Exactly one year from now, New Orleans will be in the final, frenzied days of the 2010 mayoral election. Incumbent Ray Nagin is term-limited, which virtually guarantees a large and diverse field of contenders. While 2009 is an "off" year in terms of major elections, it will see plenty of activity behind the scenes as potential candidates gauge the odds, hire consultants and try to raise money and public awareness.
The citywide primary will be Feb. 6, 2010, and qualifying is less than 11 months away (Dec. 9-11). While most voters give only passing thought to an election that is 53 weeks in the future, most of those seeking to succeed Ray Nagin are wasting no time.
At this stage, lots of would-be candidates are keeping their cards tucked away, while others are acting as though they have aces in the hole. Some will bluff by trying to raise the stakes early; some will call and some will fold. The ante will be steep: Most of those looking at the race say it will take at least $1 million to mount a credible primary campaign; one potential candidate says he'll spend $4 million if he runs.
Several already have declared their intentions. Some are well known, others untested politically. This far out, anything is possible. Think President Barack Obama two years ago: Few actually thought the rising star would win ... this time. Heck, think Ray Nagin eight years ago: He was barely known outside the business community, he didn't announce for mayor until a few weeks before qualifying and was polling in the mid-single digits five weeks before the primary. Yet he led the February 2002 primary and trounced his runoff opponent four weeks later.
While anything can happen, Nagin's victory in 2002 does not mean the next mayor will be a newcomer. The two mayors who preceded Nagin — Marc Morial and Sidney Barthelemy — were both early favorites. As Jim Carvin, the late dean of local political consultants, often said, "Every election is a unique event."
One key driver in every potential candidate's decision-making process is the city's shifting demographic profile and how it affects voter turnout. In Nagin's 2006 re-election bid, black voters accounted for roughly 53 percent of the ballots cast. In some subsequent elections, black turnout plummeted while whites turned out in larger numbers. Then, on "Obama Day," Nov. 4, local black turnout spiked to more than 60 percent of the votes cast. Those figures strongly suggest that when the stakes are high enough — and if an appealing black candidate is on the ballot — black voters will turn out in large enough numbers to comprise a voting majority.
That said, New Orleans voters still prefer candidates they know and trust. That's why Leon Cannizzaro, who is white, won the DA's race last fall even though one of his opponents in the primary, Jason Williams, is black. Williams was not well known among black voters; Cannizzaro was. Race simply wasn't an issue.
So: Who's in and who's out for the next mayor's race?
Any discussion of the potential field has to begin with the caveat that elections are fluid events. I tried to contact all whose names have been mentioned in recent weeks; most responded. I grouped them in four descending tiers according to how committed they are right now to running, from "I'm All In" to "Deal Me Out." I also assess the strengths and weaknesses of those who may run — not as a prediction of who will win, but rather as a long-range look at what each potential candidate brings to the table, and what each must overcome to win.
'I'm All In'
So far, only two would-be candidates have said they will run. Of course, anyone can change his or her mind before qualifying in December. For now, only two are "all in."
Ed Murray: The soft-spoken state senator from Gentilly and Lakeview is one of the city's most effective and well-respected lawmakers, crossing party, geographical and racial lines with Obama-like ease. He has been telling people for weeks that he's running, and he is capable of putting together a strong biracial coalition. Despite his behind-the-scenes political skills, however, Murray is considered a lackluster campaigner. He has met with friends and advisers to map out a mayoral strategy, but the first item on the campaign to-do list may be pumping some caffeine into the candidate. Few doubt Murray has the skills needed to do the mayor's job, but it remains an open question as to whether he will muster the energy required to win the job.
Austin Badon: The young state representative from eastern New Orleans lacks Murray's political gravitas, but so far he has shown more energy as a potential candidate. Badon, who recently began his second term in the House, authored Gov. Bobby Jindal's controversial voucher law, thereby establishing himself as a maverick willing to break with the Legislative Black Caucus. An administrator at SUNO, Badon says he is "definitely leaning towards running" because "the city needs new, younger, aggressive, professional and competent leadership." His weakness is his lack of a base. His House district was decimated by Hurricane Katrina, he is not well known in the rest of the city, and he's untested at raising money for a major citywide race.
Ready to Ante
Potential candidates in this tier are looking closely at the race and taking some steps to put together campaigns. One already has an interactive Web site with positions on the issues, links to news coverage and requests for volunteers and donations. Collectively, they're not quite ready to put all their chips on the table, but they're definitely ready to ante up if the right cards come their way.
Arnie Fielkow: The affable first-term councilman at-large will be a strong contender if he runs, but he's in no hurry to formally announce. He acknowledges that others are encouraging him to run and that he is "giving this consideration" and meeting with consultants. For now, he says he's concentrating on his council job. He projects that a mayoral campaign would cost $1.5 million, which he could raise easily enough. The question with Fielkow is whether he can show enough passion — and toughness — on the campaign trail.
John Georges: The multimillionaire and former candidate for governor says he is "thinking very seriously about running" and promises he "will not sit by and watch New Orleans decline for four more years." Truth is, Georges doesn't need much encouragement to run — and he doesn't have to worry about money. Others say it will take $2 million in the primary; he's ready to spend twice that, which is less than what he earns in a month. In the governor's race, his base was black voters. With several black candidates likely to run, that strength becomes a weakness.
Rob Couhig: The attorney/entrepreneur who ran against Nagin in 2006 and then gave him his biggest runoff endorsement says he's "fairly close" to running again. Couhig, a Republican, says New Orleanians "need someone in the mayor's office who is willing to make the tough decisions — and when they see that person, I believe that they will be willing to look past the old hangups of race, gender and political affiliation." Couhig is itching to run, but the real question is whether voters will look past him giving us four more years of Ray Nagin.
Roy Glapion Jr.: The son of former City Councilman Roy Glapion and brother of White House Social Secretary Desiree Glapion Rogers, Glapion has the fire and passion to run. The unanswered question is whether this plainspoken civil engineer is willing to trade the relative calm — and privacy — of his present life for the intense glare of public service. "I know in my heart I can fix this place," Glapion says, adding that he's "60 percent in, 40 percent out" right now. He'll be a new face to watch if he runs.
James Perry: The director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and recent appointee to the Historic District Landmarks Commission wants voters to use his interactive Web site, www.jamesperry2010.com, to help him decide. The site includes his bio and platform — a sure sign that he wants to run. Perry, 33, is a long shot now but hopes to tap Obama-inspired young voters; he already has a base among bloggers, housing activists and preservationists. He hopes to raise $25,000 by March 1 to launch his campaign. If he hopes to win, he'll need a lot more than that.
When a poker player checks, he or she initially declines to ante but retains the option of staying in the game once all the others have declared and anted — or raised. When the bidding comes back around, however, the player must opt in or out. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
Mitch Landrieu: The lieutenant governor lost to Ray Nagin in 2006, and I suspect that his sights are set on the governor's office. "The mayor's race is more than a year away, and the state is facing a $2 billion budget deficit," Landrieu says. "Right now, my priority is doing my job as lieutenant governor." Last time, he could take his time deciding. He won't have that option this time. But if he decides to go for it, he'll start as the frontrunner. Again.
Karen Carter-Peterson: The speaker pro tem of the Louisiana House ran Obama's statewide campaign and has options — run for mayor, take a job in the Obama Administration, or stay put and broker her influence. "Seeking the next public office for me is not on my present agenda," she says, adding that she wants to help the state deal with its deficit, the city with recovery, and the new president with the nation's ills. She left the door slightly ajar, though, adding, "I will make a firm decision as soon as I can." If she runs, she could push some other black candidates aside — but she can't afford to tarry.
Jackie Clarkson: Her safest play is to run for re-election, but she's keeping her options open. "I love the job I have," Clarkson says of her current position as council president, "and I am definitely running for re-election right now. But a lot of people are asking me to run for mayor. I'm not there yet."
James Carter: The young District C councilman was a rising star until his fourth-place finish in the race for Congress last October. Rumors swirled afterward that he might quit politics altogether. "I am undecided," he says now of a possible bid for mayor, adding that he will decide in April or May.
Eddie Sapir: The former at-large councilman loves the attention and speculation he's getting these days. He says he'll make a decision sometime in the spring. Sapir is a good campaigner, but, like Georges, his base among black voters likely will be undercut by one or more strong black candidates.
Jimmy Fahrenholtz: The former school board member enjoys playing the role of political gadfly, and what better stage than a mayor's race? He says he'll decide by the end of February whether to run. Fahrenholtz's court-aborted race for Congress last year disappointed him, but he has only himself to blame for not paying off those old ethics fines. He has since paid half of them and says the rest will be paid.
Virginia Boulet: The attorney who, like Couhig, first ran against and then endorsed Nagin is once again being talked about as a potential candidate. A call to her office remained unreturned as of press time. She ran for an at-large council seat in 2007 and lost to Clarkson. I list her as doubtful, but you never know.
Deal Me Out
Ron Forman: "My plate is full," says the director of the Audubon Institute, who ran against Nagin in 2006. Forman also chairs the Superdome Commission and just finished a year as chair of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. Look for Forman to be a player, but not a candidate.
Cynthia Willard-Lewis: She lost her first citywide bid to Clarkson in a special election for the at-large council seat in 2007, but the term-limited District E councilmember has decided to run one more time for an at-large seat in 2010.
Paul Valteau: The veteran civil sheriff says he's running for re-election.
Marlin Gusman: The criminal sheriff likewise says he's running for re-election.
Irvin Mayfield: The jazz impresario and Library Board chair just landed a seat on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts. He says he will focus on his music, the library and the arts — and not on City Hall.
Cheryl Gray: She beat Bill Jefferson's daughter to win a state Senate seat in 2007 but says she's not even thinking about the mayor's race.
Michael Cowan: "I seriously considered the possibility of a run for mayor and decided against it," says the Loyola University administrator and executive director of Common Good.
Helena Moreno: The former TV news anchor and Second Congressional District candidate says she's not running for mayor.