Filed Under:  Columns, Opinion, Politics

Candidates for New Orleans elected offices kick off campaigns

9th September 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Basin Street Station, the renovated train depot that is part Vieux Carre’ welcome center/part reception hall on its top floor, has gained some notoriety in recent weeks as politicians rush to its penthouse to launch their campaigns for office.

From its panoramic views of the French Quarter and Faubourgs Marigny, Tremé, & Ste. Marie, Ernest “Freddie” Charbonnet and Erroll Williams kicked their respective campaigns for re-election to City Council and Assessor on two successive Wednesdays in late August.

Their early starts demonstrate that next year’s citywide election is already upon us, even before the October 19 judicial races have concluded. It may be months until the February 1, 2014 primary, but both men were serving food, drink, and dreams as if the voters went to the polls next week.

For the tragic truth is for the jaded journalist/nomenkantura class of political hangers-on, too often these launch parties are graded by the quality and variety of the food and musical entertainment, rather than the words spoken. In both cases, the Charbonnet clan and the L.I.F.E. political organization fed the cynical multitudes well. As sunset came, multiple courses and an open bar satiated the insiders and casually interested, just as the sunset washed the roofs of the French Quarter in golds and reds of summer.

“Re-election” is used loosely in Freddie Charbonnet’s case. The long-time civic activist filled an interim position on the council in an appointed capacity, serving with some distinction for five months as the temporary replacement for District E after Councilman Jon Johnson resigned amidst federal charges. Now Charbonnet wants to rejoin city lawmakers on the dais, but by a more traditional route.

“The very last thing the public wants is re-electing the same politicians over and over,” Charbonnet told the assembled crowds. Compared to his potential competitors for the open At-Large seat, vacated by the term limited Jackie Clarkson, he has a point.

The same faces he refers to are the term limited District “D” incumbent Cynthia Hedge Morrell, who has already indicated she is seeking promotion to the citywide seat, and, potentially, former District “E” Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who would be making her third bid for the At-Large post. The latter lost narrowly to Jackie Clarkson twice, and once by a similar margin to Stacy Head.

That’s three potential African-American candidates. A fourth, Eugene Green, announced that he too is running for an At-Large post as well. He’s just not sure whether he is jumping into this contest for the open seat—or challenging Stacy Head for the other one. And, that’s what makes the pursuit of the At-Large seats on the Council so different this time around.

Green demurred from standing in the special election against Head last time around, so as not to run against his friend and ally Cynthia Willard-Lewis in a ‘head-to-head’ contest that would divide the Black vote in, well, Head’s favor. He pledged, though, to run next time around, assuming like most other observers that all of the candidates for At-Large would run together in one jungle election. Those that polled 25% would win in the primary, and two allies could run at the same time without impossibly dividing the vote. Those that did not receive a quarter of the vote would advance to a runoff.

It’s a system that provided for the first African-American elected At-Large back four decades ago, but more recently, it has provided narrow victories for White candidates in a Black Majority city. It’s empowerment of minorities—in this case Caucasian ones—was out of step with demographics, critics of the old system argued, and so, it should be replaced with a Councilmanic At-Large process similar to Jefferson Parish’s elections.

The city’s voters agreed on Nov. 5th, amended the Charter, and as a result, there will be two separate elections for At-Large on Feb. 1st. Unlike Jefferson Parish, where the two at-large council seats are labeled A and B, in New Orleans they are expected to be identified as 1 and 2, since the city’s five council districts are labeled by letters. And, that helps Green. The assignation of numbers to each seat could happen just weeks before qualifying; therefore, he can assemble open support, without enduring the backlash of existing constituencies behind a sitting Caucasian incumbent or a well-known African-American contender. Such is Green’s built-in excuse.

Regardless, while observers continue to wonder if the citywide race against Mitch Landrieu will be competitive or boring, the At-Large race promises to be a free-for-all, and almost as contentious as the Assessor’s contest.

The timing of Williams’ re-election announcement, one week after Charbonnet’s, was not accidental. Former 7th District Assessor Henry Heaton has reportedly told supporters that he is leaning towards a bid for the single Assessor’s post. Last time around, after the merger, he demurred from a bid in favor of supporting his friend 2nd District Assessor Claude Mauberret.

Emerging from a crowded field, Mauberret and Williams ended up in a runoff, only for Mauberret to drop out in exchange for a job in Williams’ office. Heaton enjoyed no such reward, despite the fact that his family, like the former 2nd District Assessor’s, had controlled his district seat for decades. As such, Heaton retains considerable political stroke on west side of town. Moreover, certain local business owners believe that Williams has been too vigilant in his reassessments, though, the single assessor noted to this newspaper, he is just following the law.

People do not like their property taxes going up, though, something the Chehardys in Jefferson, like the Heaton and Mauberret families, managed to ride into political dynasty status. Whether the determination to undervalue assessments can fuel a return to office for Heaton remains to be seen, but it certainly can foster a competitive race.

The district seats also will see their share of competition. Term limits forced Cynthia Hedge-Morrell to seek promotion to the At-Large post, but her closest political ally outside her family, Rep. Jared Brossett, seems ready to run to replace her in District D. Guaranteed, the Morrell faction will not hold that seat without a fight.

One is expected in most conservative seat in the city as well. There has been an active effort to recruit a candidate in District A against Susan Guidry, so far without success. Una Anderson, the former School Board member, was reportedly approached, but has not, as yet, committed to a bid. However, Guidry’s critics, including her former opponent and Orleans GOP Chair Jay Batt, have not quit trying to recruit a contender. And, newly elected District E Councilman James Gray seems also not destined to have a free ride on the other side of town. Several potential candidates have expressed interest in the wake of Gray’s recent legal troubles, though none have gone so far as to announce their intentions.

The singularly most endangered of the sitting Councilpersons stands as Kristen Gisleson Palmer in District C. The Faubourg St. John to French Quarter to Algiers seat is remarkably hard to keep all constituencies happy, no matter how hard one works. Moreover, in suburban Algiers, discontentment boiled over to a point where some neighborhood leaders to have encouraged State Rep. Jeff Arnold to run against her. Besides his own successful bids for the legislature, as the son of a former District Assessor who also challenged Palmer in the last election, Arnold enters the race with considerable name recognition.

Plus, unlike his father, Jeff Arnold is not a Republican. Currently serving as one of the highest-ranking white Democratic leaders in the State House, still enjoys considerable crossover partisan support. (At one point, he had most of the metro Republican delegation ready to support him for Speaker over Rep. Chuck Kleckley.) Without an “R” behind his name, but enjoying the Algeran support of local Republicans like former Speaker Jim Tucker, Arnold could build a coalition of Black voters and suburban whites, a considerable challenge to overcome even against a fellow West Bank Democrat like Palmer.

Currently, only LaToya Cantrell, in District B, has not heard any whispers of opposition, not surprising as she was just won a special election some months ago. Cantrell, however, also enjoys the unique status as a Councilperson popular with the old-money millionaires of the Garden District, yet African-American enough to satisfy Central City. Of course, in such a contentious year, that too could change.

Citywide, however, rumors that current Sheriff Marlin Gusman could be challenged by former Sheriff Charles Foti abound. The latter lost his re-election bid for La. Attorney General to Buddy Caldwell, but won his native Orleans Parish comfortably. He’s also Mitch Landrieu’s cousin, and given the current Sheriff’s recent antipathy to the Mayor, supporting Foti for a return to the position he held for decades seems not so impossible.

Foti has not firmly committed to a bid yet either, but that didn’t stop Marlin Gusman from circulating at Erroll Williams’ party. He and the Assessor are both scions of L.I.F.E., the Louisiana Independent Federation of Electors that has long been the political organization of the Morial Dynasty and its allies. Williams and Gusman served as City Chief Administrative Office for the father and son respectively, and neither stood above asking for their old friends’ support. Each might need it.

Attendance at another party at the Basin Street Station might soon be required. Hope the food is as good.

This article originally published in the September 9, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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