Elections for New Orleans City Council always put a lot on the line, despite the "strong mayor" form of government embedded in the City Charter. Mitch Landrieu knows this, which is why he continues to stake out positions in council races.
In the past year or so, the mayor has locked horns with at-large Councilwoman Stacy Head on a variety of issues, but in the end their squabbles all come down to the same thing: control. Both Landrieu and Head like to have their way, and both are skilled at maneuvering to get it. On many big issues, they play well together; when they don't, they really don't.
For a while, their spats were low-key and behind the scenes, but in recent months the hostilities between them have escalated. On good days, they are cool toward one another. On bad days, they seem to harbor mutual disdain.
As mayor, Landrieu has the upper hand when dealing with a recalcitrant councilmember. The council controls the purse strings, but as even Ray Nagin figured out, the mayor can opt not to spend. The mayor also controls all departments and heavily influences most "independent" boards and commissions.
You want a broken street light fixed or a road paved? Call your councilmember, who in turn will call a department head, who reports directly to the mayor. The lines of authority, and power, are clear and unequivocal.
As an opponent, Head is no slouch. She works as hard as anyone at her job, including the politicking.
Which brings us to the two special council elections on the Nov. 6 ballot. Voters will choose new council members to fill the unexpired terms of Jon Johnson in District E and Head in District B. Landrieu is playing heavily in both races. So far, Head has endorsed only in District E.
In District E, Landrieu is backing attorney James Gray, as is a host of other elected officials. Head is supporting state Rep. Austin Badon, who finished third in the race for Head's current at-large seat. In the runoff, Badon backed Head and helped her eke out a razor-thin victory over former District E Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis. (In that race, Landrieu backed Willard-Lewis, a longtime ally.)
In District B, Landrieu again leads a bevy of political heavyweights in backing Dana Kaplan. So far, Head remains neutral.
There's a measure of irony in Head's reluctance to back a successor in her own political backyard. On one hand, she could influence that race a great deal in light of the fact that she served as District B's council representative for six years. On the other hand, she has friends and supporters in the camps of all three major candidates. If she picks one, she risks making more enemies than friends.
You could say the same for Landrieu, but he has an advantage: A mayor can find a lot more ways to kiss and make up than can a councilmember.
The stakes are high for Landrieu and Head. The mayor would like to have four council votes, if not five, that he can count on. Head at times has been able to cobble together three or four votes of her own, depending on the issue.
The election falls squarely in the middle of budget season, a time when council coalitions can come together and fall apart literally overnight. If either or both council races are resolved in two weeks, the council's political fault lines — and the battle lines between Landrieu and Head — could be redrawn in short order.