Shifting Paradigm in New Orleans Politics Played Out March 25

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Alonzo Knox is headed to the Louisiana Legislature instead of Fox Richardson. Marissa Hutabarat easily won a seat at Civil District Court. Diedre Pierce Kelly, the early favorite in the Criminal District Court race, was narrowly squeezed out by two progressives.  

Casual observers may have been surprised at the outcome of the March 25 elections. First, the turnout – less than 10 percent – was disappointing. Clearly most voters chose to go to festivals rather than to the polls. Since Jazz Fest coincides with the runoff election, even fewer voters could participate. Second, the citizens who did go to the polls didn’t necessarily support the candidates who were favored by New Orleans traditional political establishment. 

There’s a trend reshaping the face of politics in this country which is playing out in New Orleans as well. It’s all about how voters get their political news and what criteria they use to select their candidates.  With the proliferation of cell phones rather than landlines, it has become increasingly difficult for pollsters to reach the stratified sample needed to provide accurate results. Federal law prohibits pollsters from contacting voters via cell phone, but some still utilize that method. 

“Polling has become extremely challenging in part because people don’t answer their phones,” said recognized digital media expert Ray Reggie. “There are also other divergent factors at play including social media and disinformation. We all believe that printed documents have power. Technology is driving change. People are using social media to put up messages right away regardless of its accuracy. A picture is worth a thousand words but it may not be real.”

In addition Reggie also believes the power of radio and television political advertising has greatly diminished. “Radio used to be a major player but it’s not any more. Television is fragmented. Between cord cutters and streaming services, people’s viewing habits have changed. Now people utilize their phone for news, watch YouTube videos and listen to podcasts. There has been a major shift in the paradigm,” he explained.

The increase in early voting, which can now account for almost a third of all ballots cast, is another major factor. “Focusing all the candidate’s energies on Election Day is no longer practical,” Reggie continued.  “The GOTV (Get Out The Vote) strategy has to change. Last minute attacks must be made earlier. Yet moving up that timeline allows opportunity for stronger rebuttal. Still, the biggest denominator of change is the ability to put messages out electronically including text messaging.” Smart campaign operators can get so much more information out quicker. “Voters are frustrated. There is segmented disenfranchisement. Campaigns have to get voters engaged for their candidates to win,” Reggie concluded. 

The outcome in two of the races on the March 25 ballot could be attributed to a group of progressive black and white voters who have become a moving force in New Orleans politics. These voters have become less interested in endorsements and more focused on issues. The vast majority are under the age of 50 and are highly motivated to create change. Forget about incumbency and tradition. Let’s create a new path forward, they cry. With several successful races under their belts including Sheriff Susan Hutson and PSC Commissioner Davante Lewis, they will push for even greater power in the fall elections.   

Fox Richardson had a basket full of endorsements but also a past that made some voters uncomfortable. As an attractive, articulate Black female, motivational speaker and mother of six handsome young men, Richardson should have been a hit on the campaign trail. Yet, she did not catch on with the voters. Her opponent Alonzo Knox had a greater grasp of issues and at forums berated Richardson endlessly. At the end of the night, White voters, progressives and Black females favored Knox. 

First City Court Judge Marissa Hutabarat was able to run away with the Civil District Court seat because she was already an elected official, was well-funded, had a first-rate campaign team and two weaker opponents. Candidate Stephanie Bridges picked up her pace in this race but still lacked a tightly focused message. Bridges may be eyeing another judicial race in the near future. David Jefferson Dye is honest and smart but a quirky political novice. Dye had advantages he did not fully exploit. 

Short ballot, low-turnout elections can be tricky, as Diedre Pierce Kelly unfortunately found out. She had the passion and support of plenty of elected officials. Both of her opponents – Simone Levine and Leon Roche – had also built strong constituencies during their years in the criminal justice arena. A larger turnout election could have helped Kelly. Now Levine takes on Roche head up after saying the two had an internal agreement for one to endorse the other in a runoff against Kelly. 

It is difficult for non-incumbent White candidates to win city-wide elections except in predominantly white districts. Levine has long believed that this is the race an experienced, well-funded, progressive White female could win. Roche is popular among Black voters, especially Black females, and among the family and friends of individuals he represented while a public defender. Other voters can relate to the Roche family name.  

Every single vote will count on April 29. For Levine to win, she must make a gigantic push during early voting. Without that push – and maybe even with it – Roche will rule the day. There are more Black voters than White voters and Blacks voters turn out in greater numbers. While both candidates wear the progressive label well, Roche has the endorsement of the group that has created the biggest shift in New Orleans politics in recent years. Early voting begins Saturday, April 15 and continues through Saturday, April 22.        

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