Monday, October 23, 2017

How to lose an election Part 1: Crime and cynicism

The mayor's race is over.  LaToya Cantrell's campaign worked harder and smarter than Desiree Charbonnet's in the primary such that the situation for the latter is pretty much unrecoverable.  In the next few weeks, we'll have to watch a runoff campaign unfold knowing its conclusion is already a fait-accompli.  So rather than fixating on the surely irrelevant daily back and forth, I'd like to post a few observations about how we got to this point and what it says about city politics right now.   I've got a lot to say about that so I think it would be best to break it out into a series of posts.  Later, I'll talk about the candidates' differing strategies for voter turnout, how they handled key policy questions like flood control and economic development, and how each candidate embodies the persistent racial and class divide that defines New Orleans politics.  But to start things off we may as well look at what every candidate and pundit tells us over and over is supposed to be the "number one issue" on voters' minds always and forever.  Of course we are talking here about Confederate monuments public masturbation  crime.

The first thing we need to be clear about here is both of the remaining mayoral candidacies are deeply cynical operations. But it's the Desi campaign that has the added distinction of also being lazy. Charbonnet's advisors started with a basic idea about how to win a generic New Orleans mayoral election but never bothered to think about how the particulars of this election fit into that template. Nor did they do any of the groundwork necessary to connect their campaign to any actual human voters. This showed on primary night. Not only did Desiree finish second, she ceded key sections of her presumed base districts in the process to a harder working (though, of course, equally cynical) opponent.

After the WDSU debate, I said Desi's campaign style was reminiscent of  Hillary Clinton's.  I believe her campaign's strategy is flawed in similar ways to Hillary's as well. Desi's advisors are playing a detached, elitist brand of politics that considers voters as manipulable market segments instead of people with actual concerns and interests. The campaign has no message or purpose. It only has calculated pitches to specific demographics.  It's an incoherent approach that separates the question of how to get voters to your side from an honest consideration of why they should be there.  In 2016, Hillary took struggling working class voters for granted in pursuit of white suburban Republicans who were never going to vote for her in the first place.  Similarly, Desiree is chasing after a block of voters who are actively campaigning against her while ignoring others she may have had a better chance of persuading. 

This morning we read that her campaign is doubling down on this losing strategy.
Charbonnet argues that she can make headway in winning Bagneris backers and other voters by highlighting her plans to fight crime. In an interview last week, she said the primary campaign taught her that public safety remains the No. 1 issue for voters.

“I’m going to continue to let citizens know that if they are concerned about crime, I am the candidate,” she said.
They have no idea what they're doing.  Polling says voters consistently rank crime among their chief concerns.  But not all "crime" voters are alike. If your plan is to move voters who are "concerned about crime," you had better first understand which segment of those voters are yours to move and why.  The Desiree campaign is treating all "crime" voters as though they are Bagneris voters.

But the "Bagneris vote" is an explicitly anti-Charbonnet vote. There is no possible way to reach it.  The fact that the campaign still thinks it's as simple a matter as talking about "crime" tells you everything you need to know about how little effort they've put into this.  Their biggest miscalculation by far was the assumption that Leon Cannizzaro's endorsement would prove to be some kind of asset.

Cannizzaro endorses Charbonnet

Instead it is a millstone around Desiree's neck as Cannizzaro's outrageous abuses continue to draw the ire of criminal justice reformers who, only a year ago, were pointing to Charbonnet as an example of someone who took their cause seriously. She's lost those votes now.  And, while, it's probably fair to say the "Bagneris backers" really do want to see NOPD go out and crack skulls with Leon's blessing, they still wouldn't come out for Charbonnet if she announced this program from the base of a restored Liberty Place Monument.

More to the point, there are significant numbers of  "crime" voters who are appalled by Cannizzaro's retrograde tactics. There are an even larger number of voters whose neighborhoods and families are directly harmed by them. These voters also say they are "concerned about crime" when polled. We're all concerned about crime.  We have vastly different ideas about what policies address these concerns. By and large, Desi's approach has been to pander to the hard-liners while expecting her base to understand that it's just politics.  That's not gonna fly.  

Meanwhile, the Cantrell campaign developed a more sophisticated (if still cynical) way to play all sides of the crime issue.  The slogan LaToya borrowed from this early 2000s Los Angeles anti-gang campaign "Nothing Stops A Bullet Like a Job," positions her to the left of Cannizzaro but not too much so. It tells some voters that the candidate feels their pain by superficially acknowledging the relationship between crime and poverty. Meanwhile it subtly speaks to conservative Bagneris voters too by suggesting Cantrell will make those people get a job.

Cantrell took this message out on a "listening tour" of neighborhoods and various civic organizations several months prior to the primary where she managed to make inroads with voters in precincts Charbonnet's spreadsheets determined would be hers by default. Charbonnet didn't talk to anybody about anything until well after qualifying day.

It's strange that this issue should have opened such a wide gap between the two candidates. There is little substantive difference in how we should expect either to approach it as mayor. The Cannizzaro endorsement, like the similarly disappointing Charbonnet "crime plan," is all about campaign positioning.  It's right and good that criminal justice reformers criticize her for running on those planks. But they could just as soon lean on Cantrell for her platform which is scarcely any sort of improvement. Or they could interrogate Cantrell's support of tactical gear for police or surveillance cameras in the French Quarter. Or they could talk about her father-in-law's role in the exploitative cash bail system they've pegged some of Charbonnet's supporters for. Charbonnet has been slammed (again, rightly) for a nonsensical ad in which she proposes to make some sort of Uber but for police app.  But in perhaps the most shameful moment of the campaign to date, Cantrell praised Sidney Torres's app to Sidney Torres when asked by Sidney Torres to talk about Sidney Torres's app at Sidney Torres's sham forum

Frankly, both of these campaigns are nothing short of shameful in their approach to an issue most voters put at or near the top of their priorities list. At a time when more progressive movements are making surprising gains in local races across the country by taking serious stands against abusive and racist police tactics, the top candidates for mayor in New Orleans offer only smarmy platitudes and insincere triangulation. Voters deserved a thorough public debate about our dysfunctional, dangerous, and corrupt criminal justice system.  Instead we've had to settle for a dismal contest of cynical tactics.  And in that contest, Cantrell's more competently deployed smarm has been enough to weather Charbonnet's ham fisted flailing.

We're no nearer to solving this problem. But we are nearer to electing a mayor with no clearer mandate to right the ship than the previous one had. And, really, isn't that what it's all about? It's been an inspiring year. This is only the first of post of this series and already I want to drown in a flooded street.

Next we'll continue to draw inspiration by looking at how the infamous "natives vs transplants" dynamic has managed to distract from more serious and relevant issues to practically everyone's detriment... except LaToya's.

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