This month marks the 35th anniversary of the election of Ernest Nathan “Dutch” Morial, the first African-American mayor in New Orleans history, who swung the doors open at City Hall for minorities and women.
It was an epic campaign, and it changed the city forever.
In the beginning, Morial was not expected to win. State Senator Nat G. Kiefer was the early favorite. A great legislator, a former Tulane jock and straight A student and a power at the establishment Jones Walker law firm, Kiefer was also the self-proclaimed “toughest street fighter” in the Ninth Ward, which was his political base.
Also in the race was Councilman Joe DiRosa, the fiercest critic of New Orleans Public Service Inc., the utility that ran the city’s transit service. NOPSI was at the center of the city’s conservative business establishment and they looked with scorn on DiRosa, an attorney, who they regarded as a self-educated rogue populist. The DiRosa candidacy appealed to segregationists and blue-collar white conservatives. The fourth major candidate was State Rep. Toni Morrison, the son of the late Mayor Chep Morrison. Although he had endorsements from Mayor Moon Landrieu – a rival of Kiefer, Morial and DiRosa – and The Times-Picayune, the Morrison campaign never got off the ground.
During the 1977 campaign, Allan helped cover the race for the States-Item. Danae, then 27, had recently moved recently to New Orleans from Arkansas where she was involved in political campaigns from age 12. She had worked for her friend, a promising politician named Bill Clinton, so she knew a little something about politics. She jumped into the Morial campaign as a volunteer and later went to work for his administration.
But, Morial was the man. A very competitive, feisty and adversarial individual, he was the first black graduate of LSU Law School, the first black Assistant U.S. Attorney, the first black legislator since Reconstruction and the first black judge. He was determined to be the first black mayor but many doubted that 1977 would be the year. The power seemed to lie with the black political organizations that had become dominant after the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. SOUL, COUP, BOLD, PEAR and others were mostly advocates for Kiefer. Morial, who had been Field Director for the NAACP, was contemptuous of them, contending that they existed only to cut deals with white politicians. The political groups said they were the ones who really opened the doors for African-Americans to get jobs in government, which had been segregated. Landrieu had named the first black department head in the city’s history and opened hundreds of middle management City Hall jobs to African Americans, many of them workers for the alphabet soup organizations. Until then, only one African-American, Philip Baptiste, an ally of Morial’s, had worked at more than a broom-and-mop job at City Hall.
Morial’s political connections were in the black churches. The black clergy, rivals of the new black political groups, were all for Morial. But if the black community was divided, that was good for Kiefer and bad for Morial. As the campaign progressed, it became clear that Morial and Kiefer were the most articulate candidates with the clearest visions of how a new mayor might continue the growth of the New Orleans economy that was being driven by the rise of tourism and the construction of the New Orleans Superdome.
With Morial holding his own in the forums, his campaign began to attract more volunteers and he started to raise money from New Orleanians who saw him as a catalyst for progressive change. That is also the way that Morial saw himself. As abrasive as he was, Morial could charm the birds out of the trees when he was inclined to do so and he desperately wanted to win this race. At the same time, the black community, down to the grass roots, began to think maybe Morial had a chance. While he didn’t have the entire black community, Morial had most of it – regardless of the alphabet organizations’ endorsements of Kiefer.
In the first primary, Kiefer was undone by the defection of conservative whites in the Ninth Ward to DiRosa and the defection of blacks – many of whom had started out supporting Kiefer – to Morial. Kiefer slid into third place and Morial had the perfect opponent in DiRosa who couldn’t get black votes while Morial had the entire black vote – 42 percent of the electorate at the time – and had an opening to go after white votes, especially Uptown where DiRosa had long ago alienated the NOPSI crowd, the Times-Picayune and States-Item and many well-educated voters.
In the runoff, Morial cemented his support in the one and only debate between the candidates when he came off as far more articulate and knowledgeable than DiRosa. Typical of Morial, before the debate started, he pretended to adjust DiRosa’s tie and in a low voice said, “I’m sorry to do this Joe, but I’m going to kick your ass.” And he did. DiRosa declined any further debates.
In an effort to get out white voters with racist leanings, DiRosa during the campaign referred to the black community as “jungle bunnies.” Whether that helped get out additional white votes for DiRosa is problematical, but it certainly helped fire up black voters.
For one of the few times in New Orleans history, African-American turnout equaled white turnout in the runoff. Morial, as expected, swept the black vote and got 20 percent of the white vote, just enough to win the election by more than 5,000 votes.
We think Morial was an excellent mayor, but certainly not easy to get along with or convivial most of the time. His greater importance is that he opened thousands of doors in New Orleans. His election changed the city in every way – business, social customs, media, politics, etc.
Kiefer returned to the State Senate. He died young at 46. DiRosa went on to become a Civil District Court judge. He died at the age of 81. Morial died suddenly at 60. He was reelected to a second term as mayor and twice failed to convince the voters to let him run for a third term. By 1986, New Orleanians – whites and a lot of African-Americans – were just tired of the mean side of his complex personality. But after he died and lay in state at Gallier Hall, the lines of African-Americans and some whites who came to pay their respects stretched for blocks.
Many New Orleanians are part of Morial’s legacy and the civil rights revolution. Dutch’s staff and close associates included Judges Michael and Dennis Bagneris, Assessor Erroll Williams, Irma Dixon, African-American businessmen Bob Tucker and Bobby Major and Allan’s best friend, the late Hippo Katz.
The Morial legacy still lives today in people like Kiana Aaron Mitchell, who is in a runoff for Second City Court judge in Algiers. Her grandmother, Dolores Aaron, a wonderful teacher and school principal, was the first African-American assistant school superintendent and later the Director of NORD during the administration of former Mayor Sidney John Barthelemy. Whether she wins the Dec. 6 runoff or not, Kiana’s story is a continuation of Dutch Morial’s historic decision to run for mayor in 1977, 35 years ago.
Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. Columbus is a paid consultant to the Dana Kaplan campaign, and they both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City Councilwoman Stacy Head, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and state Rep. Robert Billiot.