The delicate balance of power on the New Orleans City Council could change dramatically after Saturday's runoff elections. At stake are not just the reins of power on the council but also the balance of power between the council and Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The red-hot special elections in Council Districts B and E came about for very different reasons.
In District B, neighborhood leader LaToya Cantrell faces juvenile justice advocate Dana Kaplan for the seat vacated by Stacy Head, who won a special election in the spring for her current at-large council seat. Cantrell led the primary field of four with 39 percent of the vote, followed by Kaplan with 31 percent. Third-place finisher Eric Strachan got 24 percent. Strachan has endorsed Cantrell in the runoff.
In District E, state Rep. Austin Badon faces attorney James Gray to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of former Councilman Jon Johnson, who pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges. Badon led the primary with 47.5 percent of the vote, followed by Gray with 29.5 percent. Three others finished in single digits.
Landrieu figures in both elections, having endorsed Kaplan in District B and Gray in District E. His chief council adversary, Head, is backing Cantrell in District B and Badon in District E. If Kaplan and Gray both win, the mayor will have four if not five reliable council votes. If Cantrell and Badon both win, Head will have three council allies, plus her own vote.
Ever since Landrieu backed former District E Council member Cynthia Willard-Lewis for the at-large seat that Head won last spring, the mayor and Head have been at loggerheads.
Landrieu is less a factor in the District E race even though he's popular across that district. The bigger factor is Johnson and the cloud under which he resigned. Badon narrowly lost to Johnson in 2010 before also losing to Head in the at-large race last spring. Badon endorsed Head in that runoff, and now she's returning the favor. In some ways, Badon benefits from the same "do-over" mindset that made Landrieu such a strong favorite in the 2010 mayor's race.
In District B, the mayor is a major factor — and his endorsement appears to be cutting both ways. A lot of Head supporters, including many white Republicans, are still seething over his endorsement of Willard-Lewis. They see Cantrell as a perfect vehicle to send Hizzoner a message. The fact that Cantrell is African- American, and Kaplan is white, makes the political bedfellows in that race strange indeed.
Head's endorsement likewise cuts both ways. Her endorsement of Cantrell, who got the lion's share of black votes in the Nov. 6 primary, could cost Cantrell some black votes on Saturday. For her part, Kaplan got some significant black endorsements — from Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Congressman Cedric Richmond and Assessor Erroll Williams.
If you don't live in those districts, you're missing some fireworks.
Everywhere else in America this weekend, folks will be doing their holiday shopping. In eastern New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward, the Irish Channel and Central City, folks will choose new City Council members.
Well, some folks will choose new council members. Turnout on Saturday is likely to be a fraction of what it was Nov. 6, when the presidential election topped the ballot. The only citywide item on the ballot this Saturday is a local proposition to raise the rates for 911 calls in Orleans Parish.
Here's the really bad news: Saturday's winners will have to run again in just 15 months, in the next round of regularly scheduled citywide elections.