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Hell Week: the Races to Watch 

Qualifying opens Tuesday morning (Sept. 4) for governor, all other statewide offices, all 144 legislative seats, and hundreds of local and parochial offices across the state. In New Orleans, qualifying also begins for the special election to fill Oliver Thomas' former at-large seat on the New Orleans City Council. Officially, this is the start of the campaign season. Qualifying closes at 5 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 6) for all contests on the Oct. 20 primary ballot.

For incumbents who are not term-limited and who are seeking re-election, this is Hell Week. Typically, politicians who are pursuing re-election qualify early just to make sure everyone knows their intentions. Then they sit and sweat for three days, waiting to see who will challenge them. The qualifying period almost always ends with some surprises.

Here's a look at some of the hot races to watch this year:

Governor -- The big question mark remains whether Mayor Ray Nagin will jump into the race. He has been flirting with the idea for several months, sometimes hinting that he will run and sometimes suggesting otherwise. If his true intentions were to keep everybody guessing, he succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Now he'll have to declare one way or the other. One theory in support of him running is that he could use the campaign to promote the issue of south Louisiana's recovery needs and his own ascendancy as a statewide black power broker. Trouble is, black voters have twice seen gubernatorial bids by black power brokers lead to the election of a Republican governor. Are they willing to cast another symbolic vote, knowing it could guarantee Bobby Jindal's election? Another problem for Nagin is the fact that his candidacy would cause him to leave the city for extended periods at a time when New Orleans most needs a mayor who is present and engaged. Besides, what will his platform be -- the bang-up job he's done so far with New Orleans' recovery? Either way, Nagin is keeping everyone guessing.

Attorney General -- Incumbent Charles Foti has made a lot of people angry in the last 12 months, but he still doesn't seem to have a major challenger. Foti's troubles should have been an open invitation to the GOP to field a candidate, but the Republicans have a weak bench beyond David Vitter and Bobby Jindal. Forty-year-old Royal Alexander, a former congressional aide from Shreveport, has announced his intention to run, but he has no statewide base other than his party affiliation. Democratic DA James "Buddy" Caldwell of Tallulah has been campaigning for months, but he hasn't caught on in south Louisiana yet. Tony Clayton, a black prosecutor from Pointe Coupee (best known as the man who convicted serial killer Derrick Todd Lee), considered the race but has opted out. This one could see a surprise entry.

Agriculture Commissioner -- Seven-term incumbent Bob Odom wants to go out on his own terms, which means he wants one more term to show that the corruption charges that Baton Rouge DA Doug Moreau brought against him mean nothing. The trial judge threw out Moreau's case, but the DA is appealing that decision. Meanwhile, Republican state Rep. Mike Strain, a St. Tammany veterinarian who is not term limited, should be Odom's main challenger. Strain is very popular on the Northshore and has been campaigning all year. Another Republican, Baton Rouge Metro Council member Spider Carter, has plenty of his own money, but Carter is a recent GOP convert. Strain looks to be the "real" Republican of his contest. This one will get very hot in the final weeks.

New Orleans Council at-Large -- Most of the names that have been circulating are familiar, and that's the problem. A quiet groundswell has been building for someone who offers more than just a well-known (and well-worn) name. Late last week, there appeared to be a movement among black and white business and civic leaders in support of Sewerage and Water Board President Pro Tem Tommie Vassel, a CPA and former interim school board member. Vassel's name was mentioned during the council's search for Oliver Thomas' interim replacement. We could also see some surprise entries in this contest.

Jefferson Parish President -- After Katrina, Aaron Broussard was the most hated man in Jefferson Parish because of his decision to evacuate pump operators before the storm flooded much of Metairie. Since then, he has worked night and day to rehabilitate his image -- and explain his decision. We'll find out this week if Broussard's preventive strikes in the spring and summer keep him from getting a major challenger. Many familiar names have been mentioned as possible opponents, but one by one they faded from the scene.

Once qualifying closes on Thursday, the election will be a sprint. A mere 44 days separate the close of qualifying and the close of voting in the Oct. 20 primary. Runoffs will be four weeks after that, on Nov. 17.


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