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September 16, 2008

Racial politics in New Orleans

As I wrote about in today’s Politico, there’s a real chance that New Orleans voters could elect a white candidate to Congress, given the presence of one white candidate against six African-Americans, including the indicted congressman.

Rep. William Jefferson’s potential runoff opponent, Helena Moreno, is well known in New Orleans from her recent stint as an investigative reporter for a local TV station. Given that the African-American vote is splintered among six black candidates, she could gain the runoff simply by winning the majority of the white vote. She has also self-financed much of her campaign, giving her enough cash to get her message out.

About 64 percent of the New Orleans-centered district is African-American, while 28 percent is white.

“Unless whites decide to get behind another black candidate, she has a good shot at making it in the runoff, and she’s the one person he can beat,” said John Maginnis, the publisher of a Louisiana political newsletter.

“Jefferson is one guy who has a loyal following, and with the other black candidates split up, he will probably make it into the runoff.”

Moreno is calculating on winning enough of the splintered vote to make it into the runoff, and winning the majority of white voters – along with support from some African-American female voters as well. (She’s also the only woman in the race.)

Given that some of New Orleans’ African-American population has migrated out of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, Moreno’s strategists also think the percentage of the white vote will be higher than in past elections. Indeed, a white city councilwoman, Jackie Clarkson, won a seat on the New Orleans city council against a black opponent just last year.

If Moreno makes it into the runoff against Jefferson (as many LA operatives expect), expect race to play a prominent -- and perhaps divisive -- role in the runoff.  That was the case in the last New Orleans mayoral campaign pitting Ray Nagin against Mitch Landrieu.

And Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn) certainly has some first-hand experience with running in a primary in a predominantly African-American district.