Voters in New Orleans -- the nation's urban murder capitol -- go to the polls Saturday to elect a new jailer for the Orleans Parish Prison system, which houses the eighth largest inmate population in the country. Thirteen candidates in the primary election are running to fill the unexpired term of Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Charles Foti Jr., who was elected state attorney general last fall.
A Multi-Quest International Inc. poll conducted for WVUE-TV/Fox8 and completed Aug. 30 showed three candidates ahead of the field and battling for two runoff spots on the Nov. 2 presidential election ballot. They are City Council member Marlin Gusman, interim Sheriff Bill Hunter, and Assistant New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley. "It's basically a three-man race," says pollster John "Jack" Grimm, president of Multi-Quest, which surveyed 603 Orleans Parish voters. The poll showed Gusman leading with 13 percent of the vote, followed by Hunter and Riley tied for second at 8 percent.
Chasing the frontrunners are 10 candidates: community activist Rev. Raymond Brown, lawyer David Capasso, retired NOPD Lt. Carl Haydel, public defender Powell Miller, former Criminal Court Judge Morris W. Reed, public schools security chief Ira Thomas, criminal sheriff's reserve deputy Lloyd M. Williams, and political unknowns Albert S. "Sugar" Evans III, Eddie Murphy and Willie James Williams.
Foti's successor will finish the remainder of his term, which ends in May 2006. During his 30 years in office, Foti combined creativity, secrecy and political power to build a network of jails to house 7,000 inmates, up from 800 when he first took office in 1974. Today, most of the 13 candidates are vowing to reduce the prison population. Orleans Parish now locks up five times as many people as the national per capita average incarceration rate of 187 per 100,000, a local expert says. "New Orleans is off the charts," says Peter Scharf, director of the University Center for Society Law and Justice.
Meanwhile, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Project, a non-partisan citizens organization, has been stoking public expectations for change at OPP. Most of the candidates -- including the interim sheriff -- are vowing to address OPP's reputation for harsh treatment of prisoners and murky financial picture through greater transparency and public accountability.
Most candidates also vow to retain the innovations and community outreach efforts that made Foti so popular. Examples include a nationally acclaimed prison arts program, free holiday meals for the elderly each year, the sheriff's Halloween "Haunted House" at City Park, and a fish "farm" on the roof of the Community Correctional Center.
The three frontrunners are all New Orleans natives running on their records as "No. 2s":
• Gusman, a lawyer with two degrees from the prestigious Wharton School of Business, served as former Mayor Marc Morial's chief administrative officer from 1994 to 2000. He was elected to the City Council in a special election in 2000. As sheriff, he says: "I want to be measured by a smaller prison; 6,000 [prisoners] in the middle of our city is a disgrace."
The only elected official in the race, Gusman has no law enforcement experience. He touts his efforts as CAO to help then-Police Chief Richard Pennington cut the city's murder rate by half.
• Riley is a 23-year NOPD veteran who is on leave from his duties as the No. 2 commander of the force. He is endorsed by Mayor Ray Nagin. Riley is a deep-voiced, articulate speaker with FBI training in media relations. And he has what cops call "command presence."
Riley holds a master's degree in criminal justice from Southern University at New Orleans. The centerpiece of his campaign is a plan to put 200 deputies on the streets to assist NOPD in fighting a surging crime rate. Critics blast the proposal, noting that the ratio of deputies to inmates at OPP is already 15 to 1 -- three times higher than the national standard. "You are not going to have big problems in the jail," Riley counters. "I think there are sufficient people. The prison will be secured."
• Hunter, a 26-year veteran of the sheriff's office, says that "only an expert in jail management can handle the job." Foti appointed him interim on Jan. 12. Hunter previously served for 10 years as commander of the main jail and coordinated Foti's research efforts to combat the city's drug problems. Hunter holds a master's degree in political science from Tulane University and served as a Marine combat veteran in Vietnam. As interim sheriff, Hunter has effectively pledged a new era of openness at OPP, while emphasizing that Foti "had nothing to hide." Hunter promises his administration will provide "humane services," including proper medical screening and specialized care for prisoners with AIDS, diabetes, tuberculosis and mental illness.