Overshadowed by the campaign for mayor, a host of less glamorous political races filled the ballot Saturday in New Orleans’ first election since Hurricane Katrina, some with the potential to remake aspects of life in the city.
Katrina displaced so many voters, most of them black, that one of the biggest questions was whether there would be a change in the racial balance of the City Council, which has five members elected from districts and two elected citywide. Four incumbents are black and three are white.
A number of the other positions up for grabs reflected New Orleans’ arcane political system.
The city has two sheriffs and two clerks of court — one of each for civil and criminal matters.
And there are seven elected tax assessors, a system that critics say leads to uneven, unfair and politically influenced property assessments.
Each of the assessor districts had a candidate who ran on a pledge to eventually consolidate the seven offices into one. Each adopted the same nickname: “I.Q.” for “I Quit.”
Many races had more than two candidates and, as in the contentious mayor’s race, there will a May 20 runoff between the two front-runners in any race in which no candidate wins a majority.
“There’s a lot of frustration,” observed Silas Lee, a New Orleans political analyst. “Whether or not all the incumbents get defeated, that is to be seen.”
Willie Jones Jr., 39, a construction consultant running against incumbent City Council member Cynthia Willard-Lewis in a heavily damaged district, was upbeat about his chances. Katrina helped level the playing field, he said, because incumbents had as hard a time as newcomers in reaching out to displaced voters.
“Everybody’s in the same boat this time,” said Jones, who has never held public office. “Everybody’s scrambling.”
Jones said he had to buy radio ads in Baton Rouge and campaign in Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Memphis to reach voters who were displaced by the hurricane. And within the district, he had to knock on the doors of the government-issued travel trailers serving as temporary homes.
“At first, I felt uncomfortable knocking on trailer doors, because it’s like knocking on their bedroom door,” he said. “But I got over it.”