Sunday, February 02, 2014

He listened. He just didn't care

Holy crap. Mitch pulled 64 percent of the vote.  Now, I certainly didn't think he was in any sort of trouble or anything... especially considering the staggering ineptitude of his opposition... but I would have been much more likely to bet on 54-57 percent (nothing to sneeze at there, BTW) but this, this is really something. It's almost as if the terrible candidate running the terrible campaign against him was trying to be terrible on purpose.

And that's actually a pretty credible explanation.  There are multiple reasons Michael Bagneris might not have tried very hard to win this long shot election. One theory had it that he saw this as a transition year. An incumbent mayor might be unbeatable but this might be the time to raise one's profile in preparation to run the real race for mayor 4 (or possibly 1?) years from now.  But, no, that's not it.
Bagneris told Gambit he'd continue to lobby for issues he cares deeply about, like public safety, as a private citizen. He won't be considering another run for mayor. "No, never. This was my time," he said. "I have a lot of issues to take care of because I'm working towards retiring. I'm going to work, I have to get my funds together, they've depleted a great deal in relation to this election, so I've got to deal with that."
Don't worry too much about those depleted funds. He's got a pretty nice pension coming

But we should take him at his word that he just wanted to retire.  Most likely, though, he had friends among Mitch's famous enemies list who leaned on him to run a "protest" campaign for them. He did them that favor. But he didn't take winning very seriously.

From The Advocate's sort of profile of Michael Bagneris last week:
He faces an incumbent with apparently strong poll numbers, millions of dollars to spend on his re-election campaign and history on his side: No New Orleans mayor in memory has been ousted without a second term.

Just as with Morial’s bid for a third term and his own run for the City Council, it appears to some that Bagneris may be misreading the electorate again, setting himself up for a fall.

He doesn’t think so. “The discontent is ripe,” Bagneris said in an interview. “I am absolutely amazed at how many people have come to me quietly — quietly — and indicated, ‘I can’t be with you publicly, but believe me when I tell you, me and my family and all of my friends are going to cast the ballot for you.’
How much is "quietly - quietly" indicating not-public support worth to your campaign? About 33 percent, it turns out.  But, remember, Bagneris is humoring some friends who have been nice to him over the years. In order to do that, one is required to play along with the delusion a bit. 
The whole galaxy of acronyms that shaped black politics in New Orleans over four decades — COUP, BOLD, LIFE, SOUL — is hoping Bagneris can unseat the incumbent.

The question for Bagneris is whether these groups still hold much sway and whether the discontent with Landrieu in the black political class and elsewhere will filter into the voting booths next month.

Bagneris has been cagey about giving out internal polls, but he
pointed to the fact that Landrieu’s campaign is still trumpeting numbers
 from October. And “those October numbers are wrong,” he said
It's a shame no one commissioned an independent poll against which we could have checked such assertions.  UNO didn't even plan to poll the mayor's race unless there was a runoff.  Most of the surveys calling me at home (and the one that called me at work) were push polls.  

So without any data we were left to interpret the candidates' signals about what their polls may or may not be telling them.  And maybe that's appropriate given what Stephanie Grace, writing about a quality of life survey from last year, calls the, "impressionistic" nature of the campaign.
There’s fodder for the Bagneris “wrong track” point of view in the poll as well. Sixty-two percent said that crime remains the biggest issue facing the city. And half said the amount of crime has increased in recent years — a gut feeling that directly conflicts with the statistics Landrieu touts. Just 24 percent labeled the quality of police protection in the city good. And despite Landrieu’s impressively fulfilled promise to rehabilitate 10,000 blighted properties, 73 percent deemed the city’s record of controlling abandoned houses poor.

Numbers like these point to just how impressionistic campaign politics can be. Bagneris insists Landrieu likes to cook his numbers, but even if you accept them as reliable, personal experience and anecdotal evidence can matter. Sure, murders are down, it’s easy to think, but what about that child who got caught in the crossfire and that armored car driver killed in broad daylight? And yes, there’s less blight, but what about that dilapidated eyesore across the street?

"The discontent is ripe," says Bagneris. And it is. An impressive number of dissatisfied political insiders either endorsed Bagneris or at least declined to support the mayor's reelection.  But it's important to keep in mind this derives mostly from the hurt feelings of establishment players put off by the mayor's abrasive style or by favors they have been denied.  In other words, it's a product of Mitch having been mayor for four years.  The fact that he's pissed off more people than most mayors might is noteworthy, though. But only in that it presents a foundational opportunity for an opponent to build a campaign.

This by itself is not a mandate for turning out an incumbent mayor. To do that, a candidate needs a campaign that appeals to the electorate at large. Voters can think the mayor is the biggest "productive asshole" on the face of the Earth and it won't matter unless the challenger is able to construct a narrative that convinces them the city really is on the wrong track.  Bagneris never seemed to find that narrative. Instead his campaign cast about from one issue to the next looking for some way to connect but never quite landing anywhere.

This is from Grace's account of the final debate.
The question on the table was how to pay for badly needed repairs to the city’s water pipes, and Bagneris had just finished attacking Landrieu for hiking the water bills of “working people” in order to finance improvements. Bagneris said he would instead jettison Landrieu’s deputy mayors and “urban specialists” at City Hall — a savings he estimated at $15 million — in order to pay for the upgrades.

Granted a few seconds to respond, the mayor pointed out that New Orleans’ water system needs $3 billion worth of repairs. “Here’s a question of not what to do but how to do it and what hard choices would you make to get that done,” Landrieu said. “The entire city budget, if you took it all, would not fix the Sewerage & Water Board.”

For anyone who has skipped the steady schedule of debates and forums leading up to Saturday’s vote, the debate broadcast live on WWL-TV Thursday evening was the mayor’s race in microcosm.

Bagneris, who is running along with local NAACP President Danatus King but has the better chance of actually unseating the mayor, took shot after shot at the incumbent, but he sometimes had trouble landing his punches. The timer kept cutting him off at awkward moments. At one point, he got testy with one of the three reporters there to pose questions.

And Landrieu seemed to anticipate each line of attack, responding with specifics on how many police officers he plans to hire, how many jobs he plans to create with various infrastructure projects and how far the murder rate has fallen.

Obviously candidates try to tailor their messaging to fit survey results. But the real trick is to incorporate these concerns into a more robust argument about the city and its future. Bagneris merely moved from one potential wedge issue to the next without demonstrating that he grasped the significance of any of them. He recited complaints and talking points without telling a story. This wasn't a campaign.  It was a listicle.

This year's municipal elections will be looked back on as a missed opportunity. With the city a frequently cited example of the worsening  international epidemic of urban gentrification and inequality, this election could easily have been a referendum on Mitch Landrieu and the "agents of change" on his One Team pushing the city "forward" along a neoliberal elitist path.
Clarkson enjoys the support of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and outgoing Councilwoman Palmer, as well as the Alliance for Good Government and a handful of organizations on both sides of the political spectrum.

Despite her lengthy résumé, Clarkson said she shouldn’t be chalked up as an establishment candidate. “I am an agent of change,” she said. Her successes, she said, include the city’s Master Plan and the new comprehensive zoning ordinance that will follow, and the redevelopment of the Fischer housing project in Algiers.
But all Bagneris could give us was a weak tea of statistical nit-picking and some far-fetched and unreasonable promises.  A final week Bagneris attack ad pledged to put "1600 more cops on the streets in his first year."  Even if we consider this credible, it's not especially inspiring.

Maybe something interesting could have happened this week had it not been for the SNEAUXMAGEDDON but I doubt it.  This was an opportunity for the city to have a public discussion about its direction at a crucial juncture but no such discussion developed.  What could have been a campaign about something big instead remained a "campaign about nothing."  We can blame the calendar for this, or the weather if we want.  But, in the end, the blame lies squarely with a challenger who most likely just didn't care enough to make his case.

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