This Saturday's elections provide the citizens of New Orleans with their first chance to send a clear message to the world about how we plan to handle the crises -- and the opportunities -- presented by Katrina. As we listened to the candidates for mayor, City Council and various parochial offices during the course of the campaign season, we were struck not only by the large number of people offering themselves for public service, but also by the extremely high quality of many candidates. More than ever, our endorsement decisions have been difficult -- but for the very best of reasons: There are so many outstanding candidates from which to choose. In fact, in several races we simply had to acknowledge that more than one candidate merits our support. We trust our readers to make the best choice in each instance.
Make no mistake, the entire world is watching this election. So far, we think New Orleans has performed remarkably well. For example, turnout in early and absentee voting has been extremely high -- and participation has reflected almost the exact proportions of black and white voter registration. This is important because it shows that displaced minority voters have not been adversely impacted by the unique voting mechanisms adopted by state lawmakers and elections officials. It also shows that everyone recognizes the importance of these elections. That is a great sign.
We add one word of caution. In the aftermath of so much devastation, it's easy to grow frustrated at government's inability to make everything right immediately. We've all been hurt by Katrina and we all have a well of anger inside us. To some, this election is a chance to strike back at government by tossing out all incumbents in a knee-jerk, emotional expression of community-wide frustration. We urge our readers to resist those instincts. As bad as things are, they can get worse. Instead, we hope voters will examine each race and candidate in a calm and deliberate manner -- because the leaders we choose for the next four years must make vital decisions that will require that same level-headedness, that same clarity of vision and that same boldness of purpose. This is no time to heed shrill voices.
In the following columns, we present our recommendations. We hope all our readers who are eligible to vote in New Orleans will go to the polls this Saturday. This is our chance to chart a new course for New Orleans. This is our chance to tell the world that New Orleans is coming back -- better than ever.
In the wake of Katrina's devastation and in the midst of so much confusion, our city faces many obstacles to recovery. At such times, it can be daunting to try to pinpoint a single, overarching priority. Nevertheless, we think New Orleans must do just that --Êand for us that priority is making ours a city that is good for business. That goal is easy to articulate but very difficult to achieve. In our view, a city that's good for business must have a City Hall that works from top to bottom -- and that starts with a bold, effective leader at the top. There are several very qualified candidates for mayor, but we think one stands out as the right man for our city in these difficult times: Mitch Landrieu.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu will be good for business because he knows that the best thing a mayor can do is make City Hall work ... and then get out of the way. And, unlike some so-called "business candidates," he knows how to make government work. More than any other candidate, Mitch Landrieu has the experience, the temperament and the confidence of citizens and elected officials alike to get City Hall moving again in the right direction.
A city that is good for business works only when it is safe, has an infrastructure that is solidly built and well maintained and delivers fundamental services in a timely and cost-effective manner. Some candidates for mayor are campaigning as if they are running for savior --Êand many citizens are falling into the trap of expecting too much from our next mayor. We think it's time to get back to basics. The next mayor should focus on the job of being mayor in a fundamental way -- by making city government do the things that only city government can do and doing them well. Fix the streets. Pick up the trash. Provide police, fire and EMS services timely and professionally. Cut the grass on neutral grounds and playgrounds. Make it easy for businesses to open and prosper by removing obstacles to growth. At the same time, protect historic neighborhoods and advocate for better educational and economic opportunities for all. And, on top of all those fundamental tasks, help residents and businesses return home by securing a workforce that has good housing and access to healthcare and childcare. These are issues that Mitch Landrieu has successfully addressed all his adult life. He has succeeded because he knows that one person can't do it alone. He has worked well with private citizens, business leaders and elected officials to move our city and state forward. As mayor, he can do even more.
As lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu proved that he could bring new business to the state by tapping into our region's cultural economy -- an asset that few cities have, and the potential of which New Orleans is only beginning to realize. As a legislator, he was named a "business champion" by the New Orleans Chamber two years in a row. He took the lead in creating a statewide cancer consortium, which now can bring good jobs back to our downtown medical complex. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, he brought tourism, cultural and restaurant industry leaders together to present a clear vision and plan for recovery in our city's leading economic sector -- at a time when the mayor and governor were still squabbling over who's in charge. Landrieu's recovery plan is now working; our hospitality industry is back on its feet and growing stronger every day. That's the kind of leadership and direction New Orleans needs now.
We urge all our readers to vote for Mitch Landrieu for mayor. He is the right man for our city in these difficult times.
Council at-Large (two seats):
Oliver Thomas and either
Arnie Fielkow or Jackie Clarkson
Voters can vote for two candidates in this race. Serving at-large on the City Council requires more than just running and winning citywide; it demands that someone constantly keep "the big picture" in mind. At-large council members take turns serving annual terms as council president, during which they appoint members to important council committees and preside at council meetings. In many respects, they are the leaders of the council, and voters should choose them even more carefully than they choose their district council members. After looking at all the candidates closely, we recommend our readers cast their first vote for Oliver Thomas and their second for either Arnie Fielkow or Jackie Clarkson.
Thomas has already completed one term as councilman at-large, and before that he served honorably as District B councilman. His performance before, during and after Hurricane Katrina showed that he knows how to keep a cool head in a time of crisis. A veteran of the council, he still brings a newcomer's enthusiasm to the job of working with the mayor and other council members to address the city's problems. Thomas can always be counted on to take courageous positions on controversial subjects, and that's the kind of leadership New Orleans needs as it struggles to recover.
Fielkow is making his first bid for public office, but he is no stranger to public issues. As a former executive vice president of administration for the New Orleans Saints, Fielkow helped negotiate complex deals with the city and the state to help keep the NFL franchise in New Orleans. Indeed, he lost his job with the Saints because he had the guts to tell his boss that the team needed to do more to demonstrate its commitment to the city.
Clarkson has a long history as a reformer who is passionate about our city's parks and playgrounds as well as our historic neighborhoods. Her background as a Realtor gives her a business savvy that is always welcome at the council table, and her integrity is above question. We believe either Fielkow or Clarkson would make an excellent co-leader of the council with Thomas.
We feel obliged to add that we were very impressed with two other candidates -- David Lapin and Roger Wilson. Their passion for the city and their vision of what it can be are contagious. We hope they will continue to offer themselves in service to New Orleans, even if it is outside the political arena.
Council, District A: Jay Batt
District A stretches from Uptown to Carrollton to Mid-City to Lakeview and the lakefront and is easily the city's most affluent council district. But it is not without controversy, particularly in the area of land use. Incumbent Jay Batt is a staunch supporter of getting the City Council out of the business of reviewing the City Planning Commission's land-use decisions. He favors a Master Plan for the city -- one that has the force of law -- which would bar the council from tinkering with (or overriding) the planning board's decisions. As a councilman, Batt has consistently voted to uphold the planning commission's recommendations on controversial zoning and land-use proposals. A businessman, he played a leading role in removing the domicile requirement for police officers, a decision that will help fill vacancies at NOPD with more and better qualified recruits. He likewise has stood by neighborhoods in their efforts to rebound after Katrina, and he helped defuse a FEMA trailer controversy in City Park by forging a compromise that will put first responders into the temporary homes. Above all, he has remained accessible and responsive to his constituents. We recommend that voters in District A re-elect Jay Batt.
Council, District B: Stacy Head
District B includes some of the most important real estate in the city -- the Central Business District, the Warehouse/Arts District, Harrah's Casino and a slew of downtown hotels, as well as Central City, Gert Town and the Garden District. We recommend Stacy Head because she brings a wealth of experience and energy to the task of helping this critical part of town rebound after Katrina. An attorney by profession, Head has personally helped put blighted housing back into commerce by buying and renovating dilapidated properties. She also has worked in numerous civic and charitable causes, including the Pro Bono Project, Rebuilding Together, the Children's Museum and the Preservation Resource Center. We urge our readers in District B to elect Stacy Head as their new council member.
Council, District C: Jane Booth
Voters in District C will be electing a new council member because incumbent Jackie Clarkson is running for one of the two at-large council seats. This district includes some of the most historic neighborhoods in town -- Algiers, the Vieux Carr, Faubourg Marigny and parts of Bywater, Faubourg St. John and Mid-City. Such a district cries out for a council representative who is sensitive to neighborhood issues, committed to historic preservation and a tireless worker. We note that this contest attracted the most impressive field of candidates on the ballot -- and that's saying a lot. While several candidates got our attention, we give the nod to Jane Booth. A lawyer and past member of the City Planning Commission, Booth is uniquely qualified to address the myriad needs of this complex district. She knows the neighborhoods because she has lived and worked in most parts of the district during her life and career. While on the planning commission, she showed that she had the kind of integrity and courage that our city needs in the difficult days ahead. We recommend Jane Booth for council in District C.
Council, District D: Cynthia Hedge-Morrell
District D elected a new council member last spring when Cynthia Hedge-Morrell won a special election to succeed Marlin Gusman, who is our new criminal sheriff. After only a few months in office, Morrell had to help thousands of constituents navigate the bureaucratic maze of local, state and federal emergency-assistance programs. She did that by convening town hall meetings soon after Katrina, and she continued to work closely with her many flooded-out constituents. She also showed that she is willing to make tough, controversial decisions by supporting a moratorium on enforcement of the domicile requirement at NOPD in the wake of Katrina. A retired educator, Morrell also knows how important it is for city leaders to work with public and private schools to strengthen neighborhoods, give kids hope and reduce crime. She has been a good addition to the council. We urge voters in District D to re-elect Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.
Council, District E: Cynthia Willard-Lewis
District E includes the Lower Ninth Ward and eastern New Orleans, two areas of town that have been all but wiped out by Katrina. Because both neighborhoods are located east of the Industrial Canal, relatively few of their residents have been able to return home. Those that are back, however, have seen first-hand how much of a fighter Cynthia Willard-Lewis has been for their interests. She has worked day and night to help get services restored to the Lower Nine, and she has been an effective advocate for the right of eastern New Orleans residents to determine their own future after Katrina. We have been impressed by one of her opponents, Nolan Marshall III, but we think Willard-Lewis has earned the right to serve another term. At this crucial juncture in the history of the Lower Nine and eastern New Orleans, Cynthia Willard-Lewis provides the kind of leadership, passion and commitment that's needed to make sure those threatened areas have a seat at the table. We recommend her re-election in District E.
Civil Sheriff: Paul Valteau Jr.
Paul Valteau Jr. has served as civil sheriff since 1982. In all those years, there has not been a hint of scandal associated with his service. The civil sheriff's office is manned by a courteous and professional staff that gets the job done effectively and efficiently. It handles all executive duties for the civil court system, serves process on litigants, auctions off seized properties and provides security for both the courts and City Hall. The office is self-sufficient, deriving all its revenues from fees collected for its services. In addition to running a competent and professional office, Sheriff Valteau has been active in civic and community affairs. His Reserve Deputies Association has donated millions of dollars in volunteer man-hours to public and charitable causes since he established it in 1986. We urge Sheriff Valteau's re-election.
Criminal Sheriff: Marlin Gusman
Marlin Gusman had been in office only nine months when Katrina struck, yet he handled the awesome responsibility of evacuating more than 6,000 prisoners like a seasoned lawman. Before the storm, Gusman brought promised transparency to the office by presenting the most detailed budget in memory to the City Council and by calling for independent review and public scrutiny of the prison's medical department. He also has expanded the office's enviable record of rehabilitation programs and worked to speed the booking process for minor offenses. In the wake of Katrina, he faces the daunting task of rebuilding the office and many of its facilities on a much smaller budget. An attorney and graduate of the Wharton School of Finance, he clearly is up to the challenge. As a former city councilman, he also knows the political ropes and the value of working closely with City Hall and other officials to generate the resources needed to run this important office. We heartily recommend Sheriff Gusman's re-election.
Clerk, Criminal Court:
Millard Collins or Nick Varrecchio
Twelve candidates initially qualified to run for clerk of Criminal District Court, one of the most low profile -- but highly important -- elective offices in town. The clerk not only keeps the criminal justice system moving along smoothly by safeguarding records and evidence, but also serves as chief elections officer for Orleans Parish. Those are awesome responsibilities. Unfortunately, the incumbent, Kimberly Williamson Butler, has made a sorry mess of things on both counts. She wisely chose not to seek re-election, although she has continued to be a political gadfly by running for mayor.
There are several good candidates lined up to take the reins of this office, but two stand out in our mind: Millard Collins or Nick Varrecchio. Collins has served as attorney for the clerk's office under former Clerk Edwin Lombard. He knows first-hand the workings of the office and many of its veteran personnel. Varrecchio, also an attorney, has extensive experience in voting rights matters and criminal law. He has worked to improve the office by challenging many of its recent shortcomings -- particularly in its handling of post-Katrina polling places. We endorse them men because we think either would make an excellent clerk.
Clerk, Civil Court: Dale Atkins
Dale Atkins has served a clerk of Civil District Court since 1990. Her office has rarely been in the news, which is a sure sign that she's been doing a good job. Since she took office, Atkins has streamlined the filing process and extended the office hours -- making this important office more accessible to attorneys and non-lawyers alike. The office is professional, courteous and soon will be fully computerized. Even now, case data is available on-line for litigants as well as the general public. After Katrina, Atkins adjusted well to the difficulties posed by a smaller staff and damage to the Civil Courts building. She deserves to be re-elected.
Assessors: No Endorsement
This newspaper has long supported the idea of one assessor for New Orleans -- along with the idea that all assessors should be appointed. For that reason, we have consistently declined to endorse candidates for assessor in any parish. We are heartened to see the movement for one New Orleans assessor gain a foothold across New Orleans, but we caution voters against thinking that one elected assessor will solve the vexing problem of artificially low property assessments. The real solution to disparate assessment practices is a state constitutional amendment making all assessors appointed -- and subject to a high standard of professional qualifications.
While we do not endorse any candidate for assessor in this week's primary, we urge our readers to contact state lawmakers and demand passage of a constitutional amendment combining the seven assessors' offices in New Orleans into one -- and making all assessors appointive.
Finally, we again urge our readers who live in New Orleans to vote this Saturday. No election in memory -- possibly none in history -- has been so important to the future of our city.