Eddie Jordan's resignation as district attorney of Orleans Parish set off a series of chain reactions. Gov. Kathleen Blanco must decide when to call an election to replace Jordan. Candidates and potential candidates for DA must decide whether they're running " while not knowing when the election might be. City and business leaders must figure out a way to satisfy a $3.7 million federal judgment against Jordan's office. And interim DA Keva Landrum-Johnson must get the office back on track. By week's end, the domino effect of Jordan's resignation was well under way, but this drama will continue to unfold in the weeks and months ahead.
In a development that was metaphoric of Jordan's tenure, he couldn't even get his official resignation letter in on time. As of last Thursday (Nov. 1), a day after Jordan's resignation was supposed to take effect, the Secretary of State's office still had not received Jordan's official resignation. The late delivery was chalked up to a logistical problem; the folks who were to hand-deliver Jordan's letter arrived minutes after the Secretary of State's office closed.
'We weren't sure he would actually do it until that Tuesday morning," one source said of Jordan's decision to resign. Meanwhile, at approximately 4:30 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 31) the Secretary of State's office received the official oath of office certifying Landrum-Johnson as the city's interim district attorney.
By unofficial accounts, at least, Landrum-Johnson is the DA and Jordan is out, regardless of when his resignation letter arrives.
So, when will the election be held to replace Jordan?
Word from the Secretary of State's office last week was that state law requires an election for DA to be held on the same day as elections for Congress. That used to be simple enough. However, state lawmakers recently changed the rules for getting elected to federal offices in Louisiana.
Starting in 2008, candidates for Congress and the U.S. Senate must run in separate party primaries. Thus, Democratic and Republican candidates will run in party primaries on Sept. 6, 2008, with party runoffs (if needed) on Oct. 4. The general election for Congress and for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's re-election bid will be Tuesday, Nov. 4. Those who support holding the special DA's election next fall expect Blanco to schedule the open primary on Oct. 4 " the same date that regularly scheduled DAs' elections will be held all over Louisiana, and the date Jordan would have been seeking re-election had he not quit.
Those dates are important because the city's voting population (i.e., the population that actually shows up and votes, in contrast to those officially registered to vote) is now split almost evenly between black and white voters. Some say whites actually out-voted blacks in New Orleans in the Oct. 20 statewide primary. That has huge implications for the DA's race, no matter when it's held, but timing is still crucial for DA candidates in New Orleans.
Possibly complicating all this is Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal's anticipated resignation from Congress. Jindal has indicated he wants to hold onto this seat " and his paycheck and insurance coverage " as long as he can. A delayed resignation also will allow him to determine the timing of the election to choose his successor. That election, again, will be a three-step process, starting with separate party primaries and runoffs, followed by a general election.
State law has set special elections for 2008 on Feb. 9 and March 8, 2008. The February date is just four days after Mardi Gras, which complicates things in metro New Orleans. Moreover, it will take three election dates to choose Jindal's successor because of the separate party primaries.
If Jindal picks a February date to start choosing his successor in Congress, he would be criticized for favoring well-known names in a quickie election. He doesn't take office until Jan. 14, leaving less than four weeks for qualifying and campaigning " not to mention whether it's even physically possible for the secretary of state to print ballots, etc., in time for a February election.
More likely, Jindal will opt for a March primary, with party runoffs in early April and a general election in May. Could Blanco anticipate that and set the DA's race for April and May? Would she even want to do that, assuming the law would allow it? It may be that an attorney general's opinion is needed to clarify all this, and Lord knows where that could lead.
Which brings us to the next chain reaction: the candidates for DA.
So far, three names have surfaced:
Civil Court Clerk Dale Atkins, a close friend of Blanco and an African-American Democrat. Atkins ran against Jordan and several others in 2002, losing a hotly contested runoff to Jordan by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent. Atkins once served under former DA Harry Connick Sr. and ran with his support against Jordan.
Ralph Capitelli, a criminal defense lawyer who once served as first assistant to Connick. Capitelli, a white Democrat, has never run for public office, but he has been campaigning against Jordan for several months. He is expected to have a sizeable war chest.
Judge Leon Cannizzaro, who sits on the state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Under state law, Cannizzaro must resign his judgeship in order to run " or even to talk about running " so he's officially mum these days. He was mentioned as a possible opponent of Jordan before the resignation, and Jordan's resignation has only fueled talk that he will run. Cannizzaro, also a white Democrat, likewise began as a prosecutor under Connick.
During the discussions that culminated in Jordan's resignation, several African-American participants huddled amongst themselves to contemplate the political consequences of a special election for DA. Their top priority at the time was getting a 'consensus black candidate" for the job. So far, Atkins' name is the only one that has surfaced. She reportedly began making phone calls to key black political players the night before Jordan announced his resignation. It remains to be seen if she will emerge as that consensus candidate. As long as no other prominent black names are mentioned, Atkins will certainly be the leading contender.
That brings us back to the question of timing.
If the election is held in the spring, it could favor one of the white candidates. All elections, even normally high-turnout affairs such as races for governor, typically see whites turning out in higher proportions than blacks. The Oct. 20 gubernatorial primary saw that phenomenon in the extreme " whites in New Orleans turned out near 40 percent, while only about 20 percent of registered black voters showed up to vote.
A huge factor in those turnout figures is Hurricane Katrina, which displaced some 100,000 or more black citizens and roughly 50,000 whites. In the 2006 mayoral election, the turnout on Election Day was about 53 percent black (and that, coincidentally, also was Mayor Ray Nagin's margin of victory). On Oct. 20, by some counts, New Orleans' turnout was roughly 53 percent white " and that was with Independent candidate John Georges throwing money by the handfuls at black turnout. If the election for DA is held on an 'off" date in the spring, the white majority of votes cast could be even bigger.
On the other hand, the largest black turnout of any four-year election cycle typically occurs in presidential elections. If state law does indeed require that the special election to replace Jordan be held on the same date as the election to choose his successor for a regular six-year term (next October), New Orleans should see a more proportionate turnout among its black citizens " that is, a black majority. That would favor Atkins.
Of note is that Nov. 4, 2008, not only will be Election Day for president " with either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama (or both) atop the Democratic ticket " but also the general election for Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who likewise will want to maximize black turnout in New Orleans.
All of which would favor Atkins. Then again, if the election is put off for almost a year, it could give another black candidate time to organize and challenge Atkins for supremacy among black voters. Insiders say Atkins would just as soon have the election in the spring.
While it's no secret that voters tend to cast their ballots along racial lines " in New Orleans and elsewhere " crossover voting will still play a big role in choosing the new DA. Atkins has long enjoyed significant levels of support among white voters, particularly in the Lakeview and lakefront precincts near her home in Gentilly. Cannizzaro, meanwhile, won his election to the Court of Appeal by getting nearly 40 percent of the black vote against an African-American candidate. Capitelli is untested at the polls, but he says he has significant black support as well.
Given that 'the franchise" is up for grabs, Cannizzaro and Capitelli will have a tough time convincing blacks to vote for them in large numbers, particularly with Jordan no longer a candidate. In the end, it will all come down to turnout.
On another front, Clem Donelon, a lead attorney for the 37 white plaintiffs who landed a $1.9 million judgment against Jordan's office (which judgment, with interest, has swelled to $3.7 million), sounded upbeat after meeting with his clients last week. 'It went well," said Donelon, an employment discrimination attorney who has been practicing law for 30 years. 'I'm confident we are going to get this judgment funded."
The next morning, Donelon bristled at suggestions that he and his clients were engaged in a 'game of chicken" with the city. He repeated his previous assertions that his clients would continue to demand full payment.
'The payment of the judgment is good for the city, it's good for the state, and it's the right thing to do," Donelon said. 'It's good for the city because it preserves the DA's office and it preserves public safety. It's good for the state because it doesn't require the state to step in and fund and run the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office. And it's the right thing to do because judgments are the law. And the city and the state should respect the rule of law."
Insiders say Landrum-Johnson, in addition to directing the recovery of the office on a day-to-day basis, was also engaged in discussions about the judgment last week. Those talks are expected to continue.
Noting that Thursday was All Saints Day, a local holiday, Donelon predicted no significant developments in the saga until this week. 'Mr. Jordan leaving was never our agenda," Donelon said shortly after the resignation. 'We have always said if Mr. Jordan stays and we get paid, that's OK. If Mr. Jordan leaves and we don't get paid, that's not OK. Mr. Jordan has left. That is not our agenda. Getting paid is our agenda."
One Jordan sympathizer, a source who worked closely with the DA's office for a time, said Jordan offered a payment plan to the plaintiffs but it was rejected as too small.
Meanwhile, over at Tulane and Broad, Landrum-Johnson has grabbed the reins of the DA's office and will be cleaning up Jordan's mess for the foreseeable future. Given that she could well be New Orleans' DA for more than a year, her 'interim" tenure will have quite an impact.
One criminal justice professional, who has worked with Jordan's office but who asked not to be named, described Landrum-Johnson as 'a strong person."
'She's got a clear vision and knows what needs to be done," the source said. 'We hope that she doesn't get bogged down in financial issues, staff shortages and morale problems."
Landrum-Johnson has said she will not be a candidate for DA " but that doesn't mean she has no political aspirations. 'Keva's more interested in becoming judge than DA," says another source inside the office. 'And there's a whole bunch of [Criminal Court] seats that are coming up next fall."
Jordan and former First Assistant Gaynell Williams, who spent some time as a Jefferson Parish prosecutor before joining Jordan in the U.S. Attorney's office and then the DA's office, apparently never got a firm grasp of the inner workings of the state criminal justice system. Word from inside the DA's office late last week was that Williams still had not resigned, despite being passed over for the interim DA's job.
Interestingly, Jordan kept a previously scheduled appointment with local coordinators for the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization that seeks to 'end the failed war on drugs," the day before he announced his resignation " even though it was no doubt clear to insiders by then that he was on the way out. Jordan met with the representatives of the group for about 90 minutes. The DA expressed interest in attending the group's 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference here in New Orleans on Dec. 5-8, said one local coordinator.
Locals who attended that meeting were aware of news reports about legislative vows to impeach Jordan, but there was no indication in the gathering that Jordan would announce his resignation the next day. 'He was very pleasant," said one conference representative who did not want to be identified. 'We had a long discussion about the conference." Jordan, who had met with the local activists on previous occasions, asked questions about the planned sessions for the conference as well as about the police chiefs and district attorneys who were expected to attend.
All the while, talks with Jordan were coming to a head on the issue of him leaving. He has denied that he insisted on a 'golden parachute," but several sources in the discussions say that's exactly what he wanted. Asked if Jordan was considering resigning because it was the decent thing to do for the sake of the city, once source paused and retorted: 'Believe me " that never came up."
Two insiders say Business Council president Jay Lapeyre and others put together an incentive plan to facilitate Jordan's resignation. Details of such a plan, if one exists, remain confidential.
Meanwhile, Metropolitan Crime Commission president Rafael Goyeneche said the public 'should thank God those civic leaders stepped up to the plate. Eddie Jordan is no longer a problem for the taxpayers of New Orleans."
Goyeneche added that a suggested takeover of Jordan's office by state Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. was too problematic to consider seriously. Jordan's office has 86 assistant district attorneys; Foti has only 12 to 15 prosecutors who could try criminal cases. 'Even if all 15 prosecutors were "Jim Letten,' it would not be enough for Jordan's office," Goyeneche said.
In addition, Foti will only be in office for another two months. The AG's own transition would complicate Johnson-Landrum's transition from the Jordan era. Despite the political tumult, Goyeneche sounded an optimistic note: 'The DA's office is the easiest component of the criminal justice system to change because it's relatively small."
- Cheryl Gerber
- DA Eddie Jordan publicly resigned his office last week, and Keva Landrum-Johnson (not pictured) was named interim DA.
- Civil Court Clerk Dale Atkins
- Judge Leon Cannizzarro
- Attorney Ralph Capitelli