Only one council incumbent, Councilman-at-Large Eddie Sapir, is term-limited and not seeking any office this election season. Five of his colleagues are running for re-election to their current seats, while one -- District C Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson -- is giving up her district seat to run at-large.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, 46 candidates qualified for the council -- another reflection of the "enraged and engaged" electorate that emerged from Katrina's floodwaters. Many are first-time candidates, and some have mounted major challenges to veteran incumbents not accustomed to such tenacity from political rookies.
Large Field At-Large
The race for the council's two at-large seats is a true free-for-all. Voters can cast ballots for two candidates -- and any candidate who gets more than 25 percent of the vote in the primary wins outright. If no one gets more than 25 percent, the top four make the May 20 runoff. If only one candidate gets more than 25 percent of the vote on Saturday, the next two finishers will go to the runoff.
Since 1977, New Orleans voters have elected one black and one white councilmember at-large. This is more than symbolic in race-conscious New Orleans. The at-large members take turns presiding at council meetings for two years at a time, and the president assigns members to various committees -- where much of the council's work is done. In many ways, the council president sets that body's tone as well as its agenda.
In Saturday's primary, incumbent Oliver Thomas is the odds-on favorite to win straight up. He is the only major African-American candidate in the contest, and he is a proven vote getter. Four years ago, after serving eight years as the District B councilman, he stepped up to the at-large race and received more votes than any other candidate on the entire ballot.
Also, since Katrina, Thomas' star has risen. He helped rescue families from the flood and was a frequent guest on talk-radio shows, providing facts and analysis in what has otherwise been an information void at City Hall. Even Thomas' opponents concede he pretty much has a lock on one of the seats, and he may be the only council incumbent to win on Saturday. If he does, he could play a decisive role in determining who wins the other at-large seat.
The second seat is truly up for grabs, but recent polls suggest that District C Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson could win it in the primary -- depending on turnout. In addition to her hallmark fire-engine-red dresses, Clarkson stands out in this 11-candidate field because she is the only female. That could play a huge role as women already hold a majority of the council seats -- and they constitute a majority of registered voters.
Clarkson, a Democrat, has not raised nearly as much money as some of her opponents, but her name recognition is nearly universal and she generally gets high marks for her votes in support of neighborhoods, recreation and public safety. On most of the crucial votes, she has been an ally of Mayor Nagin.
Several challengers are making significant in-roads among the city's aroused electorate. Chief among them are former New Orleans Saints executive Arnie Fielkow, retired investment banker David Lapin, and actor-activist Roger Wilson.
Fielkow gained notoriety when he was fired from his job as the Saints' vice-president of administration, reportedly because he prodded owner Tom Benson to make a more solid commitment to New Orleans. His dismissal was seen as the consequence of taking a principled stand on behalf of a downtrodden city. Now voters have a chance to repay the favor. But Fielkow, a Democrat, has more than public gratitude going for him; he is a business executive and attorney whose negotiating skills are evident in the deal that Benson extracted from the state years ago.
Lapin is a classic example of a political newcomer whose civic fire was ignited after Katrina. He and his wife moved to New Orleans less than three years ago, when they were charmed by the city during their first visit. During and after the storm, he saw so many dysfunctional government entities that he decided he had to get involved to try to fix things. Possessed of a powerful intellect and quick wit, Lapin impresses crowds with his insights into local politics and with his no-nonsense proposals for turning the city around. He is a Democrat.
Wilson, an actor and writer, was born and raised in New Orleans and returned home after Katrina because he felt he had to try to make a difference in the city that had given him his start. He quickly connected with local African-American ministers and helped bring down more than $5 million in post-Katrina goods. He is a staunch advocate of allowing all neighborhoods to rebuild, and he has garnered significant black support as a result of his grassroots recovery efforts. He is a registered independent.
The remaining six candidates include pastor and former state Rep. Leonard Lucas, a Democrat; retired engineer Les Evenchick, an independent; consultant William "Poppa" Gant, an independent; businessman Michael Gray, a Republican; investment broker Alden Hagardorn, a Republican; and financial advisor Carlos Hornbrook, a Democrat.
Republican incumbent Jay Batt faces seven opponents on Saturday, and he clearly has been targeted by all of them during this hotly contested battle. The district, which stretches from Uptown to the Lakefront, has elected Republicans for more than 25 years running -- but this year Batt's leading challenger is Democrat Shelley Stephenson Midura, a former foreign-service officer.
Batt stresses his support of City Planning Commission decisions on zoning and land-use matters. Ironically, much of his opposition has resulted from some of those same decisions. Batt supported expansion of the Stuart Hall School on Carrollton Avenue and renovation of Bruno's Bar on Maple Street -- both of which had planning commission approval. Nonetheless, a vocal and highly organized band of opponents has vowed to sack Batt because of his support for those projects. Some have even put up a Web site promoting "Anybody But Batt."
One of Batt's opponents, Sal Palmisano, is running even though he helped elect Batt four years ago. Palmisano suggests on his Web site that Batt was "absent" during and after Katrina, an assertion Batt denies.
Of all the opponents, Midura has gained the most traction. She has the endorsement of the AFL-CIO and the New Orleans Coalition, and she has proposed a five-point plan to rebuild the district. She calls her plan the "Commitment to Initiative." Among her planks is support for a local ethics board and a city inspector general. Both she and Batt favor a Master Plan and comprehensive zoning ordinance with the force of law -- which would take zoning and land-use decisions out of the council's hands and leave them with the planning commission.
A businessman, Batt led the fight to suspend enforcement of the city's controversial domicile ordinance, which required NOPD officers to live in the city. He convinced a majority of the council to impose a moratorium on the rule so that the city could recruit and promote cops who live in surrounding parishes.
Batt has been endorsed by the Alliance for Good Government, the Police Association of New Orleans, the Regular Democratic Organization (even though he is a Republican), and the Forum for Equality. In the final two weeks before the election, he launched a media campaign answering the barrage of attacks that his opponents -- particularly Palmisano and Midura -- had waged against him in prior weeks.
Batt's other opponents include law student Sonja Gupta, a 25-year-old independent; engineer and real estate developer Ray Landeche, a 47-year-old independent; 22-year-old David Nowak, an independent; medical sales executive Stephen Saussy, an independent; and attorney Tom Wagner, a 60-year-old Republican.
Incumbent Rene Gill Pratt is seeking a second term on the council from District B, which includes some of the most upscale neighborhoods in town as well as some of the poorest. Pratt, a Democrat and former state lawmaker, faces five opponents. The district includes the Garden District, Broadmoor, Central City, the Central Business District and parts of Uptown and Mid-City.
Candidate debates have been lively, and the field is widely considered one of the strongest in all the council races. It includes three attorneys, a minister, and an outspoken gardener who frequently tried to take over a debate. Pratt, who is soft-spoken but resolute, stresses her experience in local and state government along with her knowledge of the system and how to make it work for her constituents. She says she stayed in town during Katrina to help others "when others were fleeing New Orleans." She pledges to work to improve flood protection if re-elected.
In contrast to the rough-and-tumble exchanges of attacks that have marked the campaign in District A, the candidates in this campaign have stuck to issues and avoided personal criticisms. Democrat Stacy Head, considered by many to pose the most serious threat to Pratt's re-election, says housing should be the No. 1 priority. She also pledges to work better with whoever becomes mayor and with other council members. Head, an attorney, says her "hands-on" experience as a renovator who has turned around blighted homes in the district is evidence of her ability to make a difference in housing opportunities after Katrina. She has the endorsement of the Alliance for Good Government.
Marshall Truehill, a minister and member of the City Planning Commission, says New Orleans must adopt a comprehensive zoning ordinance and a Master Plan -- with the force of law -- to get the council out of the business of overturning well-thought-out planning decisions made by the commission. He proposes a six-month plan to amend the City Charter so that needed reforms can be adopted and implemented.
Attorney Michael Duplantier likewise stresses smart planning and land use as a key element for recovery. He adds that he does not believe New Orleans has made itself friendly enough to businesses that want to operate here. A Democrat, Duplantier has years of experience working with business groups, including the Chamber and the Earhart-Tulane Corridor Association.
Attorney Shane Landry, also a Democrat, and lawn-care worker Quentin Brown, an independent who has run for mayor and governor before, round out the field. Landry proposes to permanently abolish the residency rule and to diversify the local economy.
The most complex district in town, District C straddles the Mississippi River and includes the French Quarter, Algiers, Faubourg Marigny, Bywater and parts of Faubourg St. John and Mid-City. Incumbent Jackie Clarkson is seeking an at-large council seat, and seven candidates hope to win her district seat.
Many agree that this race has drawn the strongest field of any council district. The most visible candidates are former District C Councilman Mike Early, attorney and former City Planning Commission member Jane Booth, attorney and civic activist James Carter, and Algiers civic leader Kristin Palmer. All four are Democrats.
As a former councilman who represented the district for 14 years (1976-1990), Early definitely has the edge in name recognition and is expected to lead the pack on Saturday. He says he was among the first and staunchest council defenders of historic and neighborhood preservation during his tenure on the council, and he pledges to continue in that vein if elected again. He also notes that no new French Quarter hotels were built during his tenure on the council -- a reference to the current council's approval of a new hotel on Iberville Street, over the objections of Clarkson.
Polls show Early's main competition is Carter, who is the only African-American candidate in the race. The district at one time had a slim black majority. Carter stresses that he has lived in just about every corner of the district -- attending McDonogh No. 35 High School and NOCCA, buying his first home in Bywater, and now living in Algiers. He has been active in several civic endeavors, including his service as program director of the Weed & Seed program, a U.S. Justice Department initiative aimed at reducing crime among youths. The husband of a charter school administrator, Carter says he believes good schools will make a huge difference in the aftermath of Katrina.
Booth proposes major reforms in the way the council and the city do business, including limiting the mayor's ability to award professional-services contracts. She staunchly supports a Master Plan with the force of law -- a proposal she helped craft while on the City Planning Commission. Booth also is a vociferous advocate for historic neighborhoods, and she wants to offer them even more protection against overdevelopment and commercial intrusion. She proposes to let some historic neighborhoods, such as the French Quarter, to have a measure of self-governance on quality-of-life issues.
Palmer, an Algiers resident and one-time director of the Christmas in October program, touts her experience as a renovator and volunteer activist as her main qualifications. She supports the hiring of a city inspector general and establishment of a city ethics commission. She says the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's plan would have been better if the city had already adopted a Master Plan and if the commission's membership had been more diverse. She also supports the hiring of bi-lingual police officers to deal with the influx of foreign workers during the city's recovery period.
Other candidates include businessman Julian Doerr, an independent; writer and educator Charles Duffy III, a Democrat; and emergency repair specialist Gregg Huber, a Democrat.
Stretching from the Upper Ninth Ward to Bayou St. John to the UNO area of the Lakefront to parts of eastern New Orleans, District D encompasses the neighborhoods of Gentilly, Pontchartrain Park, Lake Oaks, Bancroft Park, Pines Village and more.
Incumbent Cynthia Hedge-Morrell won the seat in a special election a year ago, and she has had to adapt quickly to the trials presented by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. She faces four opponents on Saturday: state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Louella Givens, a Democrat; IT specialist Darrell Gray, a Democrat; construction manager Abron Morgan, a Democrat; and attorney Van Robichaux, an independent.
Katrina hit District D hard, pouring floodwaters into neighborhoods from both sides of the London Avenue Canal as well as from the Industrial Canal. Many voters seemed to return home in the weeks prior to the election, but the lack of telephone service in many neighborhoods made it impossible for pollsters to survey the district. Consequently, no one could measure the mood of voters with any certainty.
Morrell says she helped her constituents get an early start on the road to recovery by helping to organize a neighborhood planning meeting in the Gentilly and Pontchartrain Park area after Katrina. She also cast a controversial swing vote in favor of a moratorium on enforcement of the residency rule as it applies to the Police Department. The rule was suspended after Katrina to allow NOPD to recruit and promote officers who live outside the city. A retired school administrator, Morrell says recovery depends heavily on the return of good schools to all parts of town.
BESE member Givens supports a Master Plan with the force of law, and she promises not to continue the tradition of deferring all land-use decisions to district council members. She has set forth a 12-point recovery plan that includes closure of the MR-GO waterway, completion of repairs to the London Avenue Canal floodwalls, construction of floodgates at the mouths of all canals, removal of debris from streets, comprehensive environmental testing and notice to the public of environmental risks, additional funding to reopen local schools, and vigorous enforcement of the Fair Housing Act. She says she decided to run because she did not see any neighborhood planning meetings in her area, and she opposes the idea of the city or the school system declaring bankruptcy.
IT professional Gray is one of the few council candidates who opposes a Master Plan with the force of law. He says it would take away neighborhoods' power to make land-use and quality-of-life decisions. Construction manager Morgan could not be reached for comment.
Attorney Robichaux says he decided to run because he was disheartened after Katrina by "the total breakdown in governmental services, which led to panic, chaos and anarchy." He says he will work to build better communication between the council and the mayor, and among council members. He supports a Master Plan with the force of law and he pledges to help repeal outdated ordinances that hinder business development and the overall recovery effort. Robichaux adds that destruction from Katrina was so widespread in the district that a massive infrastructure improvement program is needed to restore power, telephone service and housing.
District E encompasses the now-renowned Lower Ninth Ward and most of eastern New Orleans, as well as the remains of the recently redeveloped Desire public housing development. Incumbent Cynthia Willard-Lewis faces eight opponents, with 27-year-old Nolan Marshall III proving to be the most competitive among them.
The biggest battle for Willard-Lewis and her constituents east of the Industrial Canal has been getting power, water, sewerage and telephone services restored. In many respects, the canal has served as an impermeable barrier when it comes to recovery. Everything west of the canal has recovered relatively quickly, whereas all areas east of the canal have been virtually cut off from city and utility services.
Willard-Lewis has been part battering ram, part cheerleader in the effort to spur repopulation and recovery in the hard-hit district. She rode herd on FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clear streets in the Lower Nine so that Holy Cross School could reopen in mid-January -- the first school to reopen east of the canal. When city and federal assistance ground to a halt in November, she helped organize a rousing welcome in eastern New Orleans for former Mayor Marc Morial, who used the occasion to announce his support for rebuilding all neighborhoods.
For his part, Marshall supports some aspects of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission recovery plan -- but not the entire controversial land-use plan. He says the plan "needs direction," particularly in areas that alluded to large tracts of "green space" where neighborhoods existed prior to Katrina. He pledges to be more "anticipatory" of potential crises and therefore better prepared to handle them, and both he and Willard-Lewis oppose rebuilding large, dense housing projects as they existed before the storm.
Other candidates include deputy clerk of court Cederick Favaroth, printer and construction worker Wayne Johnson, businessman Willie Jones, educator Shawn Lockett, electrical engineer Myron Mitchell, retail manager William James Willis III, and sales executive John Zimmer, who is also a Republican. All others except Johnson are Democrats; Johnson is an independent.
Councilmember(s) at Large
Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, 70, Democrat
Les Evenchick, 64, Independent
Arnie Fielkow, 50, Democrat
William "Poppa" Gant, 63, Independent
Michael T. Gray, 46, Republican
Alden G. Hagardorn, 51, Republican
Carlos J. Hornbrook, 46, Democrat
David Lapin, 55, Democrat
Leonard Lucas Jr., 54, Democrat
Oliver M. Thomas, 49, Democrat
Roger Wilson, 49, Independent
Councilmember, District A
John A. "Jay" Batt Jr., 45, Republican
Sonia Gupta, 25, Independent
Ray Landeche, 47, Independent
Shelley Stephenson Midura, 40, Democrat
David Nowak, 22, Independent
Salvador "Sal" Palmisano III, 34, Republican
Stephen Saussy, 40, Independent
Thomas "Tom" Wagner, 60, Republican
Councilmember, District B
Quentin R. Brown, 36, Independent
Michael A. Duplantier, 59, Democrat
Stacy Head, 36, Democrat
Shane P. Landry, 33, Democrat
René Gill Pratt, 52, Democrat
Marshall Truehill Jr., 57, Democrat
Councilmember, District C
Jane Ettinger Booth, 44, Democrat
James Carter, 36, Democrat
Julian Doerr, 56, Independent
Charles P. Duffy III, 36, Democrat
Mike Early, 64, Democrat
Gregg Huber, 46, Democrat
Kristin Gisleson Palmer, 38, Democrat
Councilmember, District D
Louella Givens, 59, Democrat
Darrell R. Gray, 45, Democrat
Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, 58, Democrat
Abron Morgan, 49, Democrat
Van Robichaux, 54, Independent
Councilmember, District E
Cederick Favaroth, 26, Democrat
Wayne A. Johnson, 49, Independent
Willie L. Jones Jr., 39, Democrat
Shawn Lockett, 35, Democrat
Nolan Marshall, 27, Democrat
Myron L. Mitchell, 37, Democrat
Cynthia Willard-Lewis, 53, Democrat
William James Willis III, 41, Democrat
John D. Zimmer, 41, Republican