Last night’s runoff elections concluded the 2011 election cycle in Louisiana. Who won last night? The answer depends on which elections you’re looking at. In this installment, we will look at the three remaining races on the BESE (Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) board that were decided last night.
We had noted after the primary that BESE races were a continual source of frustration for conservatives and/or education reformers, as their candidates usually could not compete against a formidable coalition of populist Democratic voters that included blacks, teachers unions, and those connected to state or local governments.
In 2011, the business community, with Baton Rouge contractor Lane Grigsby as their quarterback, decided to invest their resources in the BESE races. These efforts were met with success: in the October primary, three incumbents were defeated, and three more races went into a runoff. The reformers’ similarly scored a clean sweep in the runoff elections, as their candidates (one Republican and two black Democrats) defeated their opponents, who were strongly supported by the teachers unions.
What makes these victories notable was that, for once, the teachers unions had very little clout in the broader black community outside of the traditional black power structure. The most notable example of this was in District 8 (which covers territory between Baton Rouge and Lafayette), where political newcomer Carolyn Hill (a black Democrat) received 58% of the runoff vote. The way she achieved this victory was a good case study of the rise of new political coalitions.
In the primary, Hill faced three opponents. One (Domoine Rutledge) was supported by the teachers unions and traditional black political leaders. Another (Russell Armstrong) was co endorsed by the business lobby. There was also a white Independent named Jimmy Guillory. In the past, the result would have been preordained: Rutledge would have faced Guillory in the runoff, and Rutledge would have then received 55-60% of the runoff vote (about 60% of the voters are black).
That’s not what happened in this race. In the primary, Carolyn Hill built a multiracial coalition of moderate black politicians and Christian conservatives. This, combined with the co endorsement of the main business group, enabled her to garner 20% of the white vote and 33% of the black vote in the primary. Rutledge actually ran last, despite his support from unions/most black political leaders, as he only received 36% of the black vote and 9% of the white vote. In the runoff, Hill was able to expand her base with white voters by getting an impressive 33% of that voter bloc. Because she was not the preferred choice of traditional black political organizations/politicians, she only received 80% of the black vote (historically, blacks in contested races against a white candidate received at least 90% of the black vote). This is an impressive coalition she assembled, because this district historically was a populist union/Democratic stronghold.
The black electorate exhibited similar independence in the BESE race for the black majority district in New Orleans/the River Parishes, although in this case, two black Democrats made the runoff. While the incumbent, Louella Givens, had the support of the teachers unions, she had the baggage of a 1.3 million dollar tax lien on her house and a DWI arrest, while her opponent, Teach For America executive Kira Orange Jones, had the endorsements of Senator Mary Landrieu, retiring Senate President Joel Chaisson, and several other black elected officials. In the primary, Jones actually led 39-31% by essentially running even in the black community (she trailed only 36-37% against Givens) and amassing an impressive 63-14% lead with the white vote. This coalition enabled Jones to defeat the incumbent 57-43% in the runoff, which was attained by Jones’ getting 71% of the white vote and 44% of the black vote.
The reformers’ third victory was in District 6 (Baton Rouge/the Florida Parishes), where first term Republican incumbent (and the ringleader of the reformers) Chas Roemer scored a 57-43% win over Donald Songy, who had the wholehearted endorsement of the teachers unions. This victory was not unexpected, however, as there were Republican votes to spare – Vitter carried this district 68-26% last year.
In conclusion, the BESE races were noteworthy for two reasons: (1) education reform (in terms of charter schools, school choice, performance grading of schools, and the like) is an issue that both unites the disparate elements of the conservative bloc and separates a black voters from the teachers unions; (2) the old political paradigm of black candidates’ only being electorally viable if they have the express consent of the network of ministers and politicians has been discredited. Ironically, this is an unintended consequence of the creation of more “majority minority” districts – these new districts now have a significant minority of white voters whose votes now must be sought by black politicians if they want to win. Carolyn Hill and Kira Orange Jones clearly recognized this new electoral reality, while their opponents did not.
In the next installment, we will discuss the legislative races. Below is the map of BESE districts in effect for the 2011 elections.