More than 20 people have thrown their hats into the ring for the Feb. 1 New Orleans City Council races — longtime New Orleans bureaucrats, state legislators hoping to move to city-level politics, lawyers, teachers, business owners — all facing off in an election that will significantly change the political landscape at City Hall.
One thing is certain: the council will regain a black majority. At least four of the seven seats will go to African-Americans, and it's possible District C and one of the at-large seats could as well. The election may also see some old, familiar faces in new seats. Early voting began Jan. 18 and will conclude Saturday, Jan. 25; the primary is Feb. 1.
Here's a breakdown of the council races:
At-Large Division 1 & 2 — For the first time under the current City Charter, the at-large seats will be filled through separate races, instead of a single "free-for-all" contest in which voters cast ballots for two candidates and those with more 25 percent of the vote win. What hasn't changed: the at-large councilmembers will serve alternately as president and vice-president of the council, and residents citywide can vote in each division as well as for candidates representing their geographic council district.
In Division 1, incumbent Stacy Head is seeking a full term in this at-large seat, having won it in a special election nearly two years ago. Her sole challenger is Eugene Green, a longtime presence in the New Orleans East business community and current president of the Nationwide Real Estate Corporation. Head and Green disagree about the domicile requirement for Orleans Parish first responders; Head wants to remove it, Green wants to keep it. They also disagree on another currently contentious issue — the proposed sound ordinance. Head supports the measure; Green does not.
In At-Large Division 2, Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who is term-limited out of District D, faces Ernest "Freddie" Charbonnet and Jason Williams. Charbonnet was appointed the interim District E councilman after former Councilman Jon Johnson's resignation in 2012. Williams is a criminal defense attorney who serves on several local boards of directors, including Innocence Project New Orleans and Partnership for Youth Development. Williams also ran for district attorney in 2008, finishing third.
Williams says he would "aggressively recruit" retailers and businesses for development in New Orleans East. Hedge-Morrell wants more scrutiny over plans to redevelop land at the former Six Flags site. "There are so many big projects coming into the city, but it doesn't feel like they're trickling down," she told Gambit. Williams says he also wants a bigger budget for youth and family services and more funding for nonprofits that already are working. Charbonnet wants to convert the I-10 corridor — where he says the median income is $77,000 — into an "economic engine" to divert traffic (and tax revenue) from Jefferson Parish.
District A — This district encompasses parts of Uptown, Carrollton, Mid-City and Lakeview. Incumbent Susan Guidry, who was elected in 2010, faces four opponents: union organizer and civil rights attorney David Capasso; Jason Coleman of Coleman Cab Co.; businessman Stephen Gordon; and Drew Ward, the sole Republican in the council races. At a recent forum, Capasso, Coleman and Gordon all said it was time for New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas to step down; only Guidry did not (Ward was not present when the question was asked).
Ward names his top three priorities as "poverty, poverty and poverty" and has blasted Guidry for what he says is her record of voting against small business development. Guidry said she wants to use incentives to encourage small corner businesses to sell fresh food, while Ward claims she has prevented corner stores from opening in District A through zoning changes.
The two have butted heads throughout the campaign: Ward, who opposes the current draft of the controversial noise ordinance, took sound measurements on an iPad app decibel meter outside a Guidry fundraiser at the Maple Leaf Bar earlier this month, showing sound levels exceeding the allowable maximum of 70 db and posting his findings to YouTube. Guidry is, not surprisingly, skeptical of the results.
Guidry chairs the council's Criminal Justice Committee and its Governmental Affairs Committee, the latter of which deals with government reforms. Guidry touts her record of sponsoring legislation to free courts of having to deal with first-time marijuana possession and prostitution cases without reducing penalties. She also led the effort to create the Lafitte Greenway, a 3.1-mile park that will run from the edge of the French Quarter to Bayou St. John. The park is set to be finished 2015.
District B — No challengers stepped up to face Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell; she is automatically re-elected. District B is perhaps the city's most economically diverse district, representing parts of Uptown and the Garden District as well as Central City and parts of Mid-City.
District C — This is a geographically challenging district, encompassing the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Algiers. Longtime Councilwoman At-Large Jackie Clarkson decided to run in District C, which she represented twice before in nonconsecutive terms, after one-term incumbent Kristin Gisleson Palmer decided not to seek re-election. (Clarkson said Mayor Mitch Landrieu called her away from planned retirement.) Nadine Ramsey, a former chief judge at Orleans Parish Civil District Court and a 2010 mayoral aspirant, is Clarkson's major opponent. Clarkson and Ramsey will face Carlos Williams, Eloise Williams and former Orleans Parish School Board member Lourdes Moran.
Clarkson, who has applauded Landrieu's murder reduction strategies, says she believes statistics showing crime is down across the city. Ramsey disagrees with the claim that crime is abating. On a current hot-button topic — the sound ordinance, which will disproportionately affect clubs and residents in District C — Clarkson, a co-author of the sound ordinance, has called it "the epitome of consensus" at a recent forum. "We're not trying to kill music," she told Gambit, "we're trying to kill amplified noise." Ramsey said she understands the quality-of-life issues presented by the ordinance, but disagrees about the consensus, saying "residents and businesses both feel left out of the system." Both, however, think the NOPD domicile requirement should be lifted.
District D — With Hedge-Morrell term-limited out of her current seat, District D opens to three new challengers: state Rep. Jared Brossett, D-New Orleans; Joseph Bouie, a self-described "change agent" and former chancellor at the Southern University at New Orleans; and Dalton Savwoir, president of the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association. They are vying to represent a district that includes Gentilly and other neighborhoods that are making a slow comeback after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures.
All District D candidates endorse some form of a sound ordinance, and all think the NOPD domicile requirement should be lifted, at least in some form. Brossett, who is a political protege of Hedge-Morrell, touts his experience in the Louisiana Legislature as a key part of his training for the council job. He began his career as Hedge-Morrell's aide at City Hall.
Savwoir says the top issues in the district are jobs and economic development, crime, blight and infrastructure. He says he supports programs to help small, local and disadvantaged businesses. Bouie is best known throughout the district as a popular veteran educator. He won the endorsement of the Alliance for Good Government.
District E — Freshman incumbent James Gray faces Cynthia Willard-Lewis, a former District E councilwoman who's also been a state senator and state representative. Also running is former Jon Johnson staffer Andre Kelly. They're competing to represent a large district spreading across New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward, with some of the most stubborn post-Hurricane Katrina comeback problems: persistent blight, a lack of retail and — perhaps most important — a sense among many residents that the New Orleans "comeback" hasn't included them.
Willard-Lewis wants to push for more aggressive blight management with expanded Lot Next Door and Adopt-A-Lot programs and community gardens and urban farms. She also advocates better marketing in the East. "Be prepared to tell the story of success that's coming," she told Gambit. Kelly says the East is ripe for "air, land and sea" opportunities.
Gray, who was elected less than 18 months ago (with Willard-Lewis' help) to serve out Johnson's term after Johnson resigned amid a scandal, says business development is key to the future of his district. "With your help, we've made great progress in this first year. We helped Big Lots to open, and worked with the city and state to get the Office of Motor Vehicles open almost a year ahead of schedule," Gray said. "The East is booming. Walmart is under construction, the new hospital opens this spring and new businesses are scouting the area."