Baton Rouge, look to Shreveport to see your electoral future.
Earlier this month across Louisiana, the last round of 2018 elections occurred. In the state’s third-largest city, incumbent Democrat Mayor Ollie Tyler went down in flames to political novice and fellow Democrat Adrian Perkins, whose largely nonideological campaign focused on Tyler’s administrative missteps.
Perkins’ political origins make President Donald Trump look like a swamp denizen. The 33-year-old hadn’t lived in Shreveport any of his adult life until a few months ago, first serving in the Army and afterward graduating from law school. When he touched the screen displaying the November general election ballot, that marked the first time in his life he ever had voted.
As stunning as it seems that such a rank outsider could win, and by a convincing 28 points, this event followed a pattern seen in New Orleans years earlier. In 2002, political rookie and business executive Ray Nagin defeated four elected officials and the city’s recent police chief to become mayor. Although active in civic causes after his return to the city nearly two decades before, he had no connection to established political organizations.
A black Democrat like the three previous mayors, Nagin won despite his runoff opponent outpolling him in precincts with a high proportion of black registrants. Since the late 1970s, with the exception of Sidney Barthelemy’s 1986 triumph, victorious mayors had won by scooping up huge majorities of the black vote against a white candidate in the runoff.
But by the end of the millennium, enough Orleans Republicans — mainly whites — realized that while their dwindling numbers meant they couldn’t keep a Democrat out of the mayor’s office, they could decide which one to let in. Given a choice in 2002 between liberal Democrats from established political factions and an outsider who shied away from explicit support of leftist policies, they chose Nagin.
Shreveport reached that inflection point this year. In the general election, while Perkins won only a couple of precincts with at least 90 percent black registration, he also won a couple of precincts with at least 90 percent white registration despite two competitive white Republicans in the race. In the runoff, in most of the supermajority black precincts, he ran slightly behind Tyler but rolled up huge margins against her in the supermajority white precincts.
Enough Shreveport Republicans — also mainly whites — had acted like their New Orleans counterparts. Understanding they didn’t have the numbers to elect a conservative from the GOP, they threw their support behind the black Democrat outsider Perkins.
Looking down the road, the impact of Orleans Republicans has withered as their numbers have melted away, now barely reaching 10 percent of registrants. Still, polling indicated the 2017 candidate considered more of an outsider, LaToya Cantrell, won the office with around half of white voters, who comprise only about 36 percent of the electorate.
Within a few years, East Baton Rouge Republicans may come to a similar reckoning.
The 2017 American Community Survey estimates that whites have a plurality of the parish population, exceeding blacks by about 8,000, and black Democrats have served as mayor-president for the past 14 years.
It’s probably the first and only time Gov. John Bel Edwards will feel gratified that U.S. Sen. John Kennedy marches to the beat of his own drummer.
Although demography isn’t destiny, parish trends should soon create a metropolitan partisan imbalance similar to what's presently citywide in Shreveport and characteristic of Orleans Parish two decades ago. That will encourage city-parish Republicans to gravitate toward less ideological, outsider black Democrats for mayor-president, disrupting the future plans of today’s political elites.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com and writes about Louisiana legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.