Norris Henderson and VOTE scored impressive campaign victories over the weekend. They were able to use their deep pockets and out message two opponents who enjoyed more endorsements and name recognition. If you questioned whether Henderson and VOTE would be strong players in the political landscape of this city, you might have some answers now. But also, their striking victories place more eyeballs on them. How these victories play out over time remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure. Norris Henderson knows how to win elections in this city.
A kingmaker is a person or group that has great influence on a political election, without themselves being a viable candidate. Kingmakers in local politics are the true power brokers. They work behind the scenes. Their ability to get people elected is powerful and impactful. Our laws, regulations and policies dictate our daily lives. Elected officials create these rules. And the kingmakers influence our elected officials more than any other one person or group.
District 93 -Dark Money Wins
Henderson and Vote invested huge sums of money behind two candidates. Alonzo Knox is now the elected representative of one of the most prestigious house seats in the city. Dutch Morial, Dorothy Mae Taylor and Royce Duplessis previously represented District 93. The district includes downtown New Orleans and historic neighborhoods like Treme. This campaign was fiercely fought. The personal attacks against Fox Richardson were so intense and effective that the candidate stopped debating. Usually candidates don’t cry uncle, but Richardson did. Though her past criminal involvement provided some celebrity, the political fallout was irreparable. She seemed unprepared for the constant barrage and aggressive style she faced. Also Knox was the beneficiary of a half million dark dollars and captured over 54% of the votes cast. Henderson now influences one of the state’s most prestigious district’s representative. The turnout was less than 10% in this race.
Criminal Court Race Dark Money Wins
In the biggest and most dramatic win, Henderson’s other candidate, Leon Roche stormed past Diedre Pierce Kelly to get in the runoff against Simone Levine. Kelly had more political endorsements than both of her opponents combined. And Kelly had money and an experienced team of political consultants leading her campaign. But she had a blemish from the past that Roche exploited masterfully. Additionally, Henderson’s candidate was more experienced, better qualified and had no flaws. When attacked, Ms. Kelly made a critical mistake. She attacked Henderson and not Mr. Roche, her opponent. Henderson’s disruptive distractions are transforming the political playing field before our very eyes. Roche and Simone Levine now square off in a runoff election. Again, the turnout was less than 10%.
But it is a bit early for the kingmaker’s coronation. For sure, Henderson is putting together a string of impressive victories. Sheriff Susan Hutson, Commissioner Davante Lewis, Alonzo Knox and Roche into the runoff are significant notches on his campaign victory belt. But these are all typical dark money smear campaigns. And campaign mastery is mainly about winning positive races against equally matched opponents. Still Henderson has only won one type of race. He has been able to throw lots of cash and negatively exploit the weaknesses of vulnerable local candidates. We have not seen the ability to elevate a candidate in an even field.
Related: NOLA Politics Being Disrupted
And another factor is growing. The microscope will now be squarely focused on him and his future candidates. While their attacks didn’t result in their election, Kelly and Richardson each delivered scathing and unfettered criticisms of Henderson and his organization. And will his funders continue to fund attacks on local progressive candidates? The runoff election between Roche and Levine will be a real opportunity for Henderson. Can he win a race without persona attacks? Levine does not have a criminal past or any other egregious mistake for Henderson to exploit. She is also the progressive Democrat that Henderson’s funders usually promote. The strategies and tactics of this race will unveil just how much Henderson has grown as a political strategist.
But as Henderson further sharpens his skills as a campaign donor, those defeated strategists are developing attack strategies of their own. Are we seeing the emergence of a dynamic power shift in local politics? Will Henderson have a ring to kiss for any potential candidate? Or will he simply be content to identify and pick off vulnerable opponents with his deep pockets? Money is the mother’s milk of political campaigns. But it is not a strategy. The advantage of huge sums notwithstanding, money is only a campaign tool. Winner candidates must create real policies and laws to improve our lives. Are we seeing a lust for power and influence or a real desire to make the world a better place?
The big picture is the outside money might make good people not run for office. This is a tragedy. We need smart, committed, industrious leaders making decisions about us. But highly financed negative campaigning can dramatically limit the pool of potential candidates. This could be a problem.
One thing is certain. His dark money wins are stacking up.