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Hail to the Chief? 

They say nature abhors a vacuum, and they are right. When business and civic leaders across town took a good, long look at the list of announced and prospective mayoral candidates, all they saw was a vacuum.

And now they've filled it.

Police Chief Richard Pennington will run for mayor. He hasn't yet made it official, but my sources say he made up his mind the weekend before Halloween and began telling top supporters and friends that he's definitely running.

A cadre of business, civic and religious leaders urged Pennington and Audubon Institute director Ron Forman to consider running. Forman demurred, telling everyone that he loves the job he's got. Pennington was an easier sell.

Among those leading the "Draft Pennington" movement were businessmen Boysie Bollinger, a leading Republican financier who is expected to play a big role in raising money for Pennington, a Democrat; and Frank Stewart, another Republican businessman and frequent campaign contributor. A handful of other Business Council types helped convince Pennington to make the race, and Mayor Marc Morial is said to be pleased with the chief's decision. For good measure, a number of black clergymen added their blessing to Pennington's budding candidacy.

Pennington's entry sent shock waves through the political community and completly reshuffled the deck in the mayor's race. The biggest surprise was not that he decided to make the race (I mentioned that possibility in this space months ago), but rather how quickly things fell into place for him. It shows how badly a lot of people wanted another option in the mayor's race. It also says a lot about the chief's popularity, which transcends social, racial and political lines. For the past six years, he has been the only person in town with a better job rating than Morial.

Of the five announced candidates, state Sen. Paulette Irons will be hurt the most by Pennington's candidacy. Irons trotted out a handful of white Republican supporters when she announced last month -- all of them officeholders. It was an impressive show of political support, but her biggest hurdle remains fundraising.

With Pennington now in the race, Irons' white support will drop significantly -- maybe even evaporate. More importantly, the GOP heavyweights lining up behind Pennington are the ones with the big checkbooks. His drafters are talking about a budget of $1.2 million for the Feb. 2 primary. Considering that Pennington already has universal -- and universally positive -- name recognition, he appears to be in the catbird seat as he launches his first bid for public office.

Pennington's advantages don't stop with money and name recognition. In most national campaigns, people vote their pocketbooks. In local races, they often do likewise -- laced with concerns over public safety. In the wake of Sept. 11, and considering the job Pennington has done cleaning up NOPD and reducing violent crime -- not to mention the fact that the Feb. 2 primary will come one day before the biggest terrorist target of 2002, the Super Bowl -- safety could well be the only issue on voters' minds. Who better to soothe voters' concerns about safety than the man who made New Orleans a safer city?

Then again, the latest FBI stats show New Orleans, even with its lower crime figures, once again leads the nation in murders. You can bet that will be thrown at him early and often.

His opponents also will try to paint him as Morial's entry. His appearance in a TV ad for Morial's "3T" referendum will lend credence to that attack.

But that issue cuts both ways. Blacks as well as whites generally like Morial; they just didn't want to change the charter. My sources say that when Pennington unveils his campaign team, it won't look anything like Morial's. If that's true, it will go a long way toward addressing that issue.

Ironically, one of the oft-cited arguments in favor of "3T" was the dearth of good candidates in line to succeed Morial. As it turns out, the brightest star of the Morial administration is the one who has stepped forward to disprove that notion.

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