The results were in, and they didn't look promising for Elroy A. James. An attorney with an accounting background, James had figured out the approximate number of votes he would need to be elected King of Zulu. But as club officials read the tallies that spring day, the votes seemed to fall slightly short.
A friend in the crowd that gathered at Zulu’s North Broad Street headquarters urged him to hold out hope. Moments later, anxiety melted into joy when the election chairman made it official: James had secured enough votes to claim the crown and fulfill a decades-old desire.
“I just think that’s the pinnacle,” he said. “To me, it’s a stamp of approval from the membership. It says it’s a job well done.”
As a boy, James, 38, watched in awe as the Zulu parade rolled every Fat Tuesday. He also passed the krewe's clubhouse countless times, where the revelry routinely spilled onto the sidewalk and neutral ground.
By age 12, James knew he wanted to join the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, and envisioned the day he would ride as king. In fact, James picked his future queen, Dr. Tanyanika Phillips, who now lives and work in Tulsa, Okla., all those years ago when the two were childhood friends growing up in Gentilly.
Soon after graduating from John F. Kennedy High School, James joined the krewe at age 18, the youngest age any member can join. He remained involved while earned his accounting and law degrees at Southern University in Baton Rouge, and during his years at Georgetown University, where he earned a masters in law and taxation.
In his 20 years with Zulu, James has served on numerous committees and now leads the finance committee, a position that leaves him little time for a social life.
He’d like to travel more, but frequent trips between his job as a lawyer with the state Department of Revenue in Baton Rouge and his Zulu activities in New Orleans are about the extent of his globe trotting for now.
“Zulu is a year-long organization,” James said. “I’m the fourth man on the letterhead. Zulu consumes a lot of the down time I have.”
Although he is still one of the younger members, the mild-mannered James, who sports a broad smile, bald head and tightly cropped beard, is simultaneously one of the most veteran, and he carries a certain amount of institutional knowledge.
He joined the club at a time when much of the membership was largely blue-collar workers in their 50s and 60s. In the two decades since then, he has seen the group expand and become both younger and more professional.
The “social aid” aspect of Zulu needs to continue to flourish, James said. The group gives out dozens of scholarships every year — James said he was the first active members to receive money for school — and distributes hundreds of Thanksgiving baskets, among other services.
Meanwhile, members need to honor and acknowledge the past while moving forward.
“Too many of the grandfathers worked too hard” to let the club’s traditions die, he said.
A day after Mardi Gras last year, James began a robust — and expensive — campaign under the slogan “Zulu of Yesterday ... Zulu of Tomorrow ... King for Today.”
Now, his home in eastern New Orleans is full of gifts from friends and new souvenirs he will hand out at the organization’s ball. Among them is a coin he had minted with his likeness on one side and Aker, the Egyptian god of today and tomorrow, on the other side. He also had pins made with the image of Aker.
“I understand Zulu is turning a corner,” he said, “but at this point I represent the past ... and see the future.”
It is his experience with the club that led his peers to select him as this year’s king, he said.
“I was the youngest one in the race, but with the most tenure and service. The older guys watched me grow, and the younger ones saw leadership,” he said. “Most people thought me to be credible.”
Second-place finisher Jay Banks, who reportedly lost by seven votes, sent shock waves through the century-old Carnival organization when he charged that election-day irregularities may have cost him a victory.
Zulu members ratified James’ election, and Banks said afterward that he supported the decision and would not press the issue any further.
James said he is confident each of the other four men who also ran for the throne will one day reign as King Zulu. “We’re all equally dedicated,” he said.
Since his election, James’ schedule has been a scramble of meetings, preparations and public appearances, but he has welcomed the extra duties.
“Everybody wants access to King Zulu,” he said. “It’s a real tough and tight schedule from elections in May to getting off the float” at the end of the parade on Tuesday. “It’s not a bother. It’s more of an honor.”
His crown and scepter rested on the living room sofa as he spoke recently about his impending reign.
“It’s really an emotional roller coaster. You go from the battle of campaigning to winning a race,” James said. “Now you’re dealing with the emotion of the time almost being here. It’s really starting to sink in. Wow. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
Danny Monteverde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3482.