Having municipal elections in February — rather than in the fall, to coincide with state or national elections — is a bad idea for many reasons, but it's hard to imagine a place where it's more antithetical to civic participation than New Orleans. Qualifying happens just a few weeks before Christmas, and voting begins just a few weeks after New Year's Day, making it extraordinarily difficult to get people to focus on the campaigns. Throw in other uniquely New Orleans distractions, such as an NFL team that may be in the playoffs, a full NBA schedule and a Carnival season with the potential for parades on Election Day, and you've got a terrible recipe for trying to capture voters' attention. (Did we also mention the two major conventions this year during the last week of January, both of which will keep our service industry workers busy?)
No year was worse for civic participation than 2010. The citywide primary fell one day before the New Orleans Saints played in their first Super Bowl, and the final weekend of Mardi Gras followed just one week later. That year, Mitch Landrieu got almost twice as many votes as all of his opponents combined — but overall turnout was a pitifully low 33 percent.
This year's primary is less than a month away — Feb. 1 — and falls during the same inopportune time, but it's the last of its kind. Acting on a longstanding recommendation by the League of Women Voters, state lawmakers last year changed the date of future municipal elections back to "normal" autumn dates — the way it was before 1982. The legislation, sponsored by state Sens. J.P. Morrell and Ed Murray and Reps. Walt Leger III and Jared Brossett, will take effect in 2017. That's just in time for the next citywide elections. The autumn schedule also aligns New Orleans municipal elections with the state's political calendar, which means the state will cover more than half the cost.
This final mid-winter election is an important one for many reasons. In some cases, the choices are not clear — but the impact of voters' choices will be felt for years. For example, voters will elect someone to run Orleans Parish Prison (OPP). The two leading contenders, Sheriff Marlin Gusman and former Sheriff Charles Foti, will spend the rest of this month blaming each other for OPP's notorious troubles, while a third candidate, school board President Ira Thomas, hopes to distinguish himself from Foti and Gusman. In another important race, Coroner Frank Minyard's retirement signals a wide-open contest for the coroner's office, which plays a vital role in the criminal justice system.
If there's one overarching certainty in this year's municipal election, it's that the New Orleans City Council will once again have a black majority. At least four of the council's seven seats (one at-large seat plus the seats representing Districts B, D and E) will be held by African-Americans, and a fifth (representing District C) could well be won by a black candidate. The only council member without an opponent is District B's LaToya Cantrell, and the two at-large seats are, for the first time, being run as separate races rather than a single contest with two winners.
More than anything, this election will determine who leads New Orleans in the four years leading up to its 2018 tricentennial. Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants to keep his job, and for a while it looked as though he wouldn't draw much opposition. That changed when Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris retired from the bench to enter the race. Bagneris now has less than a month to present his vision for the city and make his case to voters who don't know much about him. That underscores another advantage of moving the election to the fall: It will give challengers a better chance against incumbents because elections won't be interrupted by holidays, Mardi Gras, etc.
Voter registration for this year's municipal election closed on Jan. 2. If you live in New Orleans but aren't sure about your council district, check the Louisiana Secretary of State's website at voterportal.sos.la.gov. Above all, pay close attention to the candidates and remember to vote on Feb. 1 — because right after the primary, there'll be an NBA All-Star Game and two weeks of Mardi Gras to distract us all over again. The runoffs, if needed, will follow on March 15 — giving us our own version of "March Madness."