A Full-Contact Sport

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The Justice Department’s decision to yank local FBI Special Agent in Charge Jim Bernazzani back to D.C. on the heels of his public flirtation with a race for mayor was entirely foreseeable. What I don’t understand is why Bernazzani, who must have known that anything beyond the vanilla “no comment” he gave to Gambit Weekly in “Scuttlebutt” last week would land him in trouble, went ahead and talked even circumspectly with local TV reporters about running for political office. As Allen Johnson noted in his initial Gambit article, these kinds of things take on a life of their own. The Bernazzani-for-mayor story was just too tantalizing for the local broadcast media — and Bernazzani himself — to leave alone. I’m told that Bernazzani is close to FBI Director Robert Mueller, but Justice has a very strict policy about some things, and the Hatch Act is one of them. The reaction was swift and certain.

The question now is, will Bernazzani go back to D.C., or will he stay in N.O. and try to put together a race for mayor (or do something else between now and the 2010 mayor’s race, qualifying for which is less than 20 months away)? He’s 52 years old. FBI agents retire at 57, although he may have accrued substantial federal retirement benefits already.

Bernazzani may not even realize it, but he’s in a fairly vulnerable position right now.

On one hand, he’s got a gaggle of Uptown swells blowing smoke up his butt and telling him what a great mayor he would make. That can be pretty intoxicating. And that’s the danger. He probably has no idea how quickly that smoke can dissipate. Remember former Police Chief Richard Pennington? I don’t know for certain who the folks are who are filling Bernazzani’s head full of mayoral aspirations, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be some of the same folks who “promised” Chief Pennington they would fund his campaign in 2001-02 — and then turned their backs on him when Ray Nagin started moving up in the polls. Bernazzani, like Pennington, strikes me as an honorable guy, but I wonder if he knows just how little honor there is in politics. That lack of honor is not limited to those who run for office. Talk is cheap. It’s a full-contact sport, and those who play it play for keeps.

Here’s something else to which Bernazzani will have to adjust, if he runs: He has always dealt with local politicians and business people from a position of absolute strength. As an FBI agent (and the local SAC), he always had the full resources and manpower of the federal government behind him. Now, if he runs for mayor, he’s just one more flavor of the month who needs a few million so he can try to convince the masses that he can turn the city around. He’s liable to find that the doors don’t open as swiftly for Citizen Bernazzani.

In many ways, this episode reminds me of the “draft Ron Forman” movement — only Forman started out with a very good grasp of local history, culture, fundraising and politics. He put together a good campaign plan … and he still ran third. Without his badge and gun, Bernazzani is a babe in New Orleans’ political woods. Does he realize that?

We’ll know soon enough.

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