The love fest that showered outgoing New Orleans at-large Council-man Arnie Fielkow quickly gave way to a behind-the-scenes battle over when to schedule the election to succeed him. It’s a good thing Fielkow is merely resigning and not dead — the speed with which some of his colleagues climbed over him to seek his office would have looked pretty unseemly had he been laid out in a coffin.
Such is politics.
Suffice it to say that the folks most likely to run for Fielkow’s seat lack his sense of tact and civility. They include District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, District B Councilwoman Stacy Head, State Sen. Cynthia Willard-Lewis, District E Councilman Jon Johnson and District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer. Chances are they won’t all run, but chances are equally good others will jump in.
The timing of the special election is crucial because timing affects turnout, and turnout determines who wins. Head, who is a tenacious campaigner with a battery of ardent supporters (and financiers), wants a Nov. 22 primary with a runoff on Dec. 17, which portends a sparse turnout, which enhances her chances.
The New Orleans electorate is 59.5 percent black and 33 percent white, but “off” elections tend to suppress black turnout. You can’t get much more “off” than a Dec. 17 runoff, which explains Head’s desire for the earlier election date. Her official story is that the City Charter requires that date, but an equally good legal argument can be made for a March 24 primary, with a runoff April 21. In addition to legal considerations, the March/April dates are already on the state election calendar and thus would cost the city about $500,000 less than the November/December dates.
Hedge-Morrell favors the spring dates, particularly since Louisiana’s presidential primary will be on March 24, which will improve black voter turnout.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu will figure prominently in this drama. Word has it he supports a spring election — for budgetary reasons. A half-million dollars could go a long way in NORD, or streets, or NOPD.
Meanwhile, here’s my take on the rumored field, as it stands now:
Along with Head, Hedge-Morrell starts as a co-favorite. She’s the council’s longest-tenured member and already had her eye on an at-large seat. She also has established herself as a budget authority since joining the council. Moreover, she’s first in line to get Landrieu’s support.
On the other hand, revelations that Hedge-Morrell and her husband, Criminal Court Clerk Arthur Morrell, fell more than $2,600 behind on paying their city sanitation bill are bound to hurt her.
Whether it’s Hedge-Morrell or someone else, there will be a major black candidate in this field. If it’s someone who can get white crossover votes, that candidate will be the favorite. For three decades until 2007, New Orleans had one black and one white at-large councilmember. Since 2007, both at-large councilmembers have been white. The special election to succeed Fielkow presents an opportunity to return to the historic political practice of power sharing.
There’s no guarantee that will happen in this election. It all depends on who runs — and on timing and turnout.
Meanwhile, Willard-Lewis will face Hedge-Morrell’s son, state Sen. J.P. Morrell, in Senate District 3 on Oct. 22. If she loses the Senate race, she may have nothing to lose by running at-large a third time. She lost bids for an at-large seat in 2006 and in 2007.
As the newest members of the council, Johnson and Palmer will be under pressure to defer to their more veteran colleagues — or run as spoilers. Nothing is certain just yet.
The first shots are likely to come this Thursday, when the council has to call the election. Stay tuned.