New Orleans vote swayed by leaflet fiasco: Patrick Cockburn on an alleged votes scam that shocked a crime-hardened city

IT IS NOT easy to shock the electorate of New Orleans, probably the most corrupt city in America, but dirty tricks used in the mayoral election just passed came close. Even the most cynical local observers admitted surprise when Donald Mintz, running as the candidate who would clean up the city, was accused of distributing viciously anti- Semitic and racist leaflets attacking himself.

On election day on Saturday Mr Mintz saw thousands of voters desert him in disgust, ensuring that New Orleans, unlike Los Angeles and New York last year, did not replace a black with a white mayor. Mr Mintz's own political career is probably over.

The scandal first broke on 31 January when a worker in the Mintz campaign by the name of Napolean Moses was identified by police investigators as he handed over a bundle of leaflets and dollars 600 ( pounds 400) to a distributor in a deserted car park at 3am. One entitled 'Just Vote No' accused Mr Mintz of being a Jewish elitist who should not be allowed to 'lead a majority black city'.

Marc Morial, Mr Mintz's 36-year- old opponent and son of the city's first black mayor, says the leaflets were an attempt to discredit him. Mr Mintz, a neatly dressed 50-year- old lawyer with a somewhat glacial personality, denies knowing anything about them. But his campaign admits that it had raised dollars 200,000 by sending this and other anti-Semitic leaflets to potential Jewish contributors outside Louisiana.

Forging leaflets in order to sabotage an opponent is not unknown in Louisiana. But many of them were very crude appeals to racial hatred. One of the worst, entitled 'Let's make Mintz meat and molasses' states that 'Jews have a gutter-ditch religion, sacrificing animals and Anglo-children in rituals'. A neutral commission decided that at least two of the leaflets had come from inside the Mintz campaign.

The leaflet affair is now seen as the turning point of the election. Some 59 per cent of the electorate in New Orleans is black, but older blacks, disillusioned with the scandal-ridden administration of the current black mayor, Sydney Barthelemy, and distrustful of Mr Morial's youth, were inclining towards Mr Mintz. Susan Howell, a pollster at New Orleans University, says: 'If the election had been held two weeks ago, Mintz would have won. The leaflets robbed him of momentum at a crucial moment.'

This was borne out by this weekend's elections. Mr Morial, an eloquent and effective politician, won 54 per cent of the vote, but an exit poll showed that 46 per cent of his supporters said they were deeply influenced by the leaflet controversy. As the white candidate Mr Mintz could only win if he convinced enough blacks that he was different from the corrupt demagogues of the past. He may have been on the verge of success when the scandal struck.

The fact that Mr Mintz stood a chance of winning is a measure of the sense of desperation in New Orleans. An attractive but run-down city, its 495,000 people depend on the tourists who visit the restaurants of the old French quarter and the swamps of the Mississippi delta. It also has a well-earned reputation for violence, with the murder rate running at more than one a day this year and a total of 1,569 murders since 1989. Sergeant Barry Fletcher of the New Orleans police says: 'There was an immediate increase in violence when cocaine first came to the city in 1986 and 90 per cent of killings are drug-related.'

New Orleans has all the problems of other American cities but in an extreme form because it is poorer and more corrupt. Carl Galmon, who counsels black teenagers in trouble with the law at the Urban League, says: 'Unemployment among youth is over 40 per cent. The army used to be the one place they could get a job but now they are slimming down.' In the last days of his campaign Marc Morial told a group of young black students that 'we need less Uzis and more books'. The real problem is not education but the loss of jobs in the docks and heavy industry.

Sergeant Fletcher says the police had a brief success in cutting the murder rate by aggressive patrols that forced crack dealers off the streets, but they had to stop because of political pressure. A local civil rights lawyer said these sweeps were for political show and the queues outside crack houses often stretch out to the street without the police interfering. A drug wholesaler in two public housing projects reputedly estimated his monthly income at dollars 1.1m, of which he paid the police dollars 50,000.

Tolerance of corruption, extreme violence and poverty make Louisiana feel like a piece of Latin America that has unaccountably drifted north across the Caribbean. No other state has such blatant corruption. When the governor, Edwin Edwards, defeated the former Nazi, David Duke, in the 1991 election his supporters, recalling that Mr Edwards had stood trial for bribery, produced a bumper sticker saying: 'Vote for the Crook. It's important.' In 1989 in New Orleans a whistle-blower, who revealed that some 300 bars controlled by the mob were not paying sales tax, was simply strangled.

Does it matter who runs New Orleans? Richer and better managed cities have been unable to stop their economies withering as better-off whites and businesses move to the suburbs. Last week the city council finally agreed to a plan to build the world's largest casino beside the French Quarter, but most of the profits will go to the state. In the past most reformers have either been bought off or isolated by the local political elite, who do not want change. It is a measure of the corruption in Louisiana that Mr Mintz - by all accounts an honest if ambitious man - or somebody in his campaign should have thought the only way for a reformer to get elected was to set up his own dirty tricks department.

(Graphic omitted)

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