New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's barn-burning speech to the Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC) last week reminded me of political battles from a bygone era, when then-DA Harry Connick regularly lambasted Criminal Court judges he deemed insufficiently pro-prosecution.
Connick's volleys were akin to picking on the Amish, inasmuch as judges cannot discuss pending cases. Cannizzaro, by contrast, has taken aim at politicians who can shoot back: Mayor Mitch Landrieu and New Orleans City Council members.
The DA is upset City Hall adopted a 2017 budget that shorts his office $600,000 compared to last year. Several council members, including at-large Councilman Jason Williams and District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry, admit they cut Cannizzaro's allocation because they don't like some of his prosecutorial policies; they feel he focuses too much on minor drug offenses that overcrowd the local jail. The DA says if City Hall doesn't want him prosecuting drug cases, it should tell cops to stop arresting people on drug charges.
The DA is independently elected, so he doesn't answer to the council or the mayor, at least not directly. The council does have the power of the purse, however, so those are the strings they've tightened.
Lucky for them, Cannizzaro hasn't responded in kind. He has the power to launch grand jury investigations. As one prosecutor bragged long ago, a DA can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich if he wants. Instead, Cannizzaro has taken to the bully pulpit, accusing City Hall of "ill-conceived" policy decisions that, "if left unchecked, will destroy this city." Cannizzaro may not be winning friends and influencing people at City Hall, but the MCC gave him a standing ovation. When the press took note, the political war was on.
The hostilities erupted at the same time Landrieu announced a $40 million crime-fighting initiative that upgrades technology and adds take-home cop cars — but does not increase New Orleans Police Department manpower or give more money to Cannizzaro's office. That chafed the DA.
Landrieu's office initially tried to dodge the fray, but that proved impossible. "This is clearly about politics, not about reducing crime," Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni said. "The DA is upset that the council cut his budget, like many other departments. He also doesn't like that the council is asking him tough questions about his policies that contribute to over-incarceration in our city."
Cannizzaro spokesman Chris Bowman responded, "If the mayor believes that aggressive prosecution of violent criminals leads to over-incarceration, then why is the city spending $40 million on a crime-fighting initiative that presumably will result in the arrest of more violent criminals?"
So far, the fighting has amounted to little more than each side counting coup on the other. No serious blood has been drawn, but that could change. Citywide elections for mayor and council are set for October and November.
Cannizzaro isn't up for re-election until 2020, and Landrieu is term-limited. Most council members, on the other hand, will be running for something. Stay tuned.