The absence of a hotly contested governor's race may suppress voter turnout to some degree this Saturday (Oct. 22), but it has not dampened the intensity of some local races — particularly those for seats in the state Legislature and on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). In Orleans Parish, several judicial races also have heated up.
Early voting ended last Saturday (Oct. 15), and now it's up to candidates to get their final messages across and remind their supporters to vote this Saturday.
Here's a closer look at some of the more contentious races on the ballot in Orleans and Jefferson parishes:
Senate District 3 — Even before redistricting, Senate District 3 sprawled from several lakefront neighborhoods in New Orleans through Gentilly to the West Bank — all the way to Marrero. Now, because of population losses sustained during Hurricane Katrina, the district also arcs down through eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. In the process, it put two incumbent senators into the same district, and now they are waging a pitched battle for the reconfigured district.
Sens. Cynthia Willard-Lewis and J.P. Morrell both take credit for funding Methodist Hospital in eastern New Orleans. The hospital sustained extensive damage in Katrina and has yet to fully reopen. The district has a solid African-American majority but probably still ranks among the most economically diverse in the state, given its tri-parish boundaries and the fact that its residents range from the wealthy to the very poor.
Both candidates come from "political families." Willard-Lewis' father was a long-time Orleans Parish School Board member and her brother is a judge at Criminal District Court. She served several terms in the House, then two on the New Orleans City Council before winning a special election to the state Senate last year. Morrell, who also began his career in the House, is the son of New Orleans Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell.
Willard-Lewis and J.P. Morrell are philosophically aligned — both African-American Democrats from New Orleans — so distinctions on the campaign trail have focused on nonpartisan matters. Morrell claims he has been and will continue to be "more effective" in Baton Rouge than Willard-Lewis, a claim she disputes by pointing to her effectiveness as a City Council member from District E, which includes much (but by no means all) of the New Orleans portion of their shared Senate District.
House District 94 — This redrawn district also crosses parish lines. Formerly all in New Orleans, the district now includes Bucktown and several lake-area neighborhoods of Jefferson Parish — and it also pits two like-minded incumbents against one another. Reps. Nick Lorusso and John LaBruzzo are both conservative Republicans, but their styles are dramatically different.
LaBruzzo is an admitted "lightning rod" for controversy with his bills for drug-testing welfare recipients and his 2008 suggestion that poor women should be paid to be permanently sterilized. The latter got him demoted as vice chair of the House Health and Welfare Committee. He later was booted off the Appropriations Committee after fellow committee members groused that he often signed in to get his per diem pay at meetings between legislative sessions and then left early — leaving them to do the work — and sometimes missing crucial votes on projects in his district. LaBruzzo denies that his attendance record varies significantly from those of most of his colleagues.
Lorusso, by contrast, is a nose-to-the-grindstone Army Reserve officer who rarely takes to the microphone but is well-liked by his colleagues. Several of LaBruzzo's colleagues from Metairie, in fact, are active in Lorusso's campaign.
While both men support Gov. Bobby Jindal's programs, they have differed on two high-profile votes. LaBruzzo voted for the controversial 2008 legislative pay raise; Lorusso voted against it and signed an affidavit refusing to accept it. And last year, LaBruzzo was one of only two votes in the House to oppose Lorusso's House Bill 475, which dedicated $700,000 a year (for two years only) to the so-called nonflood assets of the Orleans Levee District. The money is to be used to maintain police protection along Lakeshore Drive and to help improve the popular weekend picnicking spot.
House District 98 — This Uptown district has incumbent Neil Abramson, an attorney and Democrat, challenged by Republican businessman John "Fenn" French. Abramson first won the seat in 2007 and has been both a staunch supporter and occasional critic of Gov. Jindal's reforms. He supported all of Jindal's major ethics reform bills, but also filed several of his own that Jindal opposed — mostly because the governor did not want to face the same levels of "transparency" and disclosure he sought to impose on other public officials. Abramson lost those ethics reform battles to the governor, but he successfully fought Jindal's attempts to close the John J. Hainkel Home and Rehabilitation Center in his district. He says the nursing home is one of the most highly regarded in the state.
French, a business partner of former New Orleans District A Councilman Jay Batt, is making his first run for public office. In his radio ads, he touts his business and GOP credentials and takes an oblique swipe at Abramson — though not by name — by promising to support and build upon Jindal's reforms in the next four years.
House District 83 — This West Bank district is one of several majority black districts that has a white incumbent. Rep. Robert Billiot first won the seat in 2007 after serving more than three decades in Westwego city government, first as a three-term alderman and then as the long-time mayor. He is challenged by Kyle Green Jr., a 24-year-old law student who is a nephew of former Congressman Bill Jefferson and the son of former state Rep. Kyle Green Sr. Both men are Democrats.
Billiot says the district faces an unprecedented economic crisis with the anticipated closure of the Avondale shipyard facility in 2013 — and because of that it needs someone with experience and relationships in business and government at the helm. Noting his opponent's youth and inexperience, Billiot says the district needs someone who already knows the ropes in Baton Rouge — not someone who "doesn't even know what it feels like to pay a house note or a car note."
Green criticizes Billiot for voting for the 2008 legislative pay raise and for voting to put the four-cent cigarette tax on the ballot this Saturday — a vote he says represented a flip-flop by Billiot. The incumbent says he feels voters, not legislators, should decide the fate of the tobacco tax.
The district includes the Jefferson Parish West Bank communities of Westwego, Avondale, Waggaman, Bridge City and parts of Marrero.
BESE District 1 — The seven contested BESE elections on Saturday's ballot have generated far more interest among voters and business leaders than at any time in the past. Two of those contested races are in the metro area. Like the other BESE races across the state, the local contests are showdowns between supporters of the recent reforms in public education — particularly the proliferation of charter schools and the continued existence of the Recovery School District (RSD) — and those who say the state has granted too many charters. Leaders of the latter movement include school board members, teacher unions and school superintendents. Supporters of the reforms include business groups and Gov. Jindal.
In recent months, BESE members have been deadlocked on a successor to former state Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek. It takes eight votes to hire a new schools chief, and Jindal's allies on the board typically hold a scant 6-5 majority. The governor appoints three members of BESE; the other eight are elected.
District 1 includes part of New Orleans, most of Jefferson Parish and all of St. Tammany Parish. Incumbent Jim Garvey, a Metairie attorney and a Republican, seeks a second term against two St. Tammany education activists — veteran educator Lee Barrios, an independent, and Republican Sharon Hewitt, a retired Shell Oil manager.
Garvey has been a reliable vote for the RSD, Pastorek's policies and charter schools. He supports the current move to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, but he emphasizes that test scores will only account for about half the evaluation — and that outside factors such as student poverty will be taken into account.
Barrios and Hewitt both oppose linking student test scores to teacher evaluations, but they are miles apart as to their respective qualifications to serve on BESE. Barrios questions Hewitt's education bona fides, but Hewitt got the endorsement of the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education, which Barrios helped found.
BESE District 2 — The 2nd District of BESE includes most of New Orleans and part of Jefferson, as well as most of St. Charles, St. John, St. James and Assumption parishes. The incumbent, Louella Givens, is a staunch opponent of charter schools, Pastorek, the RSD and Jindal's education reform initiatives. Givens is endorsed by teacher unions and other charter opponents. She faces three opponents — Teach For America leader Kira Orange Jones of New Orleans, educator Pam Matus of LaPlace, and Rev. Ferdinand Wallace Jr. of Reserve. Orange Jones has emerged as Givens' primary opponent as a result of political endorsements and campaign contributions. All except Matus are black Democrats; Matus gives her race as "other" and is an independent. The district has a solid African-American majority.
As in other BESE contests, the main issue in this district is support of — or opposition to — the RSD and charters. In addition, Givens has come under fire for two controversies unrelated to BESE: her DWI arrest earlier this year, which somehow was not published in weekly reports issued by the sheriff's office; and a tax lien on her home for $1 million.
While Givens is a reliable foe of the RSD and charters, Orange Jones promises to be the opposite, which is understandable in light of the prominent role that Teach For America has played in the local charter school movement. Orange Jones has endorsements from a number of business organizations as well as Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Jefferson Parish President John Young, Congressman Steve Scalise and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. Givens and Orange Jones have more or less divvied up the support of local black political organizations.
In addition to the races profiled above, the ballot in New Orleans includes four races for judge — two at Civil District Court, one at Criminal District Court and one at Traffic Court.
Jefferson Parish voters also will select three new members of the Parish Council (four council races are already decided because of a lack of opposition) and decide the fate of propositions to establish and fund a local Office of Inspector General.