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Friday, October 20, 2017

In politics, if you're attacking, you best not miss

Posted By on Fri, Oct 20, 2017 at 2:38 PM

click to enlarge Mayoral candiates LaToya Cantrell, left, and Desiree Charbonnet.
  • Mayoral candiates LaToya Cantrell, left, and Desiree Charbonnet.

When it comes to political attacks, the rule of thumb was succinctly stated by the character Omar Little in the TV drama The Wire: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

In politics, an attack must be relevant, accurate and artfully delivered. A volley that misses the mark invites a devastating counterpunch. Similarly, those that are ham-fisted, tasteless, or just plain overkill cross an invisible line that voters inherently recognize — and they punish candidates who cross it.

In the New Orleans mayoral primary, I saw a lot of misses and a bit of overkill.

The most glaring example of both was the series of attack mailers sent out against early frontrunner Desiree Charbonnet by a political action committee (PAC) calling itself Not For Sale NOLA. The PAC was funded by seven high-profile New Orleans business folks and Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby.

The mailers purported to expose Charbonnet’s corruption and cronyism via “The Desiree Charbonnet Tales,” as told in three cartooned “chapters” plus a final installment that arrived in the closing days of the primary.

If the PAC’s aim was to knock Charbonnet out of the running, it failed. She lost her frontrunner status, trailing LaToya Cantrell by more than 8 percentage points in the Oct. 14 primary, but she easily beat Uptown favorite Michael Bagneris. And she is very much alive in the runoff.

The PAC’s anti-Charbonnet campaign suffered from several miscalculations.

First, its members all were white big shots who funded political shots at a black woman candidate for mayor. The optics of that were horrible in a racially divided city. Second, the message of each “chapter” was basically the same: guilt by association. The attacks claimed Charbonnet (who never has been accused of wrongdoing) could not be trusted because several allegedly nefarious characters — all of them black — were supporting her candidacy. The third problem was the sum of the first two: the attacks missed the mark. There was no smoking gun, though two mailers put a cartoon gun literally in Charbonnet’s hand.
Ironically, Charbonnet’s counterattack was almost as weak. She took after Leslie Jacobs, the PAC’s reputed leader, who, despite her service on local and state school boards, is hardly a household name. That brings to mind another rule of thumb: If you’re going to attack someone who’s not a candidate, make sure it’s someone whom everyone knows and just about everyone dislikes. Jacobs is neither.

Ultimately, many voters — particularly black voters — saw the greatest weakness of the PAC’s strategy on their own: The same so-called bad guys who are backing Charbonnet also backed Mitch Landrieu for mayor and state Rep. Helena Moreno in the just-ended at-large City Council election. If those guys are so evil and their influence so deleterious to good government, why didn’t Not For Sale NOLA attack Landrieu eight years ago — or Moreno eight weeks ago?

Cantrell, who now finds herself in the unfamiliar position of frontrunner, has called for a runoff free of attacks.

Given the stakes, that’s probably wishful thinking. But, if candidates and voters have to endure more attacks, they best be relevant, accurate, not ham-fisted — and not miss.

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