A wide-open race for district attorney tops the ballot this Saturday in New Orleans, while a handful of school board contests and judicial races will draw voters to the polls in Jefferson Parish. Jefferson DA Paul Connick Jr. was re-elected to a second term without opposition.
Meanwhile, congressional races and a contest for the U.S. Senate top the ballot on Nov. 5 -- along with any runoffs from local races not settled this weekend. The federal contests have been slow in building, mostly because all eyes are on the local and parochial primaries this Saturday.
In addition to the district attorney contest in New Orleans, city voters will elect judges at Civil District Court, Criminal District Court, Municipal Court, Juvenile Court and the state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal -- as well as the constable of First City Court, the recorder of mortgages and the register of conveyances. Voters in parts of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish likewise will elect a Public Service Commission member on Saturday.
While no candidate can take his or her victory for granted, a few elections stand out for being even more hotly contested than most. Following is a race-by-race look at candidates in several of the hottest contests in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, starting with the district attorney race in New Orleans.
For most voters in New Orleans, Harry Connick is the only district attorney they've ever known. Connick will retire Jan. 12, at the end of his current term, after nearly 28 years in the job. Eight candidates have qualified to succeed him. A runoff is anticipated on Nov. 5.
Clerk of Civil District Court Dale Atkins is a former prosecutor under Connick who has won his endorsement, as well as that of the Alliance for Good Government and Gambit Weekly. Atkins, a 44-year-old Democrat, stresses her experience as a prosecutor and administrator as well as her political independence. Atkins also notes that her family has been victimized by crime; her sister Davia Atkins was killed by a stray bullet in May, leaving behind a 7-year-old child whom Atkins is raising. She promises to make the office more responsive to the needs of women and children who are victims of crime.
Attorney James Gray, a Democrat, is making his second bid for the DA's job, and this time around he has earned a crucial endorsement -- that of popular Mayor Ray Nagin. A former U.S. Marine who saw combat duty in Vietnam, the 56-year-old Gray is a Baton Rouge native who attended Harvard Law School and later taught at LSU law school. His wife, Judge Ernestine Gray, is the chief judge of Juvenile Court in New Orleans. Gray promises to prosecute all crimes with equal vigor, not just those in high-profile or well-heeled neighborhoods.
The front-runner from the outset has been former U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan, a 49-year-old Democrat who is making his first bid for public office. Jordan has emphasized his crime-fighting credentials, particularly his prosecution of political corruption involving former Gov. Edwin Edwards. Jordan has also reminded voters of his office's role in breaking up local drug rings and in prosecuting corrupt cops. Jordan is a member of Congressman Bill Jefferson's political group, the Progressive Democrats, and has Jefferson's endorsement.
Paul M. Massa, a 37-year-old independent and solo practitioner, is the youngest candidate in the race. He worked in several local campaigns, including opposition to Mayor Marc Morial's bid for a third term. He also has provided legal services to local preservationist and environmental organizations.
Former Criminal Court Judge Morris Reed is making his fourth bid for district attorney, having lost to Connick in each of his three prior outings. Each of his races against Connick was a close, hard-fought contest. Reed touts his experience in several facets of the criminal justice system -- as the first head of the city's Office of Municipal Investigation (OMI), as a Criminal Court Judge, and as a federal prosecutor. The 53-year-old Democrat lost an election for judge of Civil District Court two years ago and says this will be his last bid for DA.
Retired attorney Dolores "Dolly" Mason Smith is the only Republican in the race. The Tulane law graduate served as prosecutor for Connick from 1980 to 1989. Her experience there included work with the grand jury and homicide cases and in screening cases brought by police. She stresses her independence and promises not to solicit or accept any money from anyone, telling voters, "No fee, no favors."
Criminal defense attorney Gary Wainwright is the only candidate who does not stress prosecutorial zeal. An advocate of de-criminalizing marijuana, Wainwright, a 47-year-old Democrat, says the DA's office spends too much time pursuing minor drug possession cases and not enough time on major violent crimes. He promises if elected to expand the office's economic crimes unit as a way to fight political corruption.
Chief Deputy City Attorney Franz Zibilich, a 48-year-old Democrat, says he is the most experienced trial attorney in the race. Zibilich, who is making his first bid for public office, points to his experience as a legal advisor to NOPD as proof that he will be able to work with cops to improve the working relationships between police and prosecutors. He also promises to hire more experienced prosecutors and give them greater autonomy in deciding whether, and when, to plea bargain with defendants -- except in cases involving violent crimes, when he says he will have the final word.
Orleans & Jefferson Public Service Commission
Incumbent Public Service Commissioner Jay Blossman, a 37-year-old Republican from St. Tammany, faces former PSC member John Schwegmann, a 56-year-old independent and the man Blossman beat six years ago for the District 1 seat on the PSC. The commission regulates utilities and common carriers. Because only two candidates are running, there will be no runoff.
The two men have been bitter rivals since Blossman mounted a costly, media-driven campaign against Schwegmann in 1996. That campaign saw Blossman out-spend Schwegmann, then a 16-year incumbent, many times over. Blossman's ads attacked Schwegmann for not doing enough to keep utility bills down. This time around, Blossman still has the financial advantage, but his record also is getting close scrutiny.
Blossman says the past six years on the PSC have made him familiar with the complex work of utility regulation. He says he has led the fight against high utility rates and helped make the state's new "do not call" program free to citizens.
Schwegmann says Blossman broke a campaign promise not to accept political contributions from industries and groups regulated by the PSC. Blossman admits he has broken that promise, but says it's perfectly legal, as long as there is no "quid pro quo." Schwegmann says he has never taken money from any entity that the PSC regulates and would not allow himself to become dependent on contributions from utilities in order to win an election.
In addition, the two men differ as to how the PSC should treat "merchant" power plants that are not owned by regulated companies. Blossman encourages their development as job creators, while Schwegmann says they should be regulated for economic, safety and environmental reasons.
New Orleans Court
Two seats are up for grabs on the state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal this Saturday. Both will fill vacancies created by judicial retirements.
Three candidates seek the Division A seat on the appellate court -- Democrats Sidney Cates IV, Yvonne Hughes and Edwin Lombard. The Division A seat was formerly held by Judge Steven Plotkin, who has retired. Hughes has been a judge at Juvenile Court for two years. Lombard has been clerk of Criminal District Court since 1974. Cates is a former deputy city attorney who also has served on the city's Civil Service Commission.
As the only candidate who has not held elective office, Cates started out at a disadvantage. He has spent heavily to establish himself as a serious candidate and the contest is expected to tighten by election day.
Two sitting judges are vying for the Division B appellate judgeship formerly held by Judge Miriam Waltzer, who has retired. Criminal Court Judge Leon Cannizzaro Jr. faces First City Court Judge Sonja Spears in what may be the most hotly contested judicial race in New Orleans. The two Democrats have spent heavily and campaigned hard for months. Cannizzaro cites his 16-plus years of judicial experience at Criminal Court, while Spears says she has more balanced experience in both civil and criminal law, although less experience as a jurist.
Civil District Court
All incumbent judges at Civil District Court were re-elected without opposition this year. The only contested judgeship is one that was vacated by the retiring Judge Richard Ganucheau. In that contest, veteran lawyer Herbert Cade faces former City Attorney Mavis Early. Both are Democrats. The race will be decided on Saturday.
Cade ran twice for the state Senate against Lambert Boissiere Jr. in recent years, losing both contests. He is a long-time political ally of former Mayor Marc Morial, but so is Early -- who was named city attorney by the former mayor. Cade touts his 26 years of trial experience as his major qualification, and he also has served as a judge pro tempore on the Court of Appeal and at Juvenile Court.
Early is making her first bid for public office, but she is no stranger to politics. Her husband is former District C Councilman Mike Early, who served on the City Council from the mid-1970s through the 1980s. She cites the range of her experience, as the city's top lawyer and in her private practice, as well as her support from all types of lawyers --plaintiff, defense and not litigating attorneys.
New Orleans Criminal District Court
Four judgeships are up for grabs at Criminal District Court, but the one that has everybody watching is the one created by a forced vacancy. Judge Sharon Hunter was removed from the bench by the Louisiana Supreme Court for failing to administer her court properly. She cannot run for re-election.
Four candidates are vying for Hunter's old job in Section C of Criminal Court -- Michael H. Idoyaga, a 47-year-old independent; Sandra Cabrina Jenkins, a 41-year-old Democrat; Harry S. Tervalon, a 54-year-old Democrat who narrowly lost to Hunter in 1996; and Ben Willard, a 38-year-old Democrat who is the brother of City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis.
All are campaigning vigorously, and a runoff is expected.
New Orleans Recorder of Mortgages
One of the hottest races on the ballot is a rematch between incumbent Recorder of Mortgages Desiree Charbonnet and the man she beat for the job, former recorder Mike McCrossen. Both are Democrats.
Four years ago, McCrossen was the incumbent and Charbonnet the challenger. Now the tables are turned, but the fireworks are just as intense. McCrossen snipes at Charbonnet for hiring state Sen. Paulette Irons as a staff attorney and for firing about 20 employees who had worked for him. She answers that McCrossen padded his payroll and sexually harassed several employees. Charbonnet adds that she kept the best workers and hired new ones who were better than those she terminated.
Charbonnet, an attorney, has the endorsement of Mayor Ray Nagin and the Alliance for Good Government.
Jefferson Parish 22nd Judicial District Court
The hottest political story of the year in Jefferson has been the federal criminal investigation into suspended Judge Ronald Bodenheimer on charges that he conspired to plant illegal drugs on a critic of his operations at an eastern New Orleans marina. Facing federal charges and possible jail time, Bodenheimer is not seeking re-election.
Attorneys Jeff Hand and Hans Liljeberg are competing for Bodenheimer's seat. Both are spending freely and campaigning hard, although neither has attacked the other over the airwaves. Both are Republicans making their first bid for public office.
Hand stresses his experience as a criminal prosecutor. He served stints as an assistant district attorney in New Orleans and Jefferson for a combined 11 years.
Liljeberg's campaign themes include integrity, dedication and public safety. He says his combined experience as an assistant district attorney, businessman and civil attorney -- along with his even temperament -- better qualify him for the judgeship. Hand counters that he promises to be a "full-time" judge without outside business "distractions" -- a reference to Liljeberg's reportedly large real estate holdings. Hand also pledges to make his taxes public. Liljeberg says that he, too, will be a full-time judge and that his business holdings will not distract him from his work as a judge.
Because there are only two candidates in the race, the contest will be decided on Saturday.