All seven New Orleans City Council seats are up for grabs in Saturday's citywide primary, and at least three of them will be filled by new faces. Incumbents Shelley Midura in District A and James Carter in District C opted not to seek re-election, and District E incumbent Cynthia Willard-Lewis is term limited. Willard-Lewis instead is running for an at large council seat.
Together with the new mayor, the council will present New Orleans voters with a largely fresh start four-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina. In some ways, it's a do-over of past citywide elections.
While all seven council positions are contested, some are more hotly contested than others — starting with the two at large seats. In that race, the two incumbents, Arnie Fielkow and Jackie Clarkson, are both seeking re-election. They face their colleague Willard-Lewis, whose eight years on the council give her the aura of incumbency in this contest, and challengers William "Poppa" Gant, Greg "Chef" Sonnier, "Lance" W. von Uhde III and Nolan Marshall III.
At large council races in New Orleans are complicated, even by local standards. Instead of running for one seat or the other, all candidates run for both seats in the political equivalent of a free-for-all. Because voters can cast ballots for two candidates, a "majority" is defined as 25 percent-plus-one of the total votes cast. If no candidate reaches that goal, the top four go to a March 6 runoff. If one candidate gets at least that many votes, the second- and third-place finishers advance to the runoff.
Polls consistently show Fielkow leading the pack with enough support to win in the primary. Clarkson and Willard-Lewis trail him but run almost evenly with each other, with slightly less than a majority of the vote each. Behind them is Marshall, who in turn leads the lesser-known candidates.
Polls notwithstanding, the at large council race is always difficult to handicap. Voters can vote for one or two candidates, but it still takes 25 percent-plus-one to win. Additionally, for 30 years the council had one black and one white at large member — until Oliver Thomas, who is African American, resigned in 2007 amid a bribery scandal. Clarkson, who lost a runoff to Fielkow in 2006, returned to beat Willard-Lewis in a low-turnout special election to succeed Thomas. Clarkson and Fielkow are white; Willard-Lewis is black. The city's racial matrix will certainly factor into this race, and as always turnout could be the deciding factor.
On issues, Fielkow has championed the council's transparency ordinance (designed to open the awarding of professional services contracts by the mayor to more public scrutiny), which was vetoed by Mayor Ray Nagin, and the public-private partnership for economic development, which Nagin also gutted. Clarkson touts her role in creating Federal City in Algiers, which supports the military's strong presence in the area, as well as charter amendments giving the city's new master plan the force of law and guaranteeing a source of funding for the new Office of Inspector General. Willard-Lewis has emerged as a leading voice for redeveloping the "wet" areas that flooded during Hurricane Katrina, and she has often (though not always) been one of Nagin's supporters on the council.
In District A, voters were all set for a rematch of the 2006 runoff between then-incumbent Jay Batt and then-challenger Midura, who pulled off a major upset against the better known and better financed Batt. The former councilman is running again this year, but Midura announced months ago that she would not seek a second term. Instead, she is supporting attorney and fellow Democrat Susan Guidry against Batt, a Republican and businessman. Also running are Virginia Blanque, a Republican businesswoman and former aide to at large Councilman Arnie Fielkow, and Fred Robertson, an independent.
District A includes much of Uptown and stretches to the Lakefront via parts of Carrollton and Mid-City.
Batt and Guidry appear to lead the field, and they have traded barbs on the campaign trail. Guidry accuses Batt of being "soft on blight" and has noted that his signs sometimes appear on blighted properties. Batt denies the charge and touts his experience as a council member from 2002 to 2006. All four candidates support the master plan concept and pledge to find ways to reduce crime and reform the city's budget process. Guidry and Blanque are making their first bids for public office; Robertson, whose top issue is building a high-speed maglev train for the area, ran for governor in 2003, finishing last.
The District B race is one of several two-person contests on the ballot, which means it will be resolved on Saturday. One-term incumbent Stacy Head faces the Rev. Corey Watson, an electrical contractor whose congregation is on the West Bank. Watson is the son of the Rev. Tom Watson, who ran against Nagin in 2006, then endorsed him in the runoff against Mitch Landrieu. This is Corey Watson's first bid for public office.
District B includes Central City, the Irish Channel, the Garden District, the CBD and Warehouse District, and parts of Mid-City and Gert Town. The district is majority African American, but many black voters were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Head, who is white, defeated then-incumbent Renee Gill-Pratt, who is black, in 2006. Head survived a loosely organized recall petition drive after the City Hall email flap and has worked hard to keep her political support in the black community. Her endorsements include the Alliance for Good Government and the Black Organization for Leadership Development (BOLD), the group associated with former Councilman Jim Singleton, whom Head describes as a friend and mentor.
Watson, who is African American, described himself in his announcement of candidacy as "the voice of the people." He holds an electrical engineering degree from Tulane and was ordained a minister in 2000. He has worked as a pro bono lobbyist for health care reform and the right of employees to unionize, and he has volunteered in several major environmental and recovery efforts. On the campaign trail he has stressed the need to invest in youth programs as crime-fighting tools, repair streets and lighting, refine the proposed master plan and spur economic development.
The District C race shaped up late, perhaps because incumbent Carter delayed his decision not to run until relatively late in the game. That probably kept several prospective candidates on the sidelines. Four candidates initially qualified, but now only three remain: Algiers Assessor Tom Arnold, whose job has been eliminated by the consolidation of the seven assessors' offices into one; Rebuilding Together leader Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who narrowly lost a runoff to Carter for this seat in 2006; and political newcomer Nathaniel Jones.
District C includes Algiers, the French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater, Faubourg St. John and Treme. Approximately 60 percent of the district's voters live in Algiers, but the epicenter of many of the district's controversies is the French Quarter.
The race essentially has become a generational contest between Arnold, who has served as an assessor for more than 25 years and has the support of the Algiers political network, and Palmer, who represents a younger generation that draws political support from civic engagement, reform and rebuilding efforts.
District D presents another head-to-head contest. Incumbent Cynthia Hedge-Morrell faces businesswoman Denise Holden, a financial director of a local home health care provider who also owns a child care service. The district sits between Bayou St. John and the Industrial Canal and includes parts of the lakefront, most of Gentilly and pieces of the 7th, 8th and 9th wards. More than 80 percent of the district flooded during Hurricane Katrina, which means infrastructure, blight and neighborhood recovery are the hot topics.
Hedge-Morrell touts signposts of recovery across the district, including the relocation of Holy Cross High School to Paris Avenue, several completed or nearly completed public schools, ongoing reconstruction of UNO and SUNO's campuses, and reconstruction of the Pontchartrain Park golf course. As chair of the council's budget committee, Hedge-Morrell has been in the thick of budget wars with Nagin, the latest of which added $5 million to the city budget. She has won every major endorsement in the race so far.
Holden cites her experience as a business owner as proof she has what it takes to help balance a city budget. Prior to running her business, she spent nine years as a state probation officer and worked briefly at Kingsley House, a respected social services agency.
District E was arguably the hardest-hit district during Katrina. It includes the Lower 9th Ward and most of eastern New Orleans. Because incumbent Willard-Lewis is term limited and seeking an at large seat, this race has attracted a field of six candidates — the largest of any council district. The candidates are six-year state Rep. Austin Badon, former state Sen. Jon Johnson, former one-term state Rep. Leonard Lucas, real estate agent Jerrelda Drummer-Sanders, nonprofit exec Cyndi Nguyen, and Alicia Plummer, a real estate broker.
Badon emerged as the early frontrunner after initially announcing he would run for mayor. He was unable to raise enough money to mount an effective citywide campaign, but his war chest has swelled since he switched to the District E contest.
All candidates say the biggest issues are infrastructure in the Lower 9, reopening at least one hospital in the East, and accelerating the pace of recovery across the district.