With Mayor Mitch Landrieu expected to coast to re-election, the hottest race on the Feb. 1 ballot could be the contest for Orleans Parish sheriff. Qualifying for mayor, council, sheriff and other local offices in New Orleans runs Wednesday through Friday (Dec. 11-13).
Incumbent Sheriff Marlin Gusman has done everything humanly possible to attract a bevy of major opponents, but so far only two have taken the bait: Charles Foti Jr., who held the sheriff's job for 30 years before becoming the state attorney general in 2004; and school board president Ira Thomas, a former New Orleans police lieutenant who now serves as chief of security at Southern University New Orleans. State Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, is also looking at the race, but he says he won't decide until some time this week.
The lack of a large field of challengers doesn't mean Gusman's re-election will be a cakewalk. All three men have strong personalities, and everyone expects a hard-fought, in-your-face campaign.
An October survey of New Orleans voters by University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak found 56 percent of voters disapproved of Gusman's performance, while only 33 percent approved. More important, the strong voter disapproval of Gusman had no racial split: blacks as well as whites gave him low marks.
Gusman has been the subject of scandal repeatedly in recent months. His jail is the subject of a federal consent decree and several civil lawsuits. A video shot inside the prison several years ago (and introduced as evidence in federal court) showed inmates partying, drinking, doing drugs and flashing a loaded handgun. The video went viral and is sure to surface again during the campaign. Several of Gusman's former supervisors have been convicted on federal corruption charges. They are said to be cooperating in an ongoing investigation. Inmate-on-inmate violence is commonplace, as are escapes.
All of which should make Gusman an easy target, but as qualifying week begins he remains the favorite. Though hardly a stem-winding campaigner, Gusman has one key edge over his opponents: money.
Gusman's latest campaign finance report, filed in November, showed him with almost $550,000 cash on hand. Foti's last report, filed in February (from his attorney general's campaign account), showed him with about $150,000; he says he plans to spend up to $400,000 in this race. Thomas' latest report, also filed in February, showed him with zero in his account. He declined to say how much he plans to spend but said he is raising money for this contest.
When he announced his re-election bid two weeks ago, Gusman anticipated criticism from his opponents — so he went on offense. Without mentioning Foti by name, Gusman said he "inherited a prison system with substandard, outdated physical facilities scattered over several blocks with a population of 6,000 inmates." He repeated the "inherited" mantra several times in his announcement speech.
Foti literally laughed at that. "Ten years he's been in office," Foti said. "I left him with cash in the bank and an office that was well-run. Marlin's problem is not the buildings. It's his operation of the buildings, his delivery of services and his supervision of people."
Thomas, who was a cop for 28 years and ran for sheriff in 2004, has drawn a bead on both Gusman and Foti. "There were issues confronting that office in 2004, such as poor medical conditions, violence, questionable debts," Thomas said. "Those issues are still prevalent today, nine years later. Marlin won the job understanding what the issues were and he vowed to clean it up. Nine years later, he hasn't done the job, plain and simple."
Thomas says Gusman refuses to make the office transparent and accountable, and he "hasn't been a partner in the criminal justice process." He also cites "exorbitant contracts" that Gusman has awarded, particularly one for legal services.
Gusman, and to some extent Thomas, may paint Foti as the sheriff who created the jail's problems in the first place. For his part, Foti will point to the lower numbers of escapes, deaths, stabbings, rapes and other problems during his 30-year tenure compared to Gusman's nine-plus years on the job. "I bring experience in the operation and maintenance of a safe jail, and providing community service to the public, rehabilitation services to inmates, and restitution services to the victims," Foti said.
Gusman, too, will point to programs he has established to help rehabilitate inmates — and to the fact that he reduced the population of the jail by more than half. He also reined in the far-flung political empire that Foti built as sheriff.
There are significant stylistic differences among the three men, along with a generational difference. Gusman and Thomas are in their mid-50s; Foti just turned 76.
Two other factors may boil just below the surface: Foti is a cousin of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has feuded with Gusman in recent months over the cost of the jail's federal consent decree. So far, Landrieu remains neutral in the race, and he and Gusman reached a temporary (and tenuous) budget accord in October.
The other factor is race. Gusman is black, as is Thomas; Foti is white. Even though black voters do not approve of Gusman's performance, that doesn't mean he won't portray himself as the keeper of a black political "franchise" — just as then-Mayor Ray Nagin did to win re-election in 2006, despite a poor record in office.
I'm not saying Gusman would resort to something as ham-fisted as Nagin's "Chocolate City" comment, but others could play the race card for him, potentially to great effect.
Foti says he does not believe race will be a deciding factor because concern about public safety — which includes safety in the local jail — cuts across all demographic lines.
The only thing that seems certain right now is that the race for sheriff could overshadow all others on the Feb. 1 ballot.