The election of New Orleans' first citywide assessor will surely rank as one of the most important political contests on the ballot Feb. 6, but so far the assessor's race remains in the shadows of the upcoming mayoral contest. Other than appearing on the same ballot, the two elections have little in common.
Whereas the mayor's race has yet to take shape in terms of announced candidates, the contest for assessor already has drawn at least four definite contenders — although no one is "officially" a candidate until qualifying opens Dec. 9.
Another contrast between these two critical elections is the fact that the mayor's race will feature no incumbent, but the assessor's race will see at least three of the seven current assessors vying for the citywide job. A fourth declared candidate works as a deputy assessor.
The unofficial candidates thus far are:
• 1st Municipal District Assessor Darren Mire, 40, who has held the CBD-to-Mid-City assessor's job since 2002;
• 2nd District Assessor Claude Mauberret, 47, who succeeded his late father as assessor of the French Quarter-to-Lakeview district in 1994;
• 3rd District Assessor Erroll Williams, 60, whose vast district includes all of the city's Seventh, Eighth and Ninth wards and who first won the office in 1985;
• Deputy 6th District Assessor Janis Lemle, an attorney who turns 52 this week and who is running with the full support of her boss, Assessor Nancy Marshall.
In addition to those candidates, 5th District Assessor Tom Arnold has hinted he may run, but he has been less vocal about his intentions than the others. Arnold could not be reached for comment for this story.
While most of the incumbents have long political pedigrees — some trace their political roots back a generation or more — Lemle is a political newcomer. She only began working in Marshall's office in April, but she seems determined to mount an aggressive campaign.
A key issue for Lemle will be her attempt to frame the race as a continuation of the reform movement that led to the consolidation of the assessors' offices in November 2006. In February 2006, Marshall ran as part of a collective "IQ" ticket, which stands for "I Quit" because each of the candidates on the ticket vowed to resign in order to facilitate combining the offices into one. Marshall was the only member of the ticket to get elected. Politically, Lemle is following in Marshall's footsteps by taking on all the incumbents and everything they stand for.
"I take a lot of encouragement from the fact that when the amendment was on the ballot, it passed with 66 percent of the vote," says Lemle, who until recently practiced law with Marshall as a partner at the Deutsch Kerrigan law firm. "It showed me that people really are interested in this issue and that they really want change. I hope they will look at the candidates' qualifications, philosophies and commitments to change."
Mire says qualifications are indeed important — and those qualifications include experience. "You need someone who can handle the job from the appraisal and the administrative sides," he says. "I can do both. ... I have experience appraising all kinds of property in the city — high-rise office buildings, condos, a land-based casino and residences. When people talk about one assessor, they hopefully will be looking for someone with a wide range of experience in assessing all kinds of properties."
No doubt Lemle's opponents will note that she has less than a year of experience in her deputy assessor's job, whereas each of them has a minimum of two terms in office. She answers that she has acquired the necessary qualifications. "I am a certified assessor," Lemle says. "Since joining the office, I took the classes and passed the test to become certified. I am also an attorney. In my work doing asbestos defense work, I managed literally thousands of claims in multiple-plaintiff suits. Managing this office is in many ways the same."
Lemle adds that the main issue in the race will be fairness and equality in citywide assessments — a key issue in the consolidation movement. "There are some people whose properties are assessed correctly and they're paying their fair share of property taxes, but there are many properties that have been under-assessed. Their assessments have not changed, literally, for decades. That's an unnecessary burden on others. If all property were properly assessed, the overall rate would go down."
Her opponents agree that fairness and equality should be the hallmark of local assessments, but they dispute that Lemle or Marshall is bringing it about single-handedly. In fact, all three incumbents who are running say they and their colleagues began the long march toward uniform assessments years before the IQ ticket was formed.
"We worked hard for years to get funding for a new computer system that would allow us to standardize and equalize assessments citywide," says Mauberret. "Neither [Mayors] Marc Morial nor Ray Nagin gave us enough money to do it. We had a computer system that dated to 1978, which put us in the bottom 5 percent in the nation technologically. We finally got the Legislature to fund us differently, shifting from a millage rate to 2 percent of whatever the city bills out in property taxes. With that, we bought a new computer system and new software and began equalizing assessments — pre-Nancy Marshall."
Williams agrees. "The issue of uniformity is more embedded in the fact that we had 121,000 people assessing their own property, which was done in 1977," he says. "Some self-assessments were accurate; some were inaccurate. That will be corrected now because we paid a private firm to come in and measure and photograph every property in the city. Uniformity will be fully implemented for the 2012 reassessment — and it's not because of consolidating the offices into one."
When the consolidation was on the ballot, Williams led the charge against it, dipping into his own campaign fund to air TV ads against it. He says he doubts that will be an issue against him in the campaign. "The principle behind being an assessor is that you serve the citizens of New Orleans, whether it's seven or one," he says. "My main concern was whether the citizens would be able to come in and sit down with their assessor as they have done for generations. You can do that better with seven than you can with one, and that's the biggest change that people are going to see after we have just one assessor."
In fact, all four candidates vow to continue the tradition of making themselves available to meet with property owners one-on-one — although that will be a tall order for one assessor, given the city's 120,000-plus property owners.
While Lemle faces the challenge of lacking her opponents' experience, each of the incumbents likewise will face some challenges — and bring some political strengths to his effort. Moving from a district to a citywide political base is a common challenge for them.
As for advantages, Mire has the Central City-based political organization BOLD in his corner. BOLD's members include state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, who herself is weighing a possible run for mayor. Mauberret appears to have a fundraising advantage, thanks perhaps to the fact that the French Quarter is part of his district. His campaign has a $500-a-person fundraiser scheduled this Wednesday (July 29); the host committee includes more than 100 prominent business and political names. Williams has by far the largest district, stretching from Esplanade Avenue and Bayou St. John to the eastern edge of the city. "I probably only need 20 percent of the vote elsewhere to get me over the top, if I do my job in my own district," he says.
At the end of the day, voters must decide just how much "change" they want in their single assessor. Lemle represents a total break from the past and a continuation of a grass-roots reform movement. The incumbents represent traditions that many voters like — particularly the notion of having someone they know assessing their property.