Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Simply The Best

Read this new post from the Library Chronicles blog.  There simply is no more elegant and analytically precise dissection of the woeful state of Amercian faux democracy, race relations, class divisions, and "mainstream" media bias, hypocrisy, and overall banality.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"Unspoken" Rules Of NOLA Political Coverage or Why We aren't "In"

At first glance, it's a relief. It's a relief to see that despite the rain, the tall ships, and the general not giving a fuck around town, turnout at least managed to bump up a bit from the dismal 18% of the primary.

With all 366 precincts reporting, unofficial returns showed Head with 27,787 votes to 27,506 for Willard-Lewis. About 23.5 percent of the city's 235,553 registered voters went to the polls, significantly more than in the primary, although there were no other items on the ballot.

And yet 55,293 people is a pretty lame crowd. If the Saints are ever drawing that, Tom Benson might up and move them to San Antonio... or run off and buy a basketball team or something. So maybe we're not exactly In when it comes to our most preferred spectator sport of local politics these days.

The problem could be that the storyline isn't all that compelling. Or maybe it's just that the T-P keeps trying to write the same boring script.

She appeared to have survived a racially charged contest against former Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis by the narrowest of margins.

Was this really a "racially charged" election? Just the assertion that it was, in fact, "charged" with anything at all strains credulity. But leaving that aside, let's look at the evidence supplied in Sunday's re-cap.

The two Democrats waged a spirited runoff battle focused in part on the so-called "unspoken rule" that for three decades kept the two at-large council seats divided between white and African-American politicians.

The tradition of racial balance in the seats ended in 2007, when Jackie Clarkson, who is white, was elected after Oliver Thomas, who like Willard-Lewis is black, resigned after admitting he took a bribe. Fielkow, the other incumbent at the time, also is white.

For an "unspoken rule" the T-P's political reporters sure do an awful lot of speaking about it. In fact, they haven't been able to shut up about it ever since the unspoken rule was tossed away after Oliver Thomas' departure. Two election cycles later, we're still reading about it as if it's the law of the land.

One side note here. A proposed reform would divide candidates in future At-Large elections into two separate races for either seat. If this comes to pass will future candidates conform to the "unspoken" rule by self-segregating themselves into white and black At-Large races? If not maybe then we can stop un-speaking about this business.

But whatever you think of the "unspoken rule" it alone doesn't mean that this election was "racially charged"... at least not any more or less than any citywide election might be. Race is obviously a factor in local politics. But it isn't so neatly divided from context the way the T-P's handling of it would indicate. Let's look again at Michelle Krupa and Frank Donze's Sunday re-cap article.

During the campaign Willard-Lewis kept the issue of racial balance in the forefront, saying it is important that all segments of the community feel "they have access and that their voices will be welcome, respected and heard."

Head countered that voters are more concerned about which candidate is "going to work hard for their neighborhood, who's going to make sure that the delivery of governmental services is as good as it possibly can be. That's far more important than race."

What a fascinating way to frame those quotes. Here we have each candidate saying equally bland things. Cynthia says it's important for everyone to "have access" and "be heard." Head "counters" this by saying "delivery of governmental services" is "far more important than race." It's a mild exchange that obliquely touches on a debate about whether the question of for whom government services are working is as important as how well they are working. Does that question have a racial element to it? Certainly. Does the article attempt to explain this at all? Nope.

Instead the reporters keep the focus on how "racially charged" all of this is. In their version of the story, Willard-Lewis' having "kept the issue of racial balance in the forefront" was a troublesome matter necessitating a "counter" from Head. Even if we are to accept the dubious premise that this election was any more "racially charged" than is typically seen in New Orleans politics, we are given no means of understanding why race might be a relevant matter. It's lightly implied that the alleged racial charge is probably a bad thing... and that it's mostly Cynthia's fault... but that's all we get.

Willard-Lewis targeted black voters with a pair of radio ads, including one featuring New Orleans native Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and civil-rights leader. He told listeners: "If you don't have somebody representing you in public office, you really don't get your share."

The other ad, which suggested Head was trying to buy the election, urged voters to send her a message that "the vote that our parents and grandparents fought and died for is not for sale, nor will it ever be."

In her TV ads, Head featured a range of residents -- black and white, male and female -- with each supporter praising her ability to get things done.

See, Cynthia "targeted black voters" by having Andrew Young say something pretty elemental about representative government. Meanwhile Head "featured a range of residents" who talked about how she can "get things done." What things are getting done? Head's supporters typically cite her office's responsiveness regarding things like individual permitting and zoning hang-ups. If you own a business or a (well maintained) piece of property in District B, Stacy Head is probably your pal. She gets things done. For you, anyway. Just don't ever say she's "targeting" your vote, though.

Recently, Head voted with her targeted constituency against an ordinance that helps ensure contractors the city is doing business with are in compliance with state and federal labor standards.The law was put forward by interim At-Large Councilman Eric Granderson as a response to widespread complaints of wage theft in New Orleans; a cause taken up by Arnie Fielkow who Granderson replaced on the council. As a result of the special election, Head will now fill that seat.

In Willard-Lewis' ads, when Ambassador Young says, "If you don't have somebody representing you in public office, you really don't get your share," he's talking to people like the exploited day laborers Head voted against. When Willard-Lewis says "it is important that all segments of the community feel 'they have access and that their voices will be welcome, respected and heard,'" this is what she's talking about. But when Times-Picayune reporters reduce these points to mere racial dog whistling they divorce the campaign from any sense of its actual impact on people's lives.

Whenever we talk about issues of economic status and political power, of course race is going to factor into that discussion. But it's going to do that in complicated ways our political reporters don't usually want to unpack. Instead they make a perverse parlor game of isolating race from any meaningful context and then making that de-contextualized extraction the sole focus of their election coverage.

And this is, of course, topped off by tut-tutting at one or both of the candidates for allowing this completely manufactured bullshit to "racially charge" the campaign in the first place. In this election, the brunt of the blame for having "kept the issue of racial balance in the forefront" as Krupa and Donze put it, fell on Willard-Lewis.

Just look at this lede from Donze's report on a WVUE debate between Head and CWL. The debate ranged on a number of topics but Donze picked this.
It seemed like a good bet that, as the African-American candidate in the April 21 runoff for an at-large New Orleans City Council seat, former state Sen. Cynthia Willard-Lewis would be the first to broach the subject of the council's white majority. But in the contest's first face-to-face, post-primary meeting, it was her challenger, Stacy Head, one of the council's four white members, who tackled the thorny issue, albeit indirectly.
Translation: "It seemed like a good bet" that nasty Cynthia would titillate us offend our sensitive hearts with the race baiting no-no we all came to shake our fingers at but that didn't work out and we were starting to get bored so here's what our rabbit ears picked up "indirectly."

Oh by the way, here's the tackling of "the thorny issue" Donze is referring to. Prepare to have your mind blown.
The discussion of race during their appearance Monday on WVUE-TV was triggered when Willard-Lewis asked Head whether she was supporting President Barack Obama's re-election in light of the "significant Republican support" she has in the race.
Ok quick fact check time. Does Stacy Head enjoy "significant Republican support"? Why indeed she does! It's maybe a little cheap but still understandable that CWL might want to see if she can exploit that given the President's overwhelming popularity in Orleans Parish. It's unclear, however, exactly why this is a "thorny" or even "indirectly" racial issue as Donze suggests. Anyway here's Head's response.
"So, I think that President Obama has been one of the greatest leaders for the country because he's a man who doesn't look like me," Head said. "But he represents my interests."
And, you know, she's right. The President who is bringing us legalized stock fraud under the Orwellian guise of "Job creation" does indeed represent the interests of people like Ms. Head. But that digression aside, does the side-issue of either candidate's opinion of the President really merit front-and-center attention in an article about a municipal election? If it's kind of "indirectly" related to race a little bit, it apparently does. Even so, how does such a silly, weak bank shot bring us to describe the entire debate with this headline?
New Orleans City Council candidates touch on race
Probably the same way we got

New Orleans council primary plays out along racial lines


New Orleans City Council runoff may be test of trends in the city's racial politics


New Orleans City Council endorsement appears to have racial component

There were a lot of these throughout the campaign often with an "appears to" or a "may be" or a "touch on" forced in to connect "City Council" and "race" one way or another. If this election was "racially charged" at all, it acquired this charge as a result of the static generated by the T-P (usually Donze) constantly rubbing those words together.

And more often than not, the recipient of the T-P's racial static was Cynthia Willard-Lewis. Even as she was receiving her "crossover" endorsement from the Mayor, Donze managed to describe it as a sly and underhanded "racially charged" move.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu never made direct reference to the touchy subject of the New Orleans City Council's white majority Thursday as he endorsed former Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis in the April 21 runoff to fill an at-large seat on the city's legislative panel. But it was clear by what he did say that the thorny issue of race was a key factor in his decision to choose Willard-Lewis, who is black, over her white opponent, Councilwoman Stacy Head.
Oh good another "indirect" reference to "the thorny issue." Want to read it?
"I need someone who's going to be a partner with me to represent all of the people of the city of New Orleans," Landrieu said to a cheering crowd of more than 100 gathered at the New Orleans Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue.
Did you miss it? Well you see Mitch says he's looking for someone to "represent all the people of the city of New Orleans" which, in Donze's interpretation, must "indirectly" mean something racial. Evidently there's something about the word "all" that Donze takes as exclusionary. Recall that when Donze and Krupa compared these two statements,
During the campaign Willard-Lewis kept the issue of racial balance in the forefront, saying it is important that all segments of the community feel "they have access and that their voices will be welcome, respected and heard." Head countered that voters are more concerned about which candidate is "going to work hard for their neighborhood, who's going to make sure that the delivery of governmental services is as good as it possibly can be. That's far more important than race."
They judged Head's to be the more racially inclusive for some reason. Without Donze and Krupa around to read the tea leaves for us, we would have guessed that Mitch was endorsing Cynthia partially as repayment for her having "crossed racial lines" to back his 2006 campaign against Ray Nagin* and also probably as a slap at Head who has bucked his administration from time to time since he has become Mayor. But apparently there's this "racially charged" thing the Mayor and Ms. Willard-Lewis keep trying to force on us. And we might have missed that without the benefit of the Times-Picayune's political team.

Similarly, we would have thought that Austin Badon's subsequent endorsement of Head was an act of political payback. Badon had the backing of the Morrell family during the primary in part because the Morrells have been enemies of Ms. Willard-Lewis as of late. It's also possible that Badon (like President Obama) simply shares Head's interests since we know Badon to be an outspoken supporter of Governor Jindal's scheme to privatize elementary and secondary education in Louisiana.

But when the endorsement actually happened, Krupa included none of this in her account. Instead we got a handicapping of the racial subtext she had read into it for us.

New Orleans voters split along racial lines in the March 24 primary, with Head, who is white, claiming 96 percent of votes cast by whites and Willard-Lewis and Badon, who are black, taking 95 percent of the votes cast by blacks, an analysis by University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak shows.
Whether Badon's supporters again will vote along racial lines or cast a vote against Willard-Lewis or stay home altogether will be a critical factor for Saturday's victor.

Later, when Badon actually spoke, he didn't mention race at all.
"I want someone who speaks with quality and not quantity," Badon told a roomful of Head supporters.
"I don't want a 'yes' woman on the City Council. New Orleans doesn't need someone who is just going to put their stamp of approval on issues without proper evaluation. I want someone who is analytical. I want someone who is going to bring all of the department heads to the table and ask the tough questions."
We would have expected Donze to delve into this statement and pull out the "indirect" means by which Badon was actually beating around the "thorny issue" of race. But for some reason, that never happened. Maybe it's because we're already supposed to assume it always "seems like a good bet" that only Willard-Lewis' camp engages in the racial subterfuge.

When the T-P excludes all context other than race, their framing lines up this way. Either the voters will "vote along racial lines" and support Cynthia, or overcome this presumed flaw in their character to support Head. Meanwhile Head gets to go right on pretending that her choice of management over labor, or of property owners over renters is really a forward-thinking focus on "service" and Willard-Lewis' rhetoric about "all segments of the community" getting their "voices heard" amounts to some sort of nefarious racial code talk.

Maybe in another 30 years when Head finally grows up to be Jackie Clarkson, our gentle reporters will have to change gears and start covering for her in more of an aw-shucks-that's-our-good-old-buffoon fashion but, man, that is a long time to wait.

Anyway, it should come as no surprise that the political team at the T-P would apply their powers of induction to conclude from the results that they were right all along.

Willard-Lewis, who is black, picked up only about 5 percent of the non-African-American votes on a day when white turnout nearly doubled black participation, according to the analysis.
"Turnout and crossover vote were the keys for Head's victory," Chervenak said Sunday.
In his review, Chervenak found that turnout in precincts where 90 percent or more of the registered voters are white was 30.3 percent, compared with 16.8 percent in precincts containing 90 percent or more black voters.
While those heavily African-American precincts contain 32,000 more voters, Chervenak said there were less than 300 more votes cast in those areas than in the heavily white precincts.
Bridging the racial divide was seen as the likeliest path to success for either candidate in what quickly developed into a racially charged battle.

See? This election really was "racially charged" but somehow the forces of ... um... light prevailed due to the "bridging of the divide" or something.

This analysis, including its "Stacy Head's New Orleans City Council victory credited to turnout, black vote" headline is terribly misleading. Technically, the headline is true. But it's only true if we read it as "Stacy Head's victory credited to (low) turnout and (somewhat divided but mostly disengaged) black vote" As written, however, it might imply to the casual headline glancer that Ms. Head benefited from a heavy black turnout.

That isn't very likely, of course. But even the argument Donze is trying to make; that Head won by virtue of picking up a small but decisive percentage of a dismal black turnout; is masked by his attempt to characterize this as some noble "bridge the racial divide" moment. Had a mere 282 more Cynthia voters (less than one per precinct, as Clancy DuBos told us repeatedly) decided to slog through the rain that day, would we be reading today about the "bridging of the divide"? Or would Donze tell us, instead, that those 282 voters had rushed upon us in a loathsome "racial charge"?

Is there a way to explain these results without talking about the racial component? No, of course not. But if you're going to say, on the one hand, that the election was strictly about race, it's unfair to interpret one candidate's victory as a rejection of racial politics. Especially if the numbers don't bear that out.

Among the joys of post-election handicapping these days are Brian Denzer's Pac-Man maps. This one (PDF) shows us the precinct-level vote share along with the intensity of the turnout. It was picked up by The Lens this week along with the following analysis from Denzer.

“Stacy Head received an average 26 percent turnout in precincts that she won, compared to 17 percent turnout in precincts that Cynthia Willard-Lewis won,” Denzer said.
He also said that based on his analysis, Head won only eight precincts that were majority black, compared to Willard-Lewis, who won 215 majority-black precincts.
“In a city that is 60 percent African-American…and in a contest which heavily favored Cynthia Willard-Lewis by voters’ racial preferences, the deciding factor was the overwhelming turnout for Stacy Head compared to Cynthia Willard-Lewis — and even then, the vote returns coming in all night showed a very close contest that was ultimately won by only 281 votes,” Denzer said.
Overall turnout was around 24%. Clancy (see above) thinks that's pretty good. Maybe he means it's "indirectly" good since it's higher than it was in the primary but I think it sucks. This was a war of attrition where Head benefited from strong turnout in her base precincts, particularly in Lakeview and along the Carrollton and St. Charles Avenue corridors Uptown. Turnout among Willard-Lewis' base precincts in the East was OK but tepid compared to what Head was able to muster.

Stacy Head eked out a slim slim victory from among less than a quarter of all registered voters because her supporters, though small in number, were more enthusiastic than her opponent's. We could speculate as to whether or not Head's supporters were more racially charged up than Cynthia's but, unlike the T-P, I don't really buy that race is what defined this election. It's far more correct to say that apathy did.

And that's hardly surprising given all the bullshit about race taking precedence in the narrative. When voters are given little if any opportunity to learn what either an election might actually be about. Is it any wonder so few of them find it worth their time to be "In" for it?

*The 2006 Mayoral election was, in fact, quite "racially charged."

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