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Candidates lining up for New Orleans’ February elections

9th December 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Saying she wanted to “spend more time with her daughters”, District “C” Councilwoman Kristen Gisleson Palmer announced last Tuesday that she would not run for re-election. Her surprise decision kicks off what promises to be a rancorous qualifying period Dec. 11-13, and its latest sign that a hotly contested election cycle awaits the electorate after Christmas.

Hotly contested everywhere but the New Orleans mayoral race where, at this point, Mitch Landrieu’s camp believes he is likely to coast to re-election against his only announced opponent Danatus King. So confident was Landrieu of his chances against the head of the local NAACP that the Mayor transformed his official campaign kickoff this Wednesday, December 11 at the Chicory on St. Peters into a $250 a person “Chefs for Landrieu” fundraiser.

In other words, His Honor was less concerned about his initial re-election impression to the voters being a line of campaign contributors than losing the chance to send a message—to any potential opponent—that his $2 million warchest is unassailable. And, therefore a last-minute campaign bid against the Mayor may not be such a good idea.

Whether any other possible candidates will agree with Landrieu remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Danatus King still stands alone, remaining in the mayoral field out of sheer willpower. Months after announcing his bid, the NAACP President continues to lack any significant financial or infrastructural support to prove a serious challenger to Landrieu.

At the top of that list ranks Sheriff Marlin Gusman. Notable conflicts with the City Council and Mayor over the size of the new jail and the embarrassing “House of Detention Video Scandal” have put the previously politically secure incumbent in a vulnerable spot. At least, weak enough that the job’s former incumbent wants the Sheriff’s office back.

Charles Foti may have lost re-election as Attorney General, but his prosecutions of nursing home owners who were accused of abandoning their charges during Katrina (and acquitted of any wrongdoing) hardly was unpopular amongst the voters of his one time base, the African-American community of New Orleans. He was seen as fighting for those who could not fight for themselves. At the same time, while he lost many white voters statewide, Foti remains very popular amongst the city’s Caucasians as well.

Given the rise in African-American election turnout, Foti, it is believed, stands as one of the few white candidates who can reasonably construct a biracial coalition.

Yet, Foti’s past ability to garner a quarter or more of the Black vote, like Mayor Landrieu, might not prove enough to defeat a well-financed incumbent, which Sheriff Gusman remains. After all, Foti would have to work to win back some of his previous supporters, including former PANO heads like Irv Magri and his Crimefighters Organization, who have been cheerleaders of Gusman’s efforts to build a bigger jail—and stalwart Caucasian backers in the Sheriff’s fight against Landrieu. And, Gusman has a compelling campaign message, noting at his announcement prior to Thanksgiving that he had accomplished the best of both worlds while in office. Not only did he have a new jail facility under construction, he had also reduced the inmate population from over 6,000 to under 2,500.

Orleans Parish School Board President Ira Thomas it is reported held his announcement last week for the sheriff’s race. Even coming from the post-K diminished school district, Thomas enjoys biracial support of his own, often proving the bridge between the factions on the OPSB, and may enjoy crossover votes as a result. And, if that’s not enough, State Rep Austin Badon, who has a cadre of loyal white and Black voters, has seriously said he may qualify come Wednesday.

As political commentator Alan Katz put it last Thursday, “Term- limited at the legislature, no doubt Austin is looking for another place to land. He is a likeable guy. But without money in hand and with a new baby courtesy of wife Therese, entering the race would be tough. That doesn’t stop people from polling his favorability and patting Austin on the back.”

The turnout from the Sheriff’s race is also likely to affect the two Council At-Large races to a greater degree than ever before, thanks to a Charter change approved by the voters last fall.

In the race to succeed the retiring Council President Jackie Clarkson, Defense Attorney Jason Williams will face off against District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Attorney and former interim District E Councilman Ernest “Freddy” Charbonnet.

Curiously both Williams and Hedge-Morrell spoke at Gusman’s campaign announcement, both publically praising the Sheriff. All three candidates have strong base constituencies. Williams ran a strong, if unsuccessfully, bid for district attorney in 2008, and Morrell runs as an incumbent district Councilwoman from a noted political family. (She’ll qualify this week in front of her husband, Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell.)

Charbonnet boasts of his own political/familial connections as well, plus he appears to be the candidate who has made the best inroads with the city’s GOP leadership.

This will be the first time that the two Citywide Council seats will be elected separately, instead of in a jungle primary field where the two top finishers can win with just a quarter of the vote.

No one knows if a credible Caucasian candidate will qualify against the three, but the subtext in this At-Large contest as well as the other has been that both citywide posts have been held by Caucasians since Oliver Thomas’ ignominious resignation and subsequent jail term. In fact, in a city that still boasts over 60 percent of its qualified voters as African Americans, many began to wonder if the supposedly Black-majority city would ever again have a Black-majority City Council, when the racial balance shifted from 5-2 pre-Katrina to 2-5 in the years afterward.

Some Black leaders contended that the white leadership had violated the “unwritten rule” of racial balance. From the special election of A.L. Davis in the mid-1970s, one At-Large member was white and another Black, sharing the two seats of the Council Presidency. That balance remained true from Davis and Caucasian Joe DiRosa to Arnie Fielkow and Oliver Thomas 30 years later. Then, white candidates won both posts, through two sets of elections, and many Black leaders cried “betrayal.”

Of course, the “unwritten rule” had nearly been violated when Republican Peggy Wilson was the only white contender for Council At-Large, and she faced an active effort to elect two Black citywide members. It many have been an understandable desire in a city that at the time had almost 70 percent Black voter registration, yet what saved Wilson was the ability to pull out a victory in the first primary with just 25 percent of the vote.

This form of proportional voting was designed to protect the influence of minority groups, and actually has been an electoral law change for which civil rights groups have argued other cities should adopt. The African-American leadership in New Orleans, however, simply saw that PR elected Jackie Clarkson and Arnie Fielkow against a crowded field of Black candidates. They pushed for a change in the City Charter, and the voters agreed last fall.

They amending the Orleans’ constitution last fall to create two separate races for the At-Large posts, so it required more than 25% of the vote to earn one of the slots in the primary. Never again would the white minority be able to push a candidate like Clarkson ahead of Cynthia Willard-Lewis to victory in the last citywide election with just a quarter of the vote.

Of course, the Charter change would have had little impact on Stacy Head’s victory against Willard-Lewis a year later, upon Fielkow’s resignation. It was a conventional, if low turnout special election, and the now incumbent At-Large Councilwoman hopes for similar success. In a white-Black contest that may dominate the headlines as much as the Sheriff’s contest, Head faces former New Orleans (East) Business and Industrial District head Eugene Green.

Green had thought to run in the special election originally, but demurred in favor of his friend Cynthia Willard-Lewis. Now, free to pursue Head, he has been little daunted by any “unwritten rule” agreements. In a city where recent elections for Judge has seen the African-American population vote at levels at or above the Caucasian vote—even in special elections—Green hopes a campaign against Head’s perceived conservatism (real or imagined) will motivate enough of his base to provide two Black At-Large Councilpersons.

Meanwhile in a Council seat that has maintained an African-American incumbent, as Cynthia Hedge-Morrell departs District D, her former Chief of Staff, State Rep. Jared Brossett announced for the job. He seems—so far—to be the only credible candidate, a surprising development since the Gentilly, Faubourg St. John, Lakefront focused seat has increasingly experienced selective gentrification.

Brossett is not unopposed. Former SUNO Senate President Dr. Joseph Bouie has thrown his hat in the ring, as well as civic leader Dalton Savoie. Neither challenger, though, at first glance appeals to a rising white community, or to the post-Katrina younger African-American professionals in the district. Such a contender might have a significant chance, leading several District leaders to approach former School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz. So far, he has demurred as have others potential white candidates.

In District B, Stacy Head’s old swing seat, newly elected African-American incumbent LaToya Cantrell appears to not have drawn opposition. Of course, Cantrell remains a close ally Head. Cantrell has maintained Head’s popularity and political support in the Garden District, while not having lost any of the back and goodwill she earned as the one-time President of the Broadmoor Improvement Association. Cantrell has a broad base of biracial support few Black incumbents in New Orleans can claim. (It also does not hurt that her father-in-law Harry Cantrell just won the Magistrate’s post in November, a victory which sent a strong message to her potential rivals.)

James Gray also looks safe in the New Orleans East dominated District “E”. Having just cleared a crowded field a year ago to win in a special election of his own, no one seems ready to make another bid so soon, least of all since his principal challenger Austin Badon has raised his ambitions.

Susan Guidry looks safe in District A, a surprise at first glace since that seat rarely seen an incumbent last more than four years without ouster. However, Guidry used the post-2010 redistricting to her advantage, rejecting calls of Lakefront voters who wanted a single, unitary seat with those neighborhoods in “D”, and Uptowners who might have been more comfortable grouped in District “B”. Guidry maintained the Lake to the River design of District “A”, while drawing out several GOP-leaning neighborhoods, and not increasing the share of the African-American vote. In other words, she made the “A” seat safe for a white Democrat, like herself.

Gerrymandering goes both ways, after all. Perhaps not, though, in District “C”. With State Rep. Jeff Arnold’s announcement a few weeks ago that he would not attempt a bid against Kristen Palmer, the incumbent looked to be the prohibitive favorite. Not caught in the vice between the Arnold family’s popularity in the white Algiers suburbs and Ramsey’s strength in West Bank Black neighborhoods and the old 7th Ward, Palmer had a path to a first primary victory. However, it’s worth noting that the Councilwoman opted not to Gerrymander as actively as Guidry. Palmer allowed the so-called “finger” for the Faubourg St. John’s gentrified neighborhoods—that provided a part of the political base of the former PRC preservationist advocate to be elected in the first place—to be drawn out of District “C”.

Palmer still enjoyed significant support in the Vieux Carre, Marigny, and gentrifying portions of Tremé, Bywater, and Algiers Point, so still would have proven a strong re-election contender. Just not one without peril. Palmer would have had to convince suburban Algiers voters who cast a ballot for Jeff Arnold’s father Tom four years ago to back her, while still maintaining at least a portion of the African-American vote that carried her to victory against another white candidate. (She’s a Democrat. Tom Arnold’s a Republican, unlike his State Rep. son.)

Palmer could win, but in a bitter, expensive battle that would leave her campaign indebted for years. Meanwhile, her daughters are finishing high school in the next two years and will be starting college. Palmer has said openly that she might return to politics at that point, lending credence to her claim that she wanted to spend more time with her kids.

And time is on her side. Right now, the seat if 58 percent African-American. At current rates of gentrification and in-migration, though, the historic parts of District “C” are transforming. Gentrification is bringing in wealthier and more Caucasian voters, exactly Palmer’s base. Treme, the first Faubourg for “free men of color”, may become a white majority neighborhood in five years if current trends continue, according to some observers.

Moreover, Algiers as a whole is growing less Black, if more multiracial, more Vietnamese and more Hispanic. That benefits a moderate white Democrat like Palmer. After all, there is a history of popular politicians returning to the Council from the West Bank after years away. Jackie Clarkson stands as living proof.
That does not mean that a Nadine Ramsey victory is automatically assured. Her resignation from the bench to run for mayor four years ago still has its admirers, and she has been running hard for District “C” for months. Yet, she faces these realities of changing demographics in Algiers, and the fact that District “C” remains a traditional racially swing seat.

Up to last Tuesday, Palmer actively touted a recent poll from a nationally recognized Democratic pollster that showed her with a healthy lead over Ramsey, despite the latter’s popularity with female African-American voters. Her departure does not change the fact that is room for a white candidate, in other words.

It just won’t be Jeff Arnold. Noting his commitments in the legislature, Arnold told The Louisiana Weekly in an interview last week, “Chris, I don’t think I am running. City Council is much more time consuming than the Legislature and would not allow me to perform my new additional responsibilities at First NBC Bank. I made a commitment to the bank and it allows me to finish what I started in Baton Rouge, in addition to taking time away from my Family.”

Arnold also cited his work to make Federal City viable, a personal goal of the State Rep.’s, but he added peering at the long-term, “Who knows what the future holds; things happen for a reason.”

Attorneys Craig Mitchell and D’Juan Hernandez have already announced their entry into the race. Political insider Larry Bagneris and community leader Sheila Williams are rumored to be considering the race.

No credible white candidate as of yet, though. Some on her staff at City Hall have joked that this is the perfect opportunity for Jackie Clarkson to reverse her many protestations of seeking retirement, and return to her old District post. But, her inner circle considers that unlikely. Chances are that Ramsey will face some Caucasian contender, but Palmer’s decision not to run again raises the possibility that come the inauguration in May, the New Orleans City Council may again be the 5-2 white-Black racial breakdown it was prior to the storm. Perhaps 6-1.

So far Assessor Erroll Williams, Coroner Frank Minyard, and the CDC Bench remain unopposed. The Primary is Saturday, February 1, 2014, with early voting beginning two weeks earlier.

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

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