NEW ORLEANS – The air is soft in New Orleans, the music is loud. Someone is blowing bubbles on Jackson Square, and a lone clarinetist plays haunting jazz. On a balcony overlooking Bourbon Street, a band, complete with trumpet, trombone, and drums, serenades the tourists, who are watching a man in a Bart Simpson costume cradling a “big-ass beer.”
Shops selling everything from tutus to voodoo charms line the streets; with difficulty I resist a T-shirt with the city’s motto: “laissez les bons temps rouler!” (Let the good times roll)
Welcome to New Orleans. The city of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, known for Mardi gras and gumbo, and, of course, for Hurricane Katrina.
There are still mobile medical units traveling through the city that have a large sign on them reading “Donated by the people of Qatar for Hurricane Katrina victims,” for those who suffered during the monster storm that wrecked the city in August, 2005.
This is not a city that dwells on politics.
“There’s an election tomorrow?” asks Christal, my waitress at the Chartres House Café, where I am having a late lunch. “This is a party town, darlin’. We have more important things to think about.”
Like the campaign to “Free Sean Payton,” the New Orleans Saints coach who was just suspended for some bounty scandal. I am not sure why, but I am being urged to send Juicy Fruit gum to him.
Christal’s curiosity is piqued, however, and she soon sits down at my table, eager to hear more.
“Oh, it’s for the Presidents?” she asked, wide eyed. “I keep tellin’ my boyfriend we should look at some of those Presidents, but he just makes me change the channel.”
Christal looks about 20 but says she is 34. She has a large flower tattoo up her left arm, and long curls that cascade down her back. She is a New Orleans native, and sees no reason to be concerned with the issues of a bunch of men who probably wouldn’t know a good shrimp etouffee if they tripped over it.
She asks me whom among the candidates I prefer, and I explain that I am journalist, just covering the race. She then questions me about the issues, and I try to explain in as dispassionate a manner as possible.
Having just come from the Women in the World Summit in New York City, I try a bit of the old sisterhood consciousness-raising.
“Some of the candidates would like to restrict a woman’s access to birth control; one even wants to ban pre-natal testing.”
She snorts derisively.
“They can't do that! It’s woman’s a right!” She shakes her head and leaves, feeling justified in her resolve not to waste time on crazies.
As I spoke with others, I realized that Christal is by no means unusual. While we political junkies hang on every jot and tittle of the unfolding drama, the great majority of potential voters in New Orleans are too busy letting the good times roll on to spoil their mood worrying about minor issues like who is going to run the country for the next four years.
But her comments about women’s right to reproductive health choices is a bit worrying to some in the older generation, as is her blind faith that what is done is done, and cannot be reversed.
“Younger women have never had to fight for these freedoms,” said Karen Becker, a retired lawyer now living in South Carolina. “By the time they wake up, it could be too late.”
She, unlike Christal, is following the race with great interest.
One well-heeled shop owner, a woman who looked to be in her late sixties who has lived in New Orleans for decades, was also worried about the primary.
“New Orleans is largely democratic,” she said, sitting in an elegant living room overlooking Jackson Square. “But they are not going to vote. I am afraid that only the real crazies will go out.”
This, she said, would mean only one thing.
“I will be really embarrassed as a citizen of New Orleans if Rick Santorum does well here,” she said.
The former Pennsylvania senator has a double-digit lead in the polls; even his latest gaffe, aimed at former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, has not seemed to hurt him.
After Romney’s campaign advisor, Eric Fehrnstrom, indicated that Romney could reset his campaign after the convention, much like “shaking up an Etch a Sketch,” Santorum took the unusual step of all but endorsing the incumbent.
"You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who is just going to be a little different than the person in there," Santorum said in a speech in San Antonio, Texas. "If we are going to be a little different, we may as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk in what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate for the future."
Tonight 20 delegates will be awarded, out of Louisiana’s total of 46. The rest will be apportioned at a state convention in June.
It will probably not be enough to derail Romney, who is well ahead in delegate counts.
And it certainly won’t be enough to catch Christal’s interest.
Perhaps sensing my frustration at her lack of information on politics, she stopped again at my table, eager to share what she knew.
“What we do have here in New Orleans is the men’s final four next week,” she offered helpfully.
“Final four of what?” I asked, clueless.
She rolled her eyes, much as I had wanted to do when she professed ignorance of the primary.
“Oh, honey!” she said sadly, walking away.