Louisiana power play

Black voter support put Louisiana democrat Mary Landrieu back in office. But will the party keep its covenant with the Black people?
The U. S. Senate runoff election in Louisiana on took place last week because Democrat Mary Landrieu…. The U. S. Senate runoff election in Louisiana on took place last week because Democrat Mary Landrieu, did not win more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 5. The fact that she desperately needed a heavy turnout of the Black vote created a situation set up for classic leverage politics.

Landrieu won the Dec. 5 election in Louisiana in a contest reminiscent of many of those around the country in that the November Black turnout in the heavily Black precincts of Uptown New Orleans was little more than one-third in an area where Landrieu had attracted 90 percent of the Black vote. In fact, statewide estimates have the White population turnout rate at 50 percent and the Black turnout rate at 35 percent and the lower turnout rate for Blacks was critical in Landrieu’s failure to capture a majority of votes, since Black also amount to 40 percent of the Democratic vote. And like other states, there is debate about why many Blacks stayed home on election day while Whites were energized to come out.

One reason explaining it was that Landrieu was between a rock and a hard place. She needed 30 percent of the White vote to win and in that regard, her politics has been to talk Left and walk Right, explaining as many times as she has to that she is a moderate Democrat who votes for George Bush on important issues like the tax cut. In fact, Sen. John Breaux campaigned for Landrieu touting both of their support for the Bush tax cut—in a state where the average family income is one of the lowest in the country.

Here, Landrieu sounds like Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of Maryland, who lost her race for governor because, as a Democrat, she appeared to hold the Black vote at arms length until the last possible moment. Townsend is a leader in the Democratic Leadership Council which occupies the Right wing of the Democratic Party.

Landrieu brought no leading Democrats into her state and has been at odds with state Sen. Cleo Fields, one of the most popular political figures in Louisiana. In fact, although he supported her in the runoff, Fields and two other prominent Black Democratic politicians, State Sen. Don Cravins of Arnaudville and Greg Tarver of Shreveport, initially opposed her bid for re-election on the grounds of her indifference to Black interests.

The Democratic Party threw resources into the contest to combat the $3.5 million that Republicans put into the race to attempt to increase their 51 vote lead in the Senate. The “Rothenberg Report,” one of the top sources of analysis on American elections, noted that Republicans, once having obtained the outright majority in the senate, are attempting to insulate themselves from losing power, like they did when Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched parties from Republican to Democrat. So, both parties are acting as though there are some big stakes in this last major election of this season.

The question is what Blacks asked for, leveraging this position to increase their political power and to insure that their agenda is respected by Landrieu and the Democratic Party for their committing the resources to turnout to vote? Cleo Fields is a shrewd politician, which is why gave the signal to bargain by supporting Landrieu in this race, even though the bad blood between is a legend in the state.

Perhaps a bargain needn’t be made public, but the fact that the Black vote made the difference in this race should be leveraged (public or private) into something that will resonate with Black voters after the election as a real reason why they went out to vote in the first place. Let me say again, as I have so often, the mere act of voting is not as powerful as the bargaining that takes place, which demands something in exchange for it.

Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, director of the African American Leadership Institute and professor of government and politics at the Universi

December 9, 2002
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