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New Orleans mayoral candidates pursuit of the white vote

14th August 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Desiree Charbonnet, LaToya Cantrell, Troy Henry, and Michael Bagneris have each adopted a “wedge issue” to demonstrate their individual palatability to city’s normally conservative Caucasian electorate in recent weeks.

None of these positions particularly alienate their African-American base constituencies, and in all but Michael Bagneris’ case, might actually prove popular with some middle-class Black voters. Still, the break from the normally liberal discussion points in an overwhelmingly Democratic city underpins a political truth.

Without a major white candidate running for Mayor of New Orleans in October, this 37 percent of the electorate could play the role of kingmakers in this Black-majority city—Just as in 2002, when Ray Nagin beat Richard Pennington almost exclusively on the strength of his Caucasian support.

Desiree Charbonnet sees this reality. The former Municipal Judge adopted a crime plan that not only pledges to add between 80 and 100 new officers a year to the New Orleans Police Department, to create rapid-response units to deal with crimes in progress, and to undertake a national search for a police chief, but it goes further—embracing the controversial crime-fighting platform of the La. GOP Attorney General.

Charbonnet maintained that her administration “will leave no offer of help unaccepted, no partnership underutilized, and will explore cooperative agreements wherever they will increase the efficiency of our use of resources while minimizing costs.”

It is a direct reference to reference to Mitch Landrieu’s recent spats with Jeff Landry, over the AG employing his constitutional authority to empower Sheriff’s deputies and police officers from other Louisiana parishes to patrol in Orleans’ most crime-ridden neighborhoods—and make arrests. The current Mayor has decried any challenge to NOPD’s authority in the city, even if it meant extra (suburban) cops on the street.

Landrieu knows having predominantly white rural and suburban police officers patrolling the streets of Orleans Parish hardly plays well amongst core Left-wing elements in the City, but the idea of more cops instantly at no cost attracts white voters fed up with rising crime rates (and more than a few middle-class Black voters as well). Charbonnet goes even further, though, questioning the consent decree itself.

The former Municipal Court judge has also called for “revamping and reforming” the Office of Police Secondary Employment, which was established under the federal consent decree to stamp out corruption in private details worked by officers. Those details were referred to as the NOPD’s “aorta of corruption” by the Department of Justice.

‘In other words,” as the GOP-leaning website The Hayride put it, “Charbonnet is running to more or less completely repudiate Mitch Landrieu with respect to crime…In other words, Charbonnet is your de-facto Republican in the mayor’s race. A Republican can’t win a mayor’s race in that city, and therefore none decided to run (not just for mayor; no Republicans qualified to run in any of the City Council races, either). But there are a few Republicans in the city, and there are Democrats who will vote for other Democrats who sometimes say Republican things. That was the secret to Ray Nagin’s election in 2002, for example. Now back to Landry, whose rhetoric on crime in New Orleans is largely hand-in-glove with that of Charbonnet. While she was putting out her crime plan, here was the Attorney General appearing on the Moon Griffon Show…to discuss crime in the Big Easy and Landrieu’s efforts (or lack thereof) in fighting it… Sounds pretty similar, no?”

District “B” Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell also has pledged a revamp of NOPD operations if elected Mayor, and has attacked the Landrieu Administration for “micromanaging on the Second Floor”. However, Cantrell goes further than any of her opponents on one of the most hated elements of Mitch’s New Orleans—the proliferation of traffic cameras. Cantrell pledged to rid the city of “all” traffic cameras, (excepting ‘license readers’ used by NOPD). No more sudden speed traps, hated by most motorists; no more “running a stop sign” citations, when nary a stop sign nor a police officer were to be found.

Conservative voters in the city have gripped for years that the traffic cameras were just a means for Mitch Landrieu to “pick their pockets.” The Mayor ardently disagreed, citing increased roadway safety, but there is little doubt that the city budget became more flush. Traffic cameras now fund two percent of the city’s budget. Still, Cantrell claimed in a recent forum the city’s traffic cameras are “costing residents money that could be spent on their families,” promising to suspend the program unless real evidence can be produced that it increases safety.

“We will address infrastructure needs, but we aren’t going to do it by nickeling and diming our people,” she said, noting her experience dealing with the budget on the City Council as providing the expertise to plug the deficit hole created by losing the fines. For a candidate whose best known municipal legislative reform—the abolishment of indoor smoking in public areas in the city—hardly endeared her to libertarian conservatives, going after the “hated cameras” certainly provides an entrepot to voters on the Right. Pledging to not raise taxes to make up the funding deficits created by the abolition of the camera penalties did too.

Businessman Troy Henry, who came in second to Mitch Landrieu in the 2010 mayoral contest, earning 14 percent of the vote, has not only heavily funded his second bid for City Hall with his personal fortune. He also has pledged to bring 40,000 jobs to the city by any legal means available. Besides “recruiting large companies and improving the electric power and Internet infrastructures,” Henry has expressed a willingness to go further. While his official platform has yet to be released, the candidate has indicated an interest in targeting certain classes of business taxes and fees which he believes hinder corporate growth.

In his campaign announcement, Henry emphasized, “We can’t continue going from one administration to the next with the same problems that continue to plague every Mayor and Council. Something different has to happen to benefit the citizens not just in talk or political rhetoric, but in reality!”

Henry expanded upon that idea at a July 25 town hall at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. Responding to a lady who complained of the lack of job opportunities, the businessman said that everything had to be “on the table” to draw economic opportunity here. “I’m tired of New Orleans being a ‘settle-for’ city,” he remarked.

Few mayoral candidates, though, have been willing to court the controversy that former Civil Court Chief Judge Michael Bagneris has evoked in recent weeks. Gaining a third of the vote four years ago against Mitch Landrieu thanks to a coalition of disaffected African-American voters joining with the endorsement and heavy support of local GOP leaders is a strategy that he wishes to repeat.

In a recent Louisiana Weekly story which went viral, Bagneris contended that the sitting Mayor should never have taken down the Confederate Monuments without a vote of people.

“First of all, it is absolutely unforgivable that our city leaders have allowed the monument issue to take away from all of the pressing issues that we have right now.”
“This is what I think should have happened to begin with,” Bagneris continued, “if in fact, a referendum—not a referendum statewide, a referendum only for Orleans Parish—is called, let the people go ahead and decide if they want to move this matter any further.”

Judge Bagneris added, before there is any consideration of removing the other controversial statues, Andrew Jackson, Bienville, E.D. White, and John McDonogh as #TakeEmDownNola has proposed, there should be a citywide public vote. “Once that vote comes in, that’s it! As far as I’m concerned, we’re still a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Over 64 percent of the white electorate, according to a Ron Faucheax poll, opposed the removal of the Confederate monuments. Needless to say, Bagneris instantly made himself popular with that group, even though he might not personally argue that the statues should remain standing. His call for a citywide referendum on the matter certainly re-enforced his local Republican support. As to what effect the position may have had with his core Black voters remains to be seen. None of the other Mayoral candidates has endorsed the idea of a referendum, especially after Frank Stewart launched a signature campaign to put one on the ballot.

Bagneris’ challenge of creating a White/Black coalition—to make the runoff—comes not only from his three other aforementioned rivals (as well as politically influential, but lesser known, African-American candidates like Tommy Vassel who nip at their heels), but also from the only well-financed Caucasian candidate. A contender, for whom the Confederate monuments is not just an issue, but an obsession.

Frank Scurlock is unlikely to win the Mayor’s race, but he could consolidate enough Caucasian support to deny one of other four frontrunners a runoff slot. The owner of the local “bouncy house” empire, Spacewalk, loaned his campaign $626,000 to launch his bid. His $500,000 war chest is second only to Charbonnet’s — and he will spend it.

Arrested in May for protesting against the removal of the Jefferson Davis Monument, Scurlock went so far as to don a Confederate uniform to the Capitol in May on the day when the state House approved a bill forbidding the removal, renaming or alteration of any “memorial, including any structure, plaque, statue or monument,” on public property commemorating any of the nation’s wars, including what was referred to in the bill as the “War Between the States,” unless a majority of local voters approved. (House Bill 71 later died in the state Senate.)

Seeking to restore the Confederate monuments and implement other conservative policies, the former Republican switched to the Democrats earlier this year to run for Mayor of New Orleans. To say the least, Scurlock would likely have a hard time garnering African-American support, yet as the only Caucasian contender with the wherewithal to run TV and radio ads, a protest vote for Scurlock could undermine Charbonnet’s, Cantrell’s, Henry’s, and Bagneris’ attempts at a white-Black coalition of voters.

This article originally published in the August 14, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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