A Louisiana parish is trying for the third time in five months to elect a sheriff
A Louisiana parish is trying for the third time in five months to elect a sheriff

SHREVEPORT, La. – In this parish where family roots and political loyalties run strong, just like the live oaks along the banks of the Red River, many people can’t remember the last time they were in a sheriff’s race. So when Sheriff Steve Praetor announced last summer that he would retire after more than four decades in law enforcement, residents braced themselves for a divisive campaign.

Yet few could have predicted that they would have to go to the polls three times in six months to choose a successor — an election fraught with racial tension and legal suffrage disputes that mirrored national struggles.

On Saturday, when the skies finally cleared after days of rain, voters turned out once again to decide between the two men on the October ballot: Democrat Henry Whitehorn, a black 40-year law enforcement veteran who won the first election by one voice; and Republican John Nickelson, 44, a white attorney and former City Council member with no law enforcement experience but with Prator’s endorsement.

Whitehorn’s apparent victory last fall was initially confirmed by a recount, then overturned by state courts after Nickelson alleged illegal voting. Until now, the protracted standoff has divided the hometown of U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson and the surrounding parish of about 226,000 people. which is split almost equally between black and white people, Democrats and Republicans.

Regardless of local political affiliation they say they are disillusioned, incredulous and disillusioned.

“People deserve to have a voice,” said Charis McCrady, 28, a black Democrat and instructor at the Belbo Beauty Institute, who hosted a voting event Friday. “We live in a time when people want to hide the truth.

Caddo Parish has a history of racial violence dating back to Reconstruction. Dozens of lynchings earned him the sinister nickname “Bloody Caddo”. In 2022, a commissioner attempted to remove an alleged “lynching tree” outside the courthouse, where the Confederate flag flew until 2011.

Black residents had to sue to end segregated buses, schools, and libraries. Civil rights the protesters were attacked and beaten by the police. When Sam Cooke came to town to play in 1963, he was banned from a hotel because he was black, arrested and jailed for what would become the inspiration for his anthem of the era, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

“There’s certainly a racial undertone to any politics in Shreveport,” said local activist Omari Ho-Sang.

When the ballots were counted after the first election last October, Nickelson led by several thousand votes but fell short of the required majority. This led to the first runoff.

When that runoff was held the following month, 43,241 votes were counted and Whitehorn came out on top – by one vote.

Then the trouble really started.

The sheriff’s race has become a tangle of accusations, lawsuits, judicial intervention and bitter, months-long acrimony. Two people – both Republicans – were found to have voted twice. The ensuing count left Whitehorn victorious. Nickelson, accusing himself of voter fraud, sued both his opponent and the Louisiana Secretary of State. Ultimately, state courts threw out the runoff results and called for new elections.

Louisiana Democratic Party Chairwoman Katie Bernhard criticized the legal battle, saying it sent the parish “back into a Jim Crow world, a world of exclusion, control and brutal inequality.”

Nickelson responded sharply: “Race-divisive nonsense like this is why the Louisiana Democratic Party is on its deathbed.”

A state appeals court ultimately ruled against Whitehorn, a decision that pitted three white Republican judges against two black Democrats. The state Supreme Court declined to hear the case, similarly dividing along political lines. Its chief justice, John Weimer, dissented and hinted at the larger issues raised by the national election challenges.

“Only in extreme circumstances, timely and adequately proven, should the vote of the people be overruled by judicial decree,” wrote Weimer, Independent. “Otherwise, the measured and peaceful transition of power that is a hallmark of our system of democracy may be unduly delayed and interrupted.”

On the eve of the third election, political analysts said it was unclear who would prevail. Early voting was 61 percent higher than the Nov. 18 runoff, with 12,972 Democrats and 8,631 Republicans voting. White voters outnumbered their black counterparts.

“It’s very, very close,” said Pearson Cross, a professor of political science at the nearby University of Louisiana at Monroe. “It all depends on the turnout and a few votes in both cases can make a difference.”

Suspicions of voter fraud could motivate conservatives, although their skepticism about Louisiana’s paperless, touchscreen voting machines is nothing new, noted Jeffrey Sadow, associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.

“The fact that you can’t audit the machines makes people worry about security,” Sadow said. Yet he saw an advantage for Whitehorn in mobilizing supporters. “He can come back and say we were cheated in this contest, don’t let your voice be silenced.”

This month, many business owners urged customers to vote. So were the relatives and neighbors. Mila Ramirez, a Democrat who owns a beauty salon, was ready. She votes early remembering the stories of my late grandmother, who was black, told her he was barred from voting during Jim Crow.

“Everywhere I go, I ask young people, ‘Will you vote?’ They have no idea about Whitehorn, about the injustice that’s going on,” said Ramirez, 32. “Especially as black people, you have to fight for your rights.”

Nonpartisan campaigners from Black Voters Matter and the Urban League of Louisiana distributed fliers encouraging participation. There were complaints about the tactics from both candidates’ camps. Caddo Mama Bears, a conservative Facebook group, posted photos of Urban League flyers with Nickelson’s name misspelled. Whitehorn supporters said Nickelson’s wife, president of the PTA at their children’s public school, has been emailing members to support him.

Candy Peavey, 73, called Nickelson and recruited other volunteers after attending court hearings in his cases. The retired physical therapist, who is white, calls herself an independent conservative; she got involved in politics after the 2020 presidential election, which she believes Donald Trump won.

“I’ve been following all the election integrity issues around the country,” Peavy said, and even testified before a local election commission and the state legislature. “Right now, whoever cheats the best wins. And that is not a democracy.”

At a shopping center in the middle-class Broadmoor neighborhood, Democrat Mark Dorris admitted he didn’t vote in the last runoff. Doris, manager of a discount clothing store, he knew some of his friends didn’t vote either.

“I’m definitely going to vote in this one because of the result last time,” said Doris, 47, who is black. “It’s messed up. They want it to be one-sided. All we can do is go vote. It’s a shame something like this has to happen for people to go out and do what we should have for the first time.

On thoroughfares like Youree Drive, named for a Confederate officer, a mix of Nickelson and Whitehorn signs vied for space. Nickelson signs dominated the historic mansions lining Fairfield Avenue, built by captains of industry in the early 20th century in a mix of styles from Beaux-Arts to Gothic, Romanesque to Tudor.

“If Whitehorn win, I’m leaving. I’m really concerned,” said Janie Lipscomb, 78, a retired dental hygienist who is white and describes herself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal. She distrusts Whitehorn, believing he mismanaged the city’s finances when he served as its chief administrative officer during the pandemic.

“Once we practice cheating, it’s a way of life,” she said. “It is evil to deceive people.”

Nickelson, accompanied by Prator at some campaign appearances, continued to defend his legal battle.

“I did what my opponent would have done if the shoe was on the other foot,” he said in an interview. “The outcome of the legal challenges was a victory for election integrity. We need to have processes in place to ensure that invalid votes are not counted, and we have achieved that.

Whitehorn did not back down. We know we won the election. But we’re ready to win it again,” he told The Washington Post.

He reflected on the racism he faced when he began his career with the Louisiana State Police, the opportunities he missed “because they said I didn’t have the experience, I didn’t have the education.” He later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees while working and attended the FBI National Academy and the executive program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The last day of Saturday door knocking was uneventful. After the polls closed at 8:00 p.m., candidates gathered with supporters at dueling parties near the downtown riverfront. The vote count was slow, leaving the crowd at the packed Whitehorn event on edge.

Around 10:20 a.m. results suddenly appeared on the television and a roar went up in the room. Whitehorn won the Election Day vote 21,147 to 18,800. Less than an hour later, although absentee ballot totals had not yet been released, Nickelson conceded.

The DJ played “A Change is Gonna Come.” The triumphant Whitehorn delivered his victory speech.

“The citizens have spoken,” he said. “I don’t know what the final results are, but I know the vote is more than one.”

For the first time in history, Caddo Parish had elected a black sheriff.

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