Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu's announcement last week that he will not run for mayor of New Orleans was not a huge surprise, but it still had a bombshell's impact on the race. Had Landrieu decided to run, he would have been the frontrunner with a virtual lock on a runoff spot, leaving the other candidates to fight over the second runoff berth.
Now it's a wide-open race with no clear frontrunner. Qualifying is Dec. 9-11 — less than five months away. The primary will be Feb. 6, 2010, with a March 6 runoff.
Time is short, but until last week, all other potential candidates were sitting on their hands waiting for Landrieu to opt in or out. Now the games can begin.
The names of at least 10 potential candidates have been mentioned in recent months, and no doubt others will surface. Here's a quick look at the current crop (in alphabetical order):
• State Rep. Austin Badon. The eastern New Orleans lawmaker has been saying for months that he is running. He already has hired Karen Carvin Shachat and Deno Seder as his media consultants.
• At-Large Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson. The grande dame of Algiers politics is safely ensconced in her at-large council seat and can count on a fairly easy race for re-election. Though not considered likely to run, she enjoys the encouragement that comes with her popularity.
• Rob Couhig. The Republican attorney and businessman ran against Mayor Ray Nagin in 2006, then endorsed Nagin over Landrieu in the runoff. He would love to run, but his endorsement of Nagin will cost him if he does.
• At-Large Councilman Arnie Fielkow. Landrieu's exit will trigger lots of encouragement for Fielkow to run, even though he told friends months ago that he was leaning against it. He was looking at a race against U.S. Sen. David Vitter in 2010, but Congressman Charlie Melancon's decision to challenge Vitter may cut Fielkow out of that picture.
• John Georges. The millionaire businessman who ran for governor in 2007 has been making all the noises of a guy who plans to run, but he stops short of saying so. He ran well in New Orleans in '07, but that was a completely different race than a contest for mayor.
• Roy Glapion Jr. A businessman and civil engineer by training, Glapion is the son of the late Roy Glapion Sr., who served on the council in the 1990s. He has been waiting to see if any other black candidates gain traction. If none does so by Labor Day, he may run.
• State Sen. Ed Murray. Like Badon, Murray tells everyone that he's running. In the wake of the recent legislative session, he has been meeting with consultants and potential supporters, and he appears to be getting more organized black support than Badon. So far, he has made no announcement.
• James Perry. The attorney and housing advocate is the only officially declared candidate. Unfortunately for Perry, he's also the least known. He has launched a fundraising effort and has a platform on his Web site (www.jamesperry2010.com).
• State Rep. Karen Carter Peterson. The speaker pro tempore of the state House of Representatives recently began exploring her options. If she runs, she'll be a major threat to Murray, Badon and other black candidates.
• Former Councilman Eddie Sapir. He's not considered a likely candidate, but he always enjoys the spotlight. Then again, in a wide-open race, anything's possible.
As open-ended as the list of potential candidates is, the reasons behind Landrieu's decision are equally unclear. His announcement only stated that he would not run — not why.
Two main reasons appear to be the most likely bases for Landrieu's decision. First, he has been there, done that — at least, in terms of running for mayor. Second, he now has more potential than ever to become governor.
As to the first reason, Landrieu has offered himself twice to New Orleans voters (in 1994, when he ran a very respectable third; and in 2006, when he lost the runoff to Nagin), and twice they have said, "No thanks." As the sitting lieutenant governor who faces re-election in 2011, he might not recover from another loss — even though polls suggest that he would have been an early favorite.
The second factor could be the real reason behind Landrieu's decision: his position as the governor-in-waiting. Gov. Bobby Jindal's national aspirations are the worst-kept secret in American politics, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
Even before the 2012 presidential election, Jindal may be drafted to run for the U.S. Senate next year against Vitter. Jindal has said he will not run against Vitter (indeed, he has lent his name to Vitter's fundraising efforts). However, if Democrat Melancon gains traction against Vitter — who remains stung by a prostitution scandal — the GOP may press Jindal into running to keep the seat in Republican hands. It's a long shot, but in Louisiana politics nothing beyond today is ever certain. If Jindal were to win the Senate seat, he would take office in January 2011 — nine months before the next race for governor. Landrieu would assume the governorship at that time and have nine months to establish himself and campaign as the incumbent.
The other scenario has Jindal landing a spot on the GOP presidential ticket in 2012 — more likely as vice president than president. That's also a long shot at this point, but the GOP's presidential ranks are thinning pretty quickly these days. Of course, Landrieu would have to win re-election as lieutenant governor in 2011 for that scenario to play out, and you can bet the state GOP is already looking for a candidate to run against him.
Meanwhile, closer to home, let the games begin for the 2010 New Orleans mayoral race.