Politically challenged New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told a national TV audience recently that a victory by his challenger — Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu — would be a step back to the past. Though Nagin is Black and Landrieu is White, the mayor did not intend this as a deliberate racial slap at Landrieu. But then again, he didn't have to — Blacks have held unbroken power at New Orleans City Hall for three decades.
Ever since Katrina floodwaters sent thousands of poor New Orleans Blacks fleeing in terror for their lives, Nagin — who just won re-election — has been on the national hot seat. The mayor was knocked for being unprepared, indecisive and panicky, then for compounding the tragedy by fingering President George Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state officials — in short, everybody but himself — for bungling the hurricane rescue and relief efforts.
The sheen on Nagin's political star was peeling fast by the hour. That was in September. And with a mayor's election only months away, and thousands of New Orleans Black voters scattered to the nation's four corners, and White voters furious at him for political incompetence, and his embarrassing crack about remaking New Orleans into a "chocolate city," Nagin was in trouble.
Nagin's crack was a subtle signal to Black voters to rally behind the Black brother in City Hall — and it worked. In the April primary, 90 percent of Blacks voted for him, a gigantic bump-up from the tepid Black support that he got four years earlier.
Back then the city's business leaders and a large percentage of White voters regarded the former corporate communications exec as a safe, bland, business-friendly guy that wouldn't overly play the race card, and exclusively cater to Black interests – and they were right. The city's Black poor grew more numerous, desperate and underserved.
Meanwhile, City Hall patronage, appointments and contracts still remained comfortably in the hands of casino owners, corporate officials and a handful of prosperous and well-connected Black business and professionals.
If not for Katrina, it almost certainly would have stayed that way for this election. Nagin would have had a cakewalk back to City Hall, and would have gotten a big slice of the White vote along the way. Katrina radically changed the political and racial equation.
Even though Black votes propelled him back into City Hall, Nagin's fortune and that of other Black politicians is cloudy. In the past decade, Blacks have lost mayorships in several major cities. The Congressional Black Caucus has been reduced to a bare political whisper in Congress, and in California — the nation's biggest and most politically important state — the number of Blacks in the state Legislature has been cut nearly in half the past decade.
Black politicians blame their political slide on voter apathy, alienation, inner city population drops, suburban integration and displacement by Latinos, and, increasingly, Asians. But Black politicians such as Nagin must also share much of the blame. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington D.C.-based public policy think tank, found that the frustration and disgust of many Black voters for Black politicians has soared so high that Blacks have stayed away from the polls in droves in recent state and municipal elections.
Many Black politicians make little or no effort to inform and involve the Black public on vital legislation and political actions that directly impact on Black communities. Their all-consuming obsession is to elect more Black Democrats to office and to make sure that those in office stay there.
Black politicians hold their fate in their hands. They must reconnect with the Black poor and craft an agenda that can renew the belief that Black politicians can deliver the goods. That agenda must emphasize jobs, drug and crime prevention programs and improved neighborhood schools and services.
Nagin won because Black voters bought his race-tinged pitch about not going back to the past. But they should also demand that Nagin not go back to that same past in which the city's Black poor were shamelessly ignored.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.