Are you nuts?
The overwhelming majority of NOLA's District C voters live on the West Bank and no East Bank candidate has won the council seat in more than four decades. Despite the odds, a French Quarter resident, writer and activist throws his signature hat in the ring.
- by Frank Perez
Last year when I first considered running for City Council, I floated the idea by more than a few friends. Their universal reactions were supportive, surprised at first, but very encouraging. And then, after digesting the news, they all had the same question: “Was I nuts?”
They had a point. The job is not easy and carries an enormous amount of responsibility. The challenges the city currently faces seem insurmountable. Just running a campaign is enough to give pause to any sane person. Offering oneself up for public service is not something a lot of people are willing to do – especially at a time when our politics have become so divisive and dirty.
I thought long and hard about making a run. Was I willing to make the commitment it takes to run a viable campaign? Was I dedicated enough to follow through? Was I prepared for the public spotlight and loss of anonymity? And what about the overwhelming task of raising money?
I turned these questions over and over in my mind for over a month, vacillating back and forth before deciding to pull the trigger. I knew I would be a good candidate and I knew I could make a difference if I won. Ultimately, it came down to a simple question. Is the race even winnable? Yes, I concluded. Yes, it was.
Some disagreed with me, although not to my face. It was nothing personal. It’s just that most of the voters in my district, “C,” live on the Westbank and someone from the Eastbank has not been elected to the seat in over 40 years. Plus, I’m not a political insider and I’ve never run for office before. Not a lot of people gave me a chance, but that didn’t bother me. I like being underestimated – have been my whole life.
In the end, I came in a close third in a field of seven candidates. Although I missed the run-off by 500 votes, I have absolutely no regrets about running. I’m proud of what I accomplished and overall, it was a great experience. I met a lot of great people (and some not so great people).
And of course, I learned a few things.
The first thing I learned is that not all endorsements are made equal. Endorsements from other politicians are often made at the direction of the machine or organization that helped elect those officeholders. A candidate’s position on the issues or experience and abilities have virtually nothing to do with these endorsements. Furthermore, the “establishment” usually decides to back a candidate long before qualifying even opens for the race.
Group endorsements are a different matter. Many special interest / political groups at least pretend to base their endorsements on merit. They will go through the motions of sending out questionnaires to candidates and hosting candidate forums, but most of the time, the endorsee is pre-selected with them as well.
Political machines routinely enroll voting members in these groups long before campaigns even begin. When they eventually anoint a candidate, the members know how to vote. Some groups don’t even bother sending out questionnaires, holding forums, or even interviewing candidates; rather, they simply sell their endorsements to the highest bidder. That may be crass, but at least it’s honest.
Sometimes, groups will simply fail to invite a candidate to its forum. For example, the local chapter of a prominent national organization neglected to invite me to its forum and did the same thing to a trans candidate in another race. The chapter leader claimed he had the wrong email addresses for both of us, which I thought was odd. The only two email addresses you got wrong for all the candidates city-wide just happened to be the only two LGBTQ candidates?
Also, newspaper and magazine endorsements cannot always be trusted. Some of these publications send their advertising rates along with their questionnaires. A candidate who does not buy a campaign advertisement in the publication is automatically at a disadvantage, but this is not always the case. I was proud to be endorsed by The Louisiana Weekly and Ambush Magazine. I was also “recommended” by Antigravity based on my policy positions.
I was happy to have legitimately earned several endorsements, but I knew that alone would not be enough to win the race. I didn’t have a huge financial war-chest for advertising, so I decided to knock on as many doors as I could. Canvassing the district, I learned that knocking on doors is a lot like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.
Some people were highly annoyed, most were not. Some people told me about issues important to them, mostly crime. Others asked me questions about my views. A lot of people asked me about short-term-rentals. One lady asked me if I could help her kid with his math homework, which I did.
I also learned that most early voters are elderly. If you ever need a hip-replacement in Algiers, I can tell you all about it. One gentleman interrupted me while I was telling him about my campaign website, gruffly exclaiming in a grizzled voice, “We didn’t have any damn internet when I was coming up.”
A district divided by a river – and more
As I was campaigning, many people were surprised to learn that District C includes all of Algiers in addition to the French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater, and parts of Treme, St. Roch, and St. Claude. It truly is a diverse district, perhaps the most diverse of all five City Council districts. This diversity is not only geographical, but also cultural as well as socio-economic. During the campaign, I learned that both sides of the river feel neglected by whomever is in office.
70% of the voters in the district live in Algiers and an Algerine has held the District C seat since the 1980s. As the French Quarter candidate, I pointed this out to Algiers audiences and suggested maybe they should elect someone who would not take their votes for granted and truly earn them. After, all, I would say, Algiers has held the seat for decades and you’re still complaining about the same things. That message, however, apparently did not resonate.
Although I didn’t do as well across the river as I had hoped I would, I swept nearly all of the Eastbank precincts. The run-off candidates were both Algerines.
Going into the race, I knew Algiers was an Albatross around my neck – it always has been for Eastbank candidates. Nevertheless, given the field of candidates and the demographics of the district, there was a path to victory.
This path depended on me doing better in a few key precincts in Algiers and a few of the Algiers candidates doing better than they did. And no one could guess the ultimate winner would garner 44% of the vote in the open primary. That surprised a lot of political observers. The other run-off candidate won 16% of the vote. I finished with 12%.
The election results confirmed what I thought (and heard) throughout the race – District C needs to be redistricted. Almost everyone on the Eastbank agrees that Algiers should be excised from the Eastbank and given its own district. Still others believe the French Quarter, given its cultural and economic role in the city, should have its own district.
That sounds great, but the City Charter stipulates that each of the city’s five geographical districts be of roughly equal population. Politicians from Algiers like the district the way it is since Algiers, with over 2/3s of the district’s voters, essentially controls the vote. I quietly argued on the Eastbank that if Algiers was ever going to be separated from the district, there needed to be an Eastbanker sitting at the re-districting table.
I say quietly because I needed Westbank votes. Also, I was reluctant to talk extensively about my plans for the French Quarter given the French Quarter represents only a tiny sliver of the district’s voters.
I had hoped to elaborate on my plans and vision for the French Quarter at the VCPORA (Vieux Carre Property Owners and Residents Association) forum (co-sponsored by residential associations in the Treme and Marigny), which is usually late in the campaign, but Hurricane Ida and other factors led neighborhood leaders to schedule the forum after the first vote and feature only the two run-off candidates.
Had I been in that forum, I would have said that in all the years I’ve lived and worked in the French Quarter, I’ve never seen it in worse shape than it is now. The litany of ills is familiar to all who live here: crime, over-tourism, incompetent sanitation companies, rampant graffiti, illegal short-term rentals, a neglected homeless population, lack of affordable housing, and a general lack of enforcement on everything from the juvenile curfew to the noise ordinance.
Overall, I firmly believe what the French Quarter needs more than anything is not a “reimagining,” as the mayor would have it, but rather more permanent residents.
Neighbors are what make a neighborhood and the community of neighbors in the French Quarter has been shrinking for decades. In 1940, the Quarter had a residential population of over 11,000. Eighty years later, that number is closer to 3,000.
This loss of permanent residents is accompanied by the loss of small businesses that cater to those residents. Also lost is a genuine sense of community. Despite all the fascinating history and amazing architecture, it’s people that give a neighborhood its flavor. The Quarter has always been home to eccentric, oddball characters and if the current trend continues that will disappear too. And then what will we be left with? A once authentic neighborhood that has degenerated into a shell of its former self, a theme park for tourists.
Some might argue that’s already happened, but I’m not ready to give up. Granted, it’s already hard enough to live in this sacred enclave and it’s only getting worse. I ran for City Council because I wanted to change that trend. Am I nuts for thinking that’s possible? Perhaps I am. Love makes people do a lot of crazy things.
And that includes running for office.
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Frank Perez serves as President of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana and has authored four books on New Orleans history and teaches part-time at Loyola University. He is also a licensed tour-guide. He and his partner live in the French Quarter. You may contact him through his website, www.FrenchQuarterFrank.com.
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