This Saturday, March 24, is an important election day in Louisiana. Republican voters statewide will participate in their party's presidential primary, and all voters in New Orleans will go to the polls to choose a new at-large member of the New Orleans City Council. The special council election was called to choose a successor to former Councilman Arnie Fielkow, who resigned last year to take a job with the National Basketball Retired Players Association. A runoff, if needed, will be held April 21.
The council race has attracted seven candidates, and while several of them impressed us as ready for the important responsibilities of that office, we believe District B Councilwoman Stacy Head is best suited for the job at this time.
Head was first elected to the District B seat on the council in 2006. She was re-elected handily in 2010. Head's district may be the council's most diverse — it encompasses the CBD and the Superdome as well as Central City and Uptown, taking in some of the city's wealthiest enclaves and some of its poorest. Most residents and voters in District B are African-American, yet Head, who is white, has consistently shown an ability to attract significant African-American support. That no doubt reflects her responsiveness to constituents regardless of race, income or station, as well as the fact that she's one of the most socially progressive members of the council. All of those attributes prove she can faithfully represent all of New Orleans.
During her tenure on the council, Head took on the controversial issue of then-Mayor Ray Nagin's expensive sanitation contracts, which brought her both acclaim and criticism. She was proved right when Mayor Mitch Landrieu came into office and renegotiated those contracts. While she shares many of Landrieu's goals, she has not been shy about disagreeing with him when she felt he was wrong. That quality definitely sets her apart from the field. Although we like most of what Landrieu has done as mayor, we believe that every mayor needs a counterbalance on the City Council in the form of someone who has the intelligence and the guts to ask the tough questions. No one does that better than Stacy Head.
On other fronts, Head was instrumental in reviving the Freret Street corridor in her district, which rebounded faster than some official "redevelopment zones" after Hurricane Katrina. As an at-large council member, she can bring that same energy to all parts of the city. While an advocate for economic development, Head is also a staunch preservationist (she volunteers at the Preservation Resource Center). A budget hawk, she also has supported more resources for both the district attorney's office and the public defender's office.
For all these reasons, we recommend our readers in New Orleans elect Stacy Head to the at-large seat on the council this Saturday.
Split At-Large Elections
As we interviewed candidates in the special election for an at-large seat on the New Orleans City Council, we were reminded of recent discussions in some quarters about a proposal to change the way at-large council members are elected. Under the current system, candidates running for the two at-large council seats in regularly scheduled citywide elections engage in a political free-for-all. That is, all candidates run for both seats and against all other candidates, and voters can vote for two candidates.
That system strikes us as arcane for several reasons. First, it makes for some strange mathematics because a "majority" is defined as 25 percent plus one, rather than the traditional majority of 50 percent plus one. That, in turn, sometimes encourages candidates to suggest that their supporters cast only one ballot, which is antithetical to the notion of maximum voter participation. Second, the current system forces good candidates who are allied (or just like-minded) to run against one another, rather than as a team. Third, the current system undermines efforts to achieve racial power sharing on the council — having one black and one white at-large member — which many voters believe is a good thing.
We think it's time to move forward with honest, civil discussions of the idea of changing the City Charter to split the at-large elections into separate divisions, as is done in Jefferson Parish. Splitting the at-large contests won't guarantee that we elect better candidates; that's always up to the voters. But it will simplify the process, bring some clarity to at-large elections, and potentially encourage even better candidates to qualify for these important offices. We hope proponents of this idea will continue to promote it, and we hope members of the City Council will consider putting it on the ballot for voter approval before the next round of citywide elections.