On Losing in New Orleans

04/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My partner, James Perry, was a candidate for mayor in New Orleans. His campaign was built on creative criminal justice ideas, environmental commitments, civil rights credentials, racial unity and a progressive vision. It was a campaign of few traditional contacts and no significant financial resources, but it was not a symbolic campaign. We worked hard to earn a spot in the runoff and we hoped ultimately to assemble a winning coalition.

On Saturday we lost badly.

Despite having five significant competitors, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu secured well over 60% of the vote. After previously unsuccessful attempts, Landrieu won supporters across all neighborhoods and demographics in the city. He is the first white candidate to win the New Orleans mayor's office in more than thirty years. With the dramatic resuscitation of a white, political dynasty in a majority African American city, it was clear how the press would cover this story.

It was also clear that James' insurgent, progressive campaign would be little more than a footnote. Yet on election night, James was genuinely upbeat about the city's future, complimentary toward his rivals, enthusiastic about what his campaign had accomplished, and grateful for the work of his supporters.

I was heartbroken. I've worked dozens of political campaigns. I've been on winning and losing teams, but this contest was personal as well as political. As the results came in, I quickly learned what a poor disposition I have for the role of political spouse. My crestfallen expression and tears were clearly upsetting to the campaign supporters, but I found it hard to feel positive.

I thought of every hour I spent making campaign calls instead of reading to my daughter. I thought about the green bucket catching water in our kitchen because we could not afford to fix the leak in our roof during a campaign that drained our personal savings. I thought of how little sleep James had managed to eke out in the past six months. I thought about our campaign manager laboring with pneumonia during the campaign's final weeks. I thought about our volunteers who made untold sacrifices in order to make thousands of calls and walk a dozen neighborhoods. I thought of our hundreds of low dollar donors who found a way to contribute $25 despite being unemployed or financially strapped.

I understood that James' candidacy was always an unlikely one. New Orleans had never elected a progressive, working-class social advocate, particularly one running in a crowded primary against established political and business figures. But late polling showed James making tremendous gains in name recognition, substantial strides in favorability ratings, and significant movement in predicted vote share. Our campaign mapped a difficult, but possible path to making the run-off. But on the eve of the Super Bowl, with historically low African American participation, and with undecided voters breaking hard for Landrieu, James' momentum was erased.

I thought I was prepared for any outcome, but on election night the waves of disappointment really hit. I even indulged the heresy of anger at our Super Bowl berth, which had clearly distracted voters and depressed turnout. I was the embodiment of a sore loser.

By morning I began to remember the reasons James entered the mayoral race in the first place. His goal and our commitment had always been to offer service and leadership. The city needed a unified vision for moving together into the future. On Saturday the city expressed consensus. Even if it did not mean a victory for James, this outcome may mean a victory for the city in the long run.

After more than a decade leading local civil rights organizations, James has a philosophy about wins and losses. He has enjoyed nationally recognized victories against racist municipal policies, like his work against restrictive housing laws in St. Bernard parish. But he has also endured significant defeats, like the inability to halt destruction of New Orleans' public housing. He has easily won battles against discriminatory local landlords. And he has tackled Goliaths like the Road Home Program.

"If you never lose," James said to me, "then you are not truly doing the work of social change. Losing does not necessarily indicate a flawed vision or even a bad strategy. Losing often means that you had the courage to take on a difficult cause with an unlikely outcome."

Many of James' supporters have written to him since Saturday. They have consistently urged him to seek other elected positions in the future. They have reminded him that many great political careers begin with a tough loss. James may seek other offices. He may win. But that is not the point.

The point is not a short-term win that soothes our own egos, but rather the tough losses that show us where there is work to be done. The goal is not to wear the crown, but to do the work.

We ran a campaign for change. Change comes through the efforts of citizens who sacrifice for our country, our communities, and our causes. Sometimes we will enjoy great victories and other times painful losses, but the work still calls out to us. James did something that many refuse to do; he offered himself for public service knowing he might not be supported; he articulated ideas knowing they might be ignored; he did more than shout from the outside; he made himself vulnerable to the messy and imperfect process that is democracy.

As someone who hopes to be an agent of change I am inspired by James' campaign. It helps me remember that the best and most important work we do for politics, justice and fairness comes from committing ourselves fully and wholeheartedly to causes we are unlikely to win. Justice cannot be solely, or even mostly, about strategically choosing the causes we can win. It is about embracing the battles we are likely to lose.

During this campaign I often visualized how proud I would be when James won. I did not anticipate how much pride I would feel about the way he encountered defeat. On Sunday we walked the neighborhoods of the city we love unconditionally. We joined in cheering our football team's historic victory. On Monday we went back to work because it is the work that matters.