Politics & Policy

The Big Sleazy

Politics in New Orleans, Louisiana.

EDITOR’S NOTE:Election fraud has a rich history. These reporting pieces appeared in the December 23, 1996, and February 10, 1997, issues of National Review, both by Rich Lowry.

Bob Tucker, dressed down in a “New Orleans” sweatshirt and blue jeans, looks every bit the satisfied civic booster. Plaques on his office wall from civic and business groups tout his service and accomplishments; in one picture he beams as he stands next to President Clinton. Tucker is indeed emblematic of success, Big Easy style: He’s best friends with the mayor; his business looks to be benefiting handsomely from the connection; and he is plugged into a political machine that demonstrated its clout with a clean sweep on November 5, delivering everything from local judgeships to the scalp of Republican senatorial candidate Woody Jenkins.

#ad#Tucker helped run the election campaign of his long-time friend Mayor Marc Morial and has contributed thousands of dollars to its coffers. In New Orleans, this makes him uniquely qualified as a city contractor. Tucker has won roughly $800,000 worth of contracts from the Morial administration. In the case of one housing study, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Tucker came in with the second-highest of six bids, won the contract anyway, got paid 50 percent more than he had originally bid, then produced a laughable document that drew the scorn of federal housing officials.

If Mayor Morial obeys the first rule of machine politics (reward your friends), he also, with the help of lieutenants like Tucker, obeys the second: turn out your vote. New Orleans politics is dominated by a handful of black political organizations with acronyms like BOLD and SOUL; the mayor’s is called LIFE. “The organization is a very disciplined street organization,” Tucker explains. “What we do is handle it in almost military fashion in terms of the planning of it. I’ve always contended that the one thing you can control in politics is your election-day activity and how that event rolls out.”

How exactly November 5 rolled out may be the focus of scrutiny for quite some time. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Woody Jenkins alleges a series of irregularities that tipped his contest to Democrat Mary Landrieu by 5,788 votes. His campaign has yet to produce hard evidence of fraud. What’s clear is that on November 5 a political machine not noted for its scruples (see contracting practices above) pulled out all the stops to win in an environment flush with gambling money, in a state where corruption is endemic, in a blitzkrieg fashion that makes Ralph Reed look like an organizational amateur.

The operational style of LIFE and other groups isn’t so much retail as five-and-dime. Phone banks identify sympathetic voters precinct by precinct; then it’s a matter of getting them to the polls. The mayor’s political appointees and paid election workers met on November 5 at a New Orleans church, split up into teams armed with cellular phones, and fanned out across the city, waving signs at intersections, knocking on doors. “Runners” periodically checked the vote totals at each precinct. If turnout was low, phone banks would make directed calls into that particular precinct, or “blitz teams” would be dispatched to bang on doors.

“Down here,” explains Tucker, “we can tell by about three o’clock whether we won or lost an election.” By early afternoon on November 5 exit polls showed Mary Landrieu trailing Woody Jenkins by about 4 points. So, Miss Landrieu piled into the back of a red convertible with Morial for a final push through the New Orleans projects. “We hooked up a motorcade to go through those areas where we knew there to be pro-Landrieu vote,” Tucker says. The parade would briefly stop, workers in surrounding vehicles would jump out to pound on doors in a six-to-seven-block area, then the motorcade would reassemble and move on to the next neighborhood.

When it was all over Mary Landrieu had narrowly won, on the strength of a whopping 100,000 margin in New Orleans. It was a triumph of organization, of work–and of money. Street politics in New Orleans doesn’t happen without it. “The way the system works,” says long-time New Orleans political consultant Jim Carvin, “is that you approach a candidate or people who are supporting an issue and say, ‘We have met and we have decided to support you. This is our [sample] ballot which we are going to distribute in our neighborhood (or to all voters across the city), and your share of the cost of the ballot is X percent.”‘ If the candidate or organization doesn’t cough up the cash, the endorsement may never materialize.

“It’s very important, you’ve got to have money to feed the troops and give them a little stipend out there,” says one black politician. “If you don’t pay them, they don’t show up.” This year a ready source of money would have been the Louisiana gambling interests, caught up in recent scandals involving mob ties and bribes to state legislators. These interests were banking heavily on black support to help win a series of local-option elections across the state. There is a prohibition on gambling interests contributing to candidates or groups that support candidates–but, so what? “We had most groups come to us asking for money,” says a spokesman for Harrah’s, the New Orleans land-based casino. (Harrah’s says it made no contributions.)

But gambling interests could spend freely on their own campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts. Estimates of spending statewide are in the $ 8 million range, with some of that filtering onto the street in New Orleans. Campaign-finance documents show a $125,000 street effort by the casinos, modest by New Orleans standards, but part of the mix of hyperactive street machine and free-flowing gambling money in which the Jenkins camp alleges that improprieties occurred.

“We think that the other side panicked and that a lot of things happened that probably shouldn’t happen,” says Jenkins. Proving it under Louisiana law is another matter. The election code stipulates that an election challenge must be filed on or before the ninth day after an election. The trial must begin four days after that. It’s an impossible schedule, especially considering that Jenkins was denied access to New Orleans election records until the day before his challenge was due.

As a result, Jenkins dropped his challenge in state court, but vows to take it to the U.S. Senate (which is the ultimate arbiter of its own membership). The Jenkins campaign has been poring through voter-registration cards, comparing the signatures on them to the signatures on the sign-in sheets on Election Day; mismatches could mean someone other than the registered voter showed up at the polls. Establishing real mismatches–signatures change over time–is a speculative business. Nonetheless, the Jenkins campaign contends it has found some 440 after a search through less than 2 percent of the state’s precincts. The campaign has also found a discrepancy between the number of votes recorded on voting machines and the number of people who signed in on Election Day; this discrepancy could mean as many as 1,500 “phantom votes” (possible explanations run from innocent human error to someone ringing up extra votes on the machines).

None of this makes for a particularly strong case, and in Louisiana many Republicans who are convinced as a matter of faith that Jenkins was robbed are at the same time skeptical that he’ll be able to prove it. Finding hard evidence among the projects of New Orleans has been difficult. The Jenkins camp suspects massive “vote-hauling” in New Orleans (illegally paying drivers to take people to the polls), but has turned up its hardest evidence in rural areas. One teller at a bank in Coushatta, La., reports that a woman cashed a $50 check from the Democratic party on November 5 and explained that it was given “to me to haul my kind of people to vote.” Two other $50 checks from the party showed up the next day.

Jenkins investigators in inner-city New Orleans say they regularly hear stories of people voting multiple times, of poll commissioners pulling the lever for candidates during slack times at the polls, of people voting on behalf of dead voters. (The federal motor-voter law, which requires the states to leave “inactive” voters on the rolls, creates opportunities for this kind of malfeasance.) But sworn affidavits from witnesses are hard to come by, and the campaign has been reluctant to provide evidence it has gathered to reporters. One Jenkins investigator swears to an interview with a resident of the city’s 9th ward who was disgruntled because he hadn’t been paid his promised $3,700. A local judicial candidate then called and allegedly threatened the resident if he continued to talk. (In a separate incident, New Orleans police were called to the law office of one local judicial candidate on November 7, when 20 to 25 campaign workers showed up demanding to be paid; they were referred to one of the street organizations.)

In Louisiana, where even the election code talks of “a long-standing history of election problems,” Jenkins’s allegations, even if nebulous, deserve attention. For his part, Mayor Morial is dismissive. The natty-looking 38-year-old with a football player’s build has a world-conquering handshake and sports red suspenders nearly two inches wide. Asked about Jenkins’s charges, he grimaces: “His whole rhetoric, the whole approach, the whole attitude smacks of Nazism.” Were $50 checks handed out to “volunteers” on election day? “That’s not uncommon, that’s not illegal,” Morial says. “I call that true red-white-and-blue American politics.” It behooves the Senate to find out exactly what else qualifies as all-American in New Orleans.

* * *

The Louisiana Independent Federation of Electors, Inc. (LIFE) is arguably the most powerful political force in New Orleans. Operated by the city’s mayor–the cocksure 39-year-old Marc Morial–and his political associates, it exerted a decisive influence in November’s elections, putting a small army of workers on the street on election day. It is to monitor the activities of just such big-stakes political players that Louisiana and the federal government have campaign-finance laws. And it is exactly to escape such scrutiny that LIFE flouts all of them, failing to register or file reports with the Louisiana Board of Ethics, the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office, or the Federal Election Commission.

LIFE is an outlaw political group at least in this sense–and perhaps in others as well. After months of combing through New Orleans election records and interviewing city residents, Republican Woody Jenkins’s campaign has compiled a stunning array of evidence to suggest that Democrat Mary Landrieu’s slim 5,788-vote victory over him in November’s Senate race was tainted by widespread corruption, including the outright buying of votes.

At the center of the alleged misconduct in Louisiana are LIFE and the well-heeled gambling interests that helped deliver New Orleans for Mary Landrieu by more than 100,000 votes. The Jenkins campaign conducted a dozen interviews with New Orleans residents–all of them living in the inner city–who say they were promised cash for voting. With the understanding that the names of the interviewees would be withheld, the Jenkins campaign allowed NR to review the tapes. The number of illegal votes accounted for in the interviews isn’t more than 50 or so. But the illegal practices recounted seem to implicate Mayor Morial’s political organization in blatant wrongdoing, and to suggest a larger pattern of illegality that puts the integrity of Miss Landrieu’s victory in serious doubt.

‐ One New Orleans woman explained to a Jenkins investigator that she “was sitting on my porch when this nice person drove up in a . . . car and asked me whether or not I was registered voter or not. And I told him I was but I didn’t feel like going. And he said, ‘Well, if I paid you would you go then?’ And quite naturally, a ride and the money, I got up and dusted off my little pants and got in the car.” The woman, who couldn’t read, says the man, working off a yellow (LIFE-produced) sample ballot, marked how she was to vote and then took her to three different locations where she voted and signed her name “X” each time.

‐ A New Orleans man told a Jenkins investigator that he went to three different polling places and voted at each four or five times. He says he was paid $60 for each stop, was carried in a van with several other people, and was handed a yellow sample ballot that fits the description of the LIFE sample ballot (differently colored sample ballots, distributed in massive quantities on election day, are the hallmarks of the various New Orleans political organizations). The man says he didn’t have to sign in or stand in line at the various polling places.

‐ “Well, my friend had asked me did I want to go vote,” another New Orleans woman told a Jenkins investigator. “She said they was paying people to go vote for this person. I say who was the person? She say Mary, Mary Landrieu.” The woman got in a van that had three bench seats behind the driver and was driven to three polling places and given a LIFE sample ballot off which to vote. She was promised $25 for each stop. “Hey, hey all I got was $25!” she complains in the interview. “We went to three places. The agreement was we was supposed to get $25 each place.” As consolation, she was given a Mary Landrieu T-shirt: “They promise you, and then they going give us ol’ stanky T-shirt with her picture on it.” (She threw the T-shirt away in a dumpster.)

All the interviews follow a similar pattern: An election worker promises someone money to vote; he transports him to the polls in a car or van full of people; he gives him a LIFE ballot to show him for whom and for what to vote; the voter either signs his name at multiple polling places or doesn’t sign at all or, in one case, signs someone else’s name. Some of the interviews suggest a fairly well-organized effort. One woman says that she was taken in a van to a polling place where she voted twice, once in her own name, the second time in a name given to her by the driver. She says the driver selected who would vote at which polling places.

The interviews also suggest that polling commissioners–often long-serving local residents who are cozy with the neighborhood’s political operators–were active participants in the illegalities, allowing selected voters to jump lines at polling places and to vote without signing their names or being checked for identification. One man who says he stood in line for an hour and a half at one polling place complained to a Jenkins investigator that twice he saw four vans pull up full of people who were allowed to jump the line and vote immediately: “They wasn’t signing the book or nothin’. Just goin’ in and comin’ back out.”

It’s not an accident that multiple voters would end up with LIFE sample ballots in their hands. An integral part of Mayor Morial’s patronage-fed political machine, LIFE had an enormous presence on the streets of New Orleans on Election Day. Among the roughly one thousand LIFE street workers were more than a hundred unclassified city employees–i.e., political appointees–assigned to its headquarters for the day (another hundred were assigned to other Democratic campaigns throughout the city). In theory, such work is voluntary. In practice, city workers seem compelled to do the mayor’s political bidding.

According to a sworn affidavit by Victor M. Ortiz, a former assistant city attorney, his immediate supervisor, City Attorney Avis Marie Russell, convened a meeting on Monday, October 28, at which she said “that it was mandatory . . . that all unclassified employees report for campaign activities for Nov. 2 and Nov. 5 or that there would be ‘consequences.”‘ Mr. Ortiz maintains that on Election Day Miss Russell told him to report for campaign work or resign. She disputes his account. But in a letter responding to his resignation, she writes, “At no time during my tenure as City Attorney have you indicated any problem with participating in campaign activities” (emphasis in original).

All along, the Jenkins campaign has maintained that it was the intersection of interests between the LIFE machine and gambling companies that created the conditions for Election Day corruption on a massive scale. There were local-option initiatives on the ballot in New Orleans asking for voter approval of video poker, riverboat gambling, and a New Orleans land-based casino. Altogether, gambling interests spent an estimated $8 to $10 million statewide. The New Orleans-based Harrah’s Jazz, the currently bankrupt licensee for the land-based casino, was authorized by a federal judge to spend some $1 million. Mayor Morial opposed the New Orleans casino when he was a state senator, but conveniently switched convictions last year, putting LIFE on the side of the flood of gambling money.

It made for a perfect confluence of interests: LIFE with its deep roots in the community, the gambling interests with their deep pockets. While the gambling interests had no particular stake in electing Mary Landrieu, they would have wanted to help their crucial new friend, Marc Morial, for whom electing Miss Landrieu was a key political goal. Harrah’s, according to a campaign-finance filing immediately after the election, hired about a thousand street workers on November 4 and 5. This effort was in some ways indistinguishable from LIFE’s. In interviews with Jenkins investigators, 13 out of 20 randomly selected Harrah’s Election Day workers admitted to either handing out LIFE literature or picking up their Harrah’s paychecks at LIFE offices. (Harrah’s says it distributed all checks to workers directly.)

Evidence implicates both LIFE and the gambling interests in vote hauling. In Louisiana it is illegal for a political organization to pay its workers (although they can volunteer) to drive voters to the polls because the practice has traditionally been associated with vote buying. Not only were LIFE ballots apparently handed out in the vans transporting multiple voters, but the Jenkins campaign has obtained a handful of rental agreements between LIFE workers and a rental company just outside New Orleans for vans. Also, in a transcript of a taped conversation between what the Jenkins campaign identifies as a “confidential source” and a man named “Ted,” who appears to work for a gambling company, the two discuss driving people to the polls in company vans.

The question now is what the Senate is going to do about all this. Based on the evidence produced so far there should, by rights, be a national firestorm of outrage at practices in Louisiana (remember the uproar when Christine Todd Whitman consultant Ed Rollins just let the words “walking-around money” cross his lips?). The chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee is now considering Jenkins’s evidence, and will decide probably in February whether to launch its own investigation. Mary Landrieu has taken the air out of some of the weaker aspects of Jenkins’s case (for instance, “mismatches” between signatures on voter-registration cards and precinct registers), but her response to the alleged multiple voters is essentially “It couldn’t happen here.” If a Senate investigation confirms and expands on the evidence gathered by Jenkins, people should go to jail and a new Senate election be called.

Any suggestion of a new election, of course, will provoke howls of protest from Democrats. Mary Landrieu’s defenders will maintain that she has not been directly implicated in the fraud and that no one has produced evidence of exactly 5,789 illegal votes, both of which will probably prove to be true. But when a six-year term in the U.S. Senate is at stake, the integrity of the result should be beyond a reasonable doubt. Allowing elections to stand that have been tainted by Third World electoral practices undermines the foundations of American democracy. As one soulful multiple voter told a Jenkins investigator, “The way things is going. I mean . . . it makes you not want to get out there and participate.” Tell it to Woody Jenkins.

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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