of two at-large seats on the city council and return control of the city government, held for two decades by blacks. The magnolia steel or not, rusty or not won with black "crossover" votes.
This suggests what only a new census can confirm, that the smaller population of New Orleans, which was 70 percent black before Katrina, may now be evenly divided between the races, perhaps even majority white. "Despite the fact that at least on the voting rolls [blacks] still outnumber whites by a ratio of more than 2 to 1," observed the morning Times-Picayune, "both white and black voters in New Orleans have gone to the polls in nearly equal numbers since the storm." The political implications are large, since New Orleans and its black majority have kept Louisiana from tipping Republican.
"Symbolically, what it shows is that we have a realignment politically," says Silas Lee, an Xavier University pollster. "Advances made by African-American elected officials and the African-American political structure over the past 30 years right now are in neutral or being lost."
The Orleans Parish voter registrar estimates that more than 100,000 voters have left New Orleans, to find new jobs, new homes and new lives in Houston, Atlanta, Memphis, and points north and west. Most are black, most won't be back.
A precinct-by-precinct analysis by the Times-Picayune and others reveals just how much the landscape has changed. Racial polarization is still a grim fact of life, but since there are fewer blacks the polarization has shifted to white advantage. Ed Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans, says the politicians will have to build coalitions they didn't have to bother with before. "There's no more relying on a particular community to get elected." White office-seekers who for decades figured making an attempt was not worth the trouble will be lured back to elective politics.
New Orleans, once without rival as the state's largest city, has always wagged the dog in Louisiana. Now Baton Rouge, the capital 80 miles up the Mississippi River, is almost surely larger, and Shreveport, in the far northwest corner of the state, can't be not far behind. Ancient voter loyalties, dating from Reconstruction, are strong and hard to change. In a very different time, New Orleans was a hard oyster to crack even for Huey Long, but once the Kingfish cracked it, the oyster was his.
Other traditions have cracked, too. DeLesseps Morrison, a suave, world-class sophisticate who was an enormously popular mayor of New Orleans during the post-World War II boom, tried repeatedly to get elected governor. He was derided by Earl Long as "ol' Della Soups," and mocked for "squirting perfume in his armpits," but his actual fatal flaw was his Roman Catholic faith. No Catholic had ever run well enough in the piney-woods parishes to break the Protestant lock on the governor's office. Edwin Edwards, a Catholic convert who once studied for the Pentecostal ministry, finally did it. "Up north," he once told me, "they trusted me because they figured I was lying about really converting." Last month, barely a decade after a wizard of the Ku Klux Klan forced his way into a run-off for governor, Louisiana elected a dark-skinned Indian, a Catholic convert from the Hindu faith.
The buzz in New Orleans is that Louisiana is tired of the corruption and the easy jokes about corruption, and eager for something better. Stranger things have happened in "the land of dreamy dreams." You could look it up.