NEW ORLEANS,LA—Political experience and proven ability trumped race-based concerns when white candidate Mitch Landrieu took 63 percent of the black vote in the New Orleans mayor's race, veterans of the city's African-American political scene said this past week.
But is Landrieu's election a sign of emerging "post racial" politics in New Orleans?
"There is no such thing as post racial anything," said public relations executive Bill Rouselle, an African-American who backed Landrieu after the most experienced black politician in the race, state Sen. Ed Murray, dropped out in January.
"The race problem hasn't been solved. An election of a person who has, I think, impeccable political credentials, both in the black and white community, to me does not mean the end of racial politics or of racial problems."
Landrieu had been expected to do well in the Feb. 6 election. There was talk he might avoid a runoff with just over 50 percent of the vote.
Instead he won a surprising 66 percent of the vote over 10 opponents. On May 3, he will become the first white mayor of the mostly black city since his father, Moon Landrieu, left the office in 1978.
"When there are white candidates of equal credentials, or near equal credentials, whites are basically going to still vote white, and blacks are basically going to vote black when there's a credible candidate in the race," said New Orleans Constable Lambert Boissiere Jr., a former state legislator who was among the local black politicians who rose to power after the civil rights movement.
This time, both said, none of the black candidates left in the race after Murray dropped out had much, or any, political experience - which is what polls showed voters were seeking.
"Mitch probably benefited from the strong positive feeling many older African-Americans have for his father, Moon," said Ralph Cassimere Jr., professor emeritus of history at the University of New Orleans, in response to an e-mailed question.
There were also strong white crossover votes for black candidates for city council and other seats on the ballot. But, Cassimere said, that happened in races where the white candidate was not well known.
Rouselle said the dynamics were different four years ago, when Hurricane Katrina was still a fresh memory. Eighty percent of the city was inundated after flood walls failed. The entire city had been evacuated. Black residents, facing numerous obstacles to their return home, feared they were being muscled out of politics and the city itself as recovery discussions included references to a smaller "footprint" for the city.
That year, Mayor Ray Nagin, a cable television executive elected with strong white support in 2002, appealed for black support, and got it in his re-election bid. Nagin was term-limited and could not seek a third consecutive term.
"In the African-American community there was a need to establish the fact that we weren't going to be pushed around and pushed out," said Rouselle. "And I think that's what Ray Nagin's election represented. I think the past four years, the focus has shifted to making sure we get stuff done and that we come to some kind of real accommodation to be able to move forward as one voice in this community."
Issues of real estate and the ability of those still exiled by Katrina to return haven't died.
The city's pre-storm population of more than 450,000 remains down by more than 100,000 and Rouselle suspects blacks' large voting majority - which, on paper at least, is 62 percent - has greatly diminished.
"Mr. Landrieu, after he deals with the crime issue, shortly afterward, he's going to have to look at real estate and affording opportunities for those folks to be home, to stay home, and for folks who want to come home to get back home," said Irvin Mayfield, a world-renowned jazz trumpeter and chairman of the local library board, whose father drowned in the Katrina flood.
At age 32, Mayfield, who flirted with a run for mayor this year, is part of the younger generation of black community leaders in New Orleans.
That many African-Americans still remember when they were shut out of politics was evident when The New Orleans Tribune, a venerable black-owned publication, endorsed another white candidate, John Georges, for mayor.
"The thought of even a possibility of losing the city's top elected office after only 32 years is painful," The Tribune said in its editorial, adding that Georges would be the best candidate to 'hold' the mayor's office while we in the African American community regroup."
Those interviewed said Landrieu will be able to win re-election, again with strong black support, if he proves to be an effective mayor and makes good on promises to involve all people and all neighborhoods in the recovery.
But race will likely remain a factor in many peoples' political decisions, they said. As Mayfield jokingly put it: "If the conductor of the orchestra is a trumpet player, the trumpet section is happy."