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Another Bloodletting 

This year's race for district attorney in New Orleans has followed a decades-long tradition of no-holds-barred political attacks

Elections for district attorney in New Orleans are rarely polite exercises in democracy. In fact, you'd have to go back 30 years to find a DA's race that didn't devolve into the political equivalent of a street fight. For some reason, elections for the city's top prosecutorial job seem to attract candidates with a taste for blood.

The run-up to the Oct. 4 primary was no exception. Defense attorney Ralph Capitelli and former Judge Leon Cannizzaro threw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at one another, starting more than three weeks into the race. Capitelli fired first with a TV ad accusing Cannizzaro of gaming the system to increase his judicial retirement benefits. Cannizzaro responded in kind, noting Capitelli's connection to video poker. It went downhill pretty quickly from there.

The whole time Capitelli and Cannizzaro — the two leading white candidates in the primary — were slicing each other up, many wondered if the sole black contender, defense attorney Jason Williams, would benefit from the bloodletting and land a runoff spot. As the only black candidate in the race, Williams certainly had an opening.

But he did not have Capitelli's money or Cannizzaro's name recognition. The DA's race was Williams' first foray into electoral politics, and while he impressed political watchers in live debates, he struggled to gain political traction even in the black community. He didn't put up TV ads until two weeks before the primary. If Williams had had another 10 days of airtime — and another $150,000 — the results on Oct. 4 might have been different.

Instead, Cannizzaro led the four-candidate field with 36.7 percent of the vote, followed by Capitelli with 32.2 percent, Williams with 24.2 percent and Linda Bizzarro with 6.9 percent.

The Nov. 4 runoff thus pits the two white guys who spent the most money against each other.

That outcome is one of several twists that make the DA's race a watershed moment in post-Katrina New Orleans. Before Katrina, few would have expected two white candidates to make the runoff for DA. Several election outcomes since the storm have reflected the city's changing demographics (read: declining black population), but none has resulted in a shutout for black candidates quite like this race for DA.

To be sure, the city still has a black residential majority and a significant black majority in terms of voter registration. But the official registration figures belie several post-Katrina realities. Thousands of local African-American voters no longer live here; as a result, black voter turnout in recent elections has appeared to be significantly lower than white voter turnout.

After the Nov. 4 presidential race, many displaced voters — black and white — could be purged from the voter rolls. State law provides voters can be stricken from the rolls if they fail to vote in two federal elections, and Nov. 4 will mark the second such election since Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of names are likely to be removed from the rolls after the presidential race.

Voters who want to remain on the local rolls need only vote in the Nov. 4 election. Many will do that, as the presidential race historically generates the largest local voter turnout of every four-year election cycle. It's one of the few elections that see almost no turnout differential between black and white voters. With Sen. Barack Obama topping the Democratic ticket, many expect black voter turnout to reach an all-time high. Of course, white voters will turn out in large numbers as well.

How might that affect the DA's race?

In terms of raw numbers, consider these facts: In the 2006 mayoral runoff, a total of 113,591 votes were cast, which represented a turnout of approximately 38 percent of the city's registered voters. In the Oct. 4 primary for DA, slightly more than 62,000 voters cast ballots — a turnout of just over 22 percent.

On Nov. 4, the turnout could be twice what it was on Oct. 4. Long lines at the voter registrar's office in City Hall during last week's early voting period portended a big turnout. That will add a lot of new voters to the mix in the DA's race, and no one can say for certain how they will vote. Many of them are truly "new" voters — young people who registered for the first time out of enthusiasm for Obama.

Which brings us to another twist on the DA's race: the significance of endorsements, particularly in the black community. Cannizzaro has locked up just about every major black endorsement there is to be had — except for that of Williams, the third-place finisher in the primary. Williams is backing Capitelli and has gone on TV and radio promoting Capitelli's candidacy. Every other black political figure of note on the local scene is backing Cannizzaro.

The question is, will any of those endorsements matter?

That's one of many questions that will be answered on Nov. 4.

For all the attacks and counter-attacks we saw before Oct. 4, the two weeks immediately following the primary were eerily quiet.

No attack ads on TV or radio. No direct mail hit pieces. Nothing.

'There's not much money out there," says Capitelli, sounding one of the few notes on which the two candidates agree.

It's always tough to raise political money, but it's even tougher nowadays. For one thing, donors are being tapped at all levels — from presidential candidates to U.S. Senate and congressional hopefuls to local school board contestants, and just about everyone in between. Locally, political donors have been hit up by candidates for district judge, Louisiana Supreme Court justice, state Senate and state Public Service Commission, just to name a few.

On top of all the competition for campaign cash, the stock market crash has made everybody wary of spending money they don't absolutely need to spend.

For his part, Capitelli has raised more than $1.3 million since announcing his candidacy late last year — not bad for a guy who has never sought political office before. Capitelli also has considerable personal wealth he can tap if need be. Cannizzaro, who has won four citywide judicial contests, started out far better known, but he entered the race almost five months after Capitelli. To date, Cannizzaro has raised more than $1 million for the race.

Since Oct. 4, both Capitelli and Cannizzaro have concentrated their efforts on two things: raising money for a final two-week push and locking up endorsements from individuals and organizations that either supported Williams or stayed neutral in the primary. On the latter front, Cannizzaro has clearly pulled away from his opponent.

Even before the runoff, Cannizzaro racked up an impressive list of endorsements. His newest ads trumpet support from four City Council members, five assessors, about a dozen state lawmakers, business and labor leaders, the Alliance for Good Government, both local sheriffs, all four clerks of court, all elected officials in Algiers — and, in what may be a first, the endorsements of both the Democratic and Republican parish executive committees. He also has won the support of the city's three leading black publications — The Louisiana Weekly, the New Orleans Tribune and Data News Weekly.

Capitelli won the support of The Times-Picayune and Gambit Weekly in the primary, along with affidavits of support from more than 100 former prosecutors. Since the primary, he has picked up a key endorsement from Williams. He is hoping Williams, who at 35 speaks directly to younger black as well as white voters, will give him an edge among voters who are looking for an "independent" DA. That's the theme of a Capitelli TV ad that debuted last week featuring the candidate and Williams talking about the importance of a DA's office free of politics.

Meanwhile, on black radio, in an ad paid for by the Capitelli campaign, Williams answers an earlier Cannizzaro ad linking Capitelli to the infamous (and fatal) beating of a black patron outside the Razzoo Bar & Patio club on Bourbon Street. "Razzoo was a big issue for me," Williams says of his erstwhile candidacy for DA. "I discussed it with both candidates, and there are some facts you should know. First, Ralph Capitelli did not represent any of the bouncers. He represented a manager and was not the lawyer when the case went to trial. Second, Capitelli's client was no racist. He was the best man in the wedding of his sister to his best friend, an African American. Third, when I spoke to Leon Cannizzaro, he failed to tell me that his own campaign manager, Sid Arroyo, worked for Razzoo and had signed an affidavit saying that the trial should be moved outside of Orleans Parish. Just like those who have viciously attacked Barack Obama and attempted to mislead us, Leon Cannizzaro is doing the very same thing. Don't fall for it."

Cannizzaro's campaign immediately accused Capitelli of "going negative" and hiding behind Williams to do his attacking. "On election night, Judge Cannizzaro challenged Capitelli to run an issues-based, mud-free runoff campaign, and as all New Orleans saw on TV that night, Capitelli declined," Arroyo says. "He did so again the next day, in follow-up interviews. Since he's trailing in the polls and desperate, we're not surprised that he'll try anything." As for the specifics of Capitelli's attack ad, Arroyo says Cannizzaro "will deal with that accordingly."

Translation: with less than two weeks to go before the final showdown, the attacks are about to resume — fast and furious.

The only independent poll that has surfaced since Oct. 4 had Cannizzaro leading by about 5 percentage points, which is within the survey's margin of error but a significant lead nonetheless. Cannizzaro holds a substantial lead over Capitelli among black voters, while Capitelli leads his opponent handily among whites.

Here's a final twist to the DA's race: the winner will have no transition period.

Instead, he will take office almost immediately (as soon as the results are certified) thanks to the resignation of former DA Eddie Jordan last October. Because the special election to complete Jordan's term drew exactly the same candidates as the race to succeed him for a full term, the two elections were combined into one. Thus, the winner of next Tuesday's runoff could take office as soon as the end of next week, or early in the week of Nov. 10.

Whoever wins will have to hit the ground running — as soon as he washes off the campaign mud.

click to enlarge Defense attorney Ralph Capitelli (left) and former Judge Leon Cannizzaro have pulled out all the stops in their battle for District Attorney. Voters will decide who wins during a runoff election Nov. 4.
  • Defense attorney Ralph Capitelli (left) and former Judge Leon Cannizzaro have pulled out all the stops in their battle for District Attorney. Voters will decide who wins during a runoff election Nov. 4.
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