STREETCAR: Election of the Century
As mayoral elections go, it was a doozy. The outcome would forever change the course of – and the players in – New Orleans politics. This year marks the 60th anniversary of that campaign.
Hard times often breed new leadership, and New Orleans was a laboratory for such in 1946 as the nation looked for a better life after World War II.
GIs and sailors were returning home, feeling perplexed about the future. They had been plucked from daily life to go to war, yet they were confident and cocky from having saved the world.
Among those arriving was a 33-year-old colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves named deLesseps “Chep” Morrison. Though he was also an incumbent state legislator from an Uptown district who had been re-elected in absentia while in Europe, politics was not a high priority for him when he returned. His plans were simple: resume his law practice and take a vacation with his wife and young son.
Then his life took a sudden change.
Robert Maestri was the ultimate machine mayor. At his best, he was competent and able to accomplish things. At his worst, he spent too much time on the machinations of machine politics, and he was inarticulate. His handlers frequently cringed at his tendency to say the wrong things in public.
In those days, elections were decided by political party primaries, and the only one that mattered was that of the Democrats. Whoever won was, in effect, elected. Machine politicians ruled, but the so-called Reformers had begun gnawing away at them. These were generally the better-educated of the native-born middle class, who thought, with some justification, that the machines governed too much for their own benefit.
In a city in which many voters profited from the machines, the urge to reform was subdued, and the number of reform politicians was minuscule, so the Reformers took who they could get. Joachim “Bathtub” Fernandez, a former congressman, was given his nickname by members of the press who noted that whenever they phoned him his wife replied that he was in the tub. Fernandez stepped out of the tub long enough to become the Reformers’ standard bearer. However, he did not bear it for long. Only two days before qualifying closed, Fernandez dropped out of the race. Skeptics would think and historians would later prove that a deal had been brokered. Bathtub had sent the Reform movement down the drain.
Then someone remembered Morrison. He was young, handsome and smart. With less than 48 hours before qualifying closed, Morrison entered the race. He had nothing to lose. A defeat would be understandable, a win heroic.
There are times when democracy creates its own drama, building to a bellowing crescendo. The curtain
Doing much of the street work for the Reformers were women, many of them idealistic older ladies determined to bring about change. “Them widow women beat me,” Maestri muttered after his shocking defeat by 4,372 votes. There were other reasons, as Edward F. Hass explained in his book DeLesseps S. Morrison and the Image of Reform. The Maestri camp had been too complacent in its campaign. Then there was the fervor of the time. When Morrison was introduced as a candidate, he was wearing his Army uniform. The old bosses seemed outdated to young men, now voters, with stories to tell about Normandy, Iwo Jima and the Bulge.
An oft-quoted comment about the outcome was made by a local hotel manager who said that on the “day after the election, the two most surprised individuals in New Orleans were Maestri and Morrison.”
As mayor, Morrison would have his critics, but he certainly changed local politics. He was in his second term when a new city charter passed, which included a two-term limit for future mayors. Morrison was the last mayor able to be elected in four successive elections. Every mayor since has served two terms; none has been defeated for re-election. For the next two decades just about every name that was important in local politics rose through the ranks via Morrison’s organization.
“Circumstances make a president,” Abraham Lincoln said. The same is true of mayors. And sometimes the more dramatic the circumstances, the more dramatic the change.