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Is Dr. McKenna closer to becoming New Orleans’ first Black coroner?

28th August 2017   ·   0 Comments

By David T. Baker
Contributing Writer

Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rouse announced last week (August 24) that he is calling off his campaign for re-election, seemingly handing over the election to opponent Dr. Dwight McKenna, who would be the first African American to serve in that position.

According to a statement released by Rouse, his decision to withdraw was based on his desire to expand to medical practice in order to help combat the city’s growing mental health crisis “on the front lines” and those who suffer from mental illness who are caught up in the criminal justice system.

“It has been an honor to serve our community as your Coroner over the past four years; however, I have decided that the best way for me to use the lessons I’ve learned from the Coroner’s Office is to expand my clinical role on the front lines of the City’s mental health crisis – by serving patients with severe psychiatric illnesses who are involved in the criminal justice system. The mental health crisis in our City is real, and I am refocusing my professional energies in that direction,” the statement reads.

The 43-year-old Rouse said that he reluctantly qualified for re-election due to his commitment to serving New Orleans, but later realized that he could better do that by refocusing on his clinical and forensic psychiatric professional practice given that his strengths are more technical than political, and that he better thrives “behind the scenes rather than in the spotlight.”

“In this work, I have the opportunity to prevent more suffering and death before the Coroner’s Office gets involved. To that end, I am withdrawing my candidacy for the upcoming election,” said Rouse.

Rouse said that he has met with Dr. McKenna extensively, and is “convinced that his plan for a more public role for the Coroner’s office in health education and violence prevention is the logical next step for the evolution of this office, now that a strong team is in place and internal processes here have been updated.”

In the statement, Rouse outlined his achievements over the past four years. Those achievements include:

• Improved the death investigation process by creating a full team of medicolegal death investigators.

• Intervened in our City’s mental health crisis by exercising our power to commit individuals with severe mental health illnesses to institutions for treatment.

• Brought transparency to the investigation of deaths that occur in the custody of law enforcement agencies to renew the community’s faith in this office and the criminal justice agencies we support.

• Improved the efficiency of the Coroner’s office with a digital records system and improved case completion times so that the office can fulfill its role as an integral part of the criminal justice system.

In 2016, under Rouse’s leadership, the office moved from the fire-damaged former funeral parlor on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard it had been operating from in since Hurricane Katrina into a new $14.8 million, state-of-the-art headquarters on Earhart Boulevard.

“I ran for Coroner because of my belief that New Orleans needed a modernized coroner’s office as a key node in the criminal justice system. My team and I set strategic goals four years ago and I am proud to report our achievements,” Rouse said.

During the remaining months of his term, Rouse plans to work with McKenna to help familiarize him with the facets of the job.

“I congratulate Dr. McKenna on his persistence and on becoming the first African-American Coroner for our great city,” Rouse said.

McKenna, a 75-year-old family medicine doctor, previously served two terms in public office as a member of the Orleans Parish School Board. This is his third bid for the coroner’s seat.

Although in his statement, Rouse congratulated McKenna, the only other candidate in the race, the election results are not yet set it stone.

McKenna responded to the statement issued by Rouse, saying that Rouse’s decision to end his campaign will have little impact on his own campaign. “My clearest path to becoming the next Orleans Parish Coroner is receiving a majority of the vote in the Oct. 14 election,” Dr. McKenna said.

Official withdrawal from the ballot comes by means of a notarized letter to the Secretary of State’s office. Meg Sunstrom, press secretary for the Secretary of State, said that their office has not received anything official from Rouse and has only seen the statement he put out to the media. That is likely because Rouse’s announcement comes weeks after the official July 21 deadline to withdraw. Thus, Rouse’s name will remain on the ballot.

This means that if Rouse receives more than 50 percent of the vote, he will have officially won the election, and will have to resign from the position, if he doesn’t want to serve. A resignation by Rouse would result in a special election in the spring to fill the coroner’s seat, one which would open the race to a slate of new candidates.

McKenna is fully aware of this reality, acknowledging it in his statement:

“I am very appreciative of my many supporters and those who have wished me well. However, we’re not finished yet. We have work to do. I am going to continue to campaign vigorously. I want to remind my supporters that I still need your votes in order to be elected coroner on Oct. 14 so that I might serve the people of New Orleans.”

According to Sunstrom, the cost of a special election would be about $1,250 per precinct. The coroner’s election is parish-wide, with a total of 351 precincts, bringing the cost of a special election to $438,750.

“We cannot become complacent or be lulled into a false sense of victory,” McKenna said. “From now until Election Day, I will continue the campaign I began when I qualified to run for Orleans Parish Coroner. And I am asking for your vote.”

This article originally published in the August 28, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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