Governor John Bel Edwards was grateful to receive an award from National Urban League President Marc Morial yesterday in New Orleans. Edwards knew his 2014 victory was due in part to the strong statewide support from African-American elected officials like Congressman Cedric Richmond (also an honoree) and their associated political organizations.
With almost 20 elected offices on the ballot during 2017 — including mayor, city council, sheriff, assessor, clerks of court and at least three judgeships — grassroots political organizations, faith-based coalitions, political action committees and civic groups who support candidates and/or issues are all gearing up for an active campaign season. Also active will be the two parish executive committees and their affiliates.
African-American political organizations grew out of traditional ward politics during the years immediately following World War II. Whether African-Americans personally fought in the war or merely supported U.S. war efforts, they were no longer willing to accept second-class status. Civil rights organizations like the Urban League, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (whose roots include New Orleans’ New Zion Baptist Church) and the NAACP helped build momentum. Soon African-Americans were seeking grassroots support from family and friends to run for office.
In 1967 Dutch Morial – who would have turned 87 last week – was the first African-American elected to the Louisiana Legislature since Reconstruction. The organization that sprung up from his supporters – L.I.F.E – is still in existence and includes Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Assessor Errol Williams and Councilmember Jared Brossett.
Also in 1967, the Central-City based Black Organization For Leadership Development (BOLD) was created to train future leaders, share information about candidates and motivate previously disenfranchised African-Americans to participate in the political process. SCLC leader and New Zion’s pastor, Rev. A. L. Davis, was the first African-American political official from the Central City area. He was appointed to the New Orleans City Council (District B) in 1975 and elected to that same body in 1976. Central City-based Diana Bajoie was also elected to the Louisiana Legislature in 1976 and was the only woman — black or white — to serve during that term.
BOLD prides itself on having a larger member base than most of the other groups, having more women in leadership roles and having successfully implementing both city-wide and state-wide campaign initiatives. Current elected officials who have a BOLD “connection” includes Councilmembers Stacy Head and LaToya Cantrell, and Judge Harry Cantrell.
“Our organization is reflective of the community. We interview, research and vet the candidates and then make recommendations to the voters,” said BOLD official Jay Banks. “You can’t really learn enough about a candidate from a push card or a television commercial.”
The 7th Ward’s Community Organization of Urban Politics (COUP) also started in the late 1960’s to support the mayoral candidacy of Moon Landrieu and later Sidney Barthelemy. With assistance from consultant Bill Schultz, COUP spearheaded Councilmember Jason Roger Williams’ upset victory over Cynthia Hedge Morrell in 2014. Current elected officials COUP has supported include Judge Desiree Charbonnet, Public Service Commissioner Lambert Boissiere III and his father Constable Lambert Boissiere Jr. Constable Boissiere says COUP is planning a reunion in anticipation of expanding next year.
In an effort to re-energize and attract younger participants, the biracial New Orleans Coalition – the city’s first integrated political group – is also planning a 50th reunion in 2017. New Orleans Coalition members include David Marcello, Vincent Sylvain, Joel Myers, Allen Rosensweig, Rosalind B. Cook, Yvonne Mitchell Grubb, Dr. Marc Behar, Gayle Gagliano, and Mario Zervigon.
While many leaders in all the above-mentioned organizations are over the age of 50, one group has emerged which targets a younger generation – the Independent Democratic Electors Association, IDEA. Headed up by former City staffer Brian Egana, this 10-year-old organization attracts young professionals who have a desire to serve. “The older organizations didn’t reach our demographic,” explained Egana. “We seek accountability. We have a clearly-defined mission and look for candidates whose platforms reconcile with our mission.” Egana says IDEA-endorsed candidates win 95 percent of the time.
IDEA recently elected one of their own, Ethan Ashley, to the Orleans Parish School Board. Another member and former candidate, Jason Hughes, has become a successful campaign manager and could run for office again soon. “We tell our members that you don’t have to be elected to continue to serve. You can stay engaged and in the game by serving on board and commissions and working in the community.”
Though he does not have — nor need — a formal organization, the city’s most valuable endorsement and voter outreach apparatus belongs to Congressman Cedric Richmond, who assumes the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus next week. Dozens of New Orleanians are expected to head to Washington for Wednesday’s ceremony which will put Richmond in the catbird seat on many national issues.
Other political organizations gearing up include TIPS in the 6th Ward which was formed about 1970, NOEL in New Orleans East, APAC in Algiers, the Mid-City Democrats and LAVA in Lakeview. Founded in 1874, the conservative Regular Democratic Organization (RDO) claims to be the oldest political organization in the U.S. While still active, their power is greatly diminished. Also on the downswing is the SOUL organization which was founded by Sherman Copelin and Don Hubbard.
Led by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and its president Dr. Willie Gable, Jr., the faith-based community has traditionally played a valuable role in educating parishioners regarding a candidate’s stand on relevant issues and encouraging voter turnout. New Orleans archbishops including Gregory Aymond have always had the opportunity to speak out when motivated. Other powerful clergy who can sway large numbers of voters include Dr. Chris Gordon, Bishop J.D. Wiley, Dr. Fred Luter, Jr., Bishop Tom Watson, and Dr. Dwight Webster.
Several political actions committees will be part of the scene such as those led by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger and State Senator J.P. Morrell. Landrieu is said to be aggressively raising funds while Leger and Morrell recently held events at which donations could be made to their PACs. Councilmember Stacy Head’s proposed organization has yet to start up.
The 2017 political landscape would not be complete without looping in the predominately white organizations including the Alliance for Good Government, the New Orleans Crime Coalition, the Chamber of Commerce and the New Orleans Business Council.
The Alliance’s candidate forums usually kick off a campaign season so that their endorsement can have a major impact and influence momentum in a race. Though their membership is biracial, the Alliance is more likely to endorse white candidates, according to African-American political operatives.
The other three groups could be categorized as “purse string” organizations. Their members control the dollars most candidates need to be successful. Endorsements and contributions from these groups often comes only after a candidate pledges to support certain policy positions.
There are also industry-specific groups that can get out their check books including those representing tourism, realtors, homebuilders, bankers, and other business or industry interests.
Politics is big business. In our most recent election for the U.S. Senate, both campaigns raised and spent what many would consider a small fortune to get out their votes. Even so, African-American turnout was ‘light” in the runoff earlier this month. If African-American organizations want to elect the next mayor from their ranks, coalescing behind one strong candidate might be necessary.
More than 100 business, political and civic leaders including Roger Ogden, Dr. Norman Francis, Richard Perque, Sharonda Williams, Jimmy Woods, Susie Terrell, James Williams, Kim Boyle, and Richard Cortizas turned out for yesterday’s awards luncheon. Developing future leaders is everyone’s responsibility, said Morial. With that leadership comes the responsibility to serve the community.
Simply put, political organizations provide a structured channel for like-minded individuals with common interests to advocate for a particular ideology, candidate or cause. “There is always room for neighborhood and grassroots organizing in politics,” said pollster Dr. Ron Faucheux. New Orleans is strongest when its citizens join together to accomplish a better, safer standard of living for everyone.
Happy New Year to one and all!
Danae Columbus has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by her public relations firm are Foster Campbell, Regina Bartholomew, City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.