As the New Orleans Saints head to south Florida for a historic first-time appearance in the Super Bowl this Sunday, New Orleans voters prepare to cast ballots on Saturday in what could be an equally historic mayor's race.
In some ways, the Saints had an easier time this season. The mayor's race has been a political roller-coaster ride, with more surprises than a sudden-death playoff.
As the field of 11 races to the primary wire this Saturday, six major candidates lead the pack: Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, consultant Troy Henry, businessman John Georges, attorney Rob Couhig, fair housing advocate James Perry and former Judge Nadine Ramsey. Rounding out the field are the long shots: the deadpan (and deadly funny) Manny "Chevrolet" Bruno, youthful comedian Jonah Bascle, insurance exec Jerry Jacobs, political newcomer Thomas Lambert and community activist Norbert Rome.
Polls open at 6 a.m. Saturday and close at 8 p.m. A runoff, if needed, will be March 6.
For a while, it seemed no one wanted to succeed term-limited Ray Nagin as the city's mayor. The presumptive early frontrunner, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, announced in July that he would not be a candidate. That seemed to clear the field for the next in line, City Councilman at-Large Arnie Fielkow, who promised a decision by Labor Day. Soon after that deadline, Fielkow demurred. He was followed in short order by state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson. Any one of the three would have been a leading contender.
As the December 9-11 qualifying period approached, a field of at least seven well-known candidates lined up to run, but there was no clear frontrunner. Then, without warning, everything changed: On the eve of the qualifying period, Landrieu decided to run after all. Suddenly, everything turned upside down.
Barely a week later, school reformer Leslie Jacobs dropped out of the race. Then, on Jan. 2, the leading black candidate for mayor, state Sen. Ed Murray, abruptly announced that he, too, was withdrawing from contention. The departures of Jacobs and Murray left three leading African-American candidates (Henry, Perry and Ramsey) and three well-known white candidates (Landrieu, Georges and Couhig).
Landrieu quickly secured his position as the frontrunner, leading in all polls even before airing a single television ad. Murray's withdrawal drew criticism in some quarters of the black community, but it reflected the fact that, according to several independent polls, nearly half the city's black voters were supporting Landrieu, who narrowly lost to Nagin in the 2006 mayoral runoff. Moreover, while Murray lined up support from black decision makers, he was falling in the polls. Henry passed Murray in one survey shortly before the senator's withdrawal, and Henry gained momentum after Murray pulled out. As Saturday's primary drew nigh, Henry emerged as Landrieu's likely runoff opponent — if the race goes to a runoff.
On the issues, all candidates agree that crime and blight top the next mayor's "to-do" list. All agree to conduct a comprehensive if not national search for a new police chief, who will be vetted by a local committee of criminal justice stakeholders. And all promise to rebuild the city's once landmark recreation department, but not all agree it can be done without a dedicated revenue stream. Couhig, the only Republican among the major candidates, promises no new taxes, period — not even one that voters could decide via referendum, such as a millage for New Orleans Recreation Department.
Candidates give unanimous credit to Nagin for keeping the city out of bankruptcy after Hurricane Katrina, but they also agree Nagin has otherwise failed to lead or unite the city. Every candidate says the next administration should scrap Nagin's move to renovate Municipal Auditorium and start over.
This year's open race for mayor stands in sharp contrast to the 2002 campaign, in which "businessman" Nagin, who formerly ran the local Cox Cable affiliate, came from behind to pass up a field of better-known political figures. This year's contest features only two major candidates who have held elective office — Landrieu and Ramsey — despite the fact that polls since last spring have consistently shown that voters prefer the next mayor have political and governmental experience and not merely be a "fresh face" from the private sector. In the face of that polling data, every nonelected candidate has strained to portray himself as significantly different from Nagin, despite coming from the private sector.
Here's a closer look at the six major candidates (in alphabetical order):
Rob Couhig — The 60-year-old Republican is an attorney and entrepreneur who is making his fourth bid for public office. He has yet to win an election. He challenged Congresswoman Lindy Boggs in 1980, then ran for Congress again when Bob Livingston resigned his seat in 1999, losing to David Vitter. He opposed Nagin in 2006 — then endorsed him in the runoff against Landrieu. Since then, Couhig has struggled to convince voters he didn't "give us four more years of Ray Nagin." He says Nagin lied to him to secure his support against Landrieu, and he has criticized the mayor often in recent years. Couhig says his matrix for making decisions as mayor will require answering four questions: Will it make New Orleans more livable? Will it make New Orleans more affordable? Will it enhance economic opportunity? Will it be fair and equitable to all our citizens? The more immediate question surrounding Couhig's candidacy is: Will voters forgive him for endorsing Nagin in 2006?
John Georges — The 49-year-old CEO of Georges Enterprises has self-financed much of his campaign, which is his second bid for public office. His first was a run for governor in 2007, in which he placed third statewide but first in New Orleans. Georges began the governor's race as a Republican, then switched to Independent. He switched to Democrat last September. While voters continue to say they prefer someone with political and governmental experience, Georges' recent ads remind voters that politicians have created or exacerbated most of the city's problems. He was the only major candidate to say that LSU should abandon its plan to raze much of Lower Mid-City and instead move into a renovated Charity Hospital building. In the late stages of the race, Georges stumbled when he seemed to criticize the reappointment of Jim Letten as U.S. Attorney, then praised him the next day, then told The Times-Picayune he was joking. He later told Gambit it was a "major faux pas."
Troy Henry — The Lower 9th Ward native is making his first bid for public office at the age of 49. Henry founded Henry Consulting LLC after working for some of the giants of corporate America: United Water, Enron, IBM and Hewlett Packard. After Hurricane Katrina, his company helped write the UNOP recovery plan, and he joined lifelong friend and actor Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) to help launch the rebuilding of their old neighborhood, Pontchartrain Park. He became the leading African-American candidate after Murray dropped out of the race, but he was criticized by the family of the late Mayor Dutch Morial for using a photo of Morial on a campaign Web site without the family's permission. He took the offending photo down, but not without criticizing the Morials for allegedly supporting Landrieu — a charge the family denies. He also has had to defend his tenure as President of United Water (Southern Region), whose contract in Atlanta was canceled on his watch for alleged overcharges.
Mitch Landrieu — The 49-year-old lieutenant governor is making his third bid for mayor of New Orleans. He finished third in 1994 and second in 2006 after a bruising runoff against Nagin. Could the third time be the charm? The former Uptown state rep is the beneficiary of a massive case of buyers' remorse after Nagin's disappointing second term and the city's sluggish post-Katrina recovery. As the candidate with the most political chops, Landrieu also benefits from public sentiment against so-called business candidates and in favor of those with government experience. Late missteps by Henry and Georges — the two candidates closest to him in the polls — also have helped Landrieu, who otherwise has not staked out radically new territory this time. One major difference for Landrieu this go-round: He's answering every attack. The big unknown: Can Landrieu hold his black support in a one-on-one against a black opponent? He's quietly hoping it won't come to that — if he can eke out a victory on Saturday.
James Perry — The former director of a fair housing advocacy group, Perry at 34 is the youngest major candidate, but he has been among the most poised and fearless on the campaign trail. In the very first debate, he upstaged his better-known opponents by pointing out that most of them mistook the city's Youth Study Center (which is a juvenile prison) for an after-school academic program. That same day, however, his campaign launched a TV ad featuring voters spewing expletives in response to candidates who represented the same old-same old. The ad was memorable, but not necessarily in the most flattering terms. Though Perry himself never uttered an offending word, he became known as the cussing candidate. He shrugged it off and soldiered on, waging a largely Internet-based campaign while continuing to impress in debates. Though he has trailed the frontrunners in polls, he has played a significant role in the race by criticizing Henry, whom he accused of race baiting and grandstanding.
Nadine Ramsey — The only woman in the race is also the only one who gave up a comfortable job to run for mayor. Ramsey, 54, resigned her post as a Civil Court judge, as required under state law. Although the largest bloc of the city's electorate is female and African-American, Ramsey has struggled to break out of the pack, probably because of fundraising difficulties in these recessionary times. She won three terms on the Civil Court bench, but she never actually had to wage a campaign until now because she was unopposed in all three of her judicial campaigns. Like Landrieu, Ramsey actually has experience in elective office; she says her tenure as a judge proves that she knows how to make difficult decisions. She promises to increase police foot patrols in neighborhoods as part of a commitment to community policing and to create a "one-stop shop" for permits at City Hall as part of a program to make city government more accommodating to businesses.
When the Saints won the NFC championship on Jan. 24, many felt the city's euphoria would overshadow the citywide elections. A poll by Xavier University political scientist and pollster Silas Lee found that 63 percent of those surveyed felt the Saints' historic trip to the Super Bowl would be a major distraction. Lee cautioned that voters will likely still "do their civic duty," but the distraction will make it much more difficult for candidates who are trailing to get voters' attention in the final weeks.
Perhaps that's fitting in light of the fact that, during the early stages of the campaign, voters couldn't seem to get many candidates interested in running.
Gambit and Maple Street Bookshop's Electionland
Clancy DuBos on this weekends Election