Does Monroe’s recent mayoral election provide a model for Louisiana Republicans to follow to take back governance of many of the state’s large cities?
Last week, independent Friday Ellis not only defeated 19-year incumbent Democrat Mayor Jamie Mayo, but he did it without needing a runoff. And he did it as a white candidate in a constituency with 63 percent black registration.
Ellis – military veteran, former city employee, small business owner – at first would seem typical of the low-profile candidates who almost exclusively challenged Mayo since his winning a special election in 2001 and whom Mayo usually brushed aside easily. But Mayo was more vulnerable this year than most.
After his nearly two decades in office, the city continued to decline in population and to see an exodus of economic opportunity, symbolized by its most influential employer by far Fortune 500-listee CenturyLink gradually exiting the city. Mayo, who is black, also alienated white voters with his odd tribute to Louis Farrakhan, controversial for racist orations, in 2018.
Perhaps Mayo didn’t think he needed white support to win in the current environment, and he was correct in the sense that failure to drum up much of that wasn’t the main reason he lost. In the five precincts with 95 percent or greater white registration (that aren’t split precincts; keep in mind with roughly half of turnout coming through early voting reduces the reliability of these data) he drew on average only 8 percent of the vote, while Ellis picked an average of 90 percent in these.
The turnout skew by race magnified this advantage for Ellis. District 1 has a large white majority and District 2 is swing in racial composition, but had turnouts of about 50 and 40 percent, while the other three majority-black districts combined didn’t crack 30 percent. Adding another 10 percent to each and Mayo almost would have caught Ellis and forced a runoff (other minor candidates snagged 10 percent of the vote). Black apathy about Mayo cost him more than lack of white enthusiasm for him.
But the real cause of his inability to force a runoff he could have won came because Ellis picked up disproportionately more votes in swing and black-majority precincts. In the three precincts with each having black and white registrants of 40 percent, Ellis won convincingly two and barely trailed in the other. And in the 13 precincts with at least 90 percent black registrants, he averaged 15 percent of the vote while Mayo didn’t even average two-thirds.
A white challenger doesn’t pull those numbers against a black incumbent unless there’s a lot of dissatisfaction. Clearly after nearly two decades of Mayo at the city’s helm enough black voters not just rejected the notion he could turn things around but also were willing to throw in their lot with a white non-Democrat as the only other perceived credible candidate.
And that’s perhaps the major reason why this victory will be difficult for Republicans to engineer elsewhere – even if they follow Ellis’ model and don’t run as one. As it was, Ellis had everything Republican about him except his label, which he cannily knew enough not to use in his electoral environment.
A review of his campaign finance documents shows a smattering of Republican activists and past prolific donors both locally and across the state. GOP state Rep. Mike Echols and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry backed him from the start. Most significantly, as a Republican his wife Ashley last year resoundingly won the area’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education seat, which undoubtedly helped him in gathering campaign support (and in the span of less than a year makes them go from political unknowns to the premier political power couple in northeast Louisiana).
That built-in advantage doesn’t exist in the state’s other urban areas with majority black populations: New Orleans, Shreveport, and Alexandria. More importantly, only Alexandria doesn’t have term limits; the two-term limit in New Orleans and Shreveport eliminates the possibility of voters growing disappointed at an entrenched politician that opens the door for an outsider to knock off an incumbent who stays past his political shelf life.
So, Republicans should savor the Ellis victory, but not expect that it shows how to steal a usually sure Democrat office in large Louisiana cities except in unusual circumstances.