Last week's 11th-hour end to the tempest surrounding the dueling bond issues by Mayor Ray Nagin and the New Orleans City Council allows the mayor to concentrate on this Saturday's election, in which he is not a candidate but is most certainly on the bubble.
Nagin has pulled out all the stops in support of former NOPD Deputy Chief Warren Riley in the criminal sheriff's race. Nagin has earned a reputation for being the kiss of death in big elections, so it will be interesting to see whether his support of Riley continues that trend or gives him a bounce before Nagin's own re-election gears up.
Many politicos around town have been saying that the sheriff's race is a warm-up for the next mayor's race, which is less than 17 months away. That's a bit of an exaggeration, because you can't have a mayor's race without an opponent. So far, no one has surfaced as a potential opponent to Nagin, who, despite his missteps in others' elections, remains extremely popular among voters and thus appears to be in fine shape as far as his own fortunes are concerned. All the same, when a mayor gets this far out front for a citywide candidate, he puts his stature and reputation on the line.
In political circles, the Nagin back-story has dwarfed the substantive issues in the sheriff's race, which has become a three-way sprint. There are other back-stories as well, which is often the case in a citywide contest.
The front-runner remains City Councilman Marlin Gusman, who has shown surprising strength in white precincts (particularly in the Lakeview area) and equally surprising weakness among black voters (he trails Riley, a political newcomer, in one recent poll). Overall, Gusman has yet to hit 20 percent in a reputable poll, and that's a shock, considering he is the only elected official in the contest and a veteran political player.
Gusman has the support of all but one of his fellow council members, and his Lakeview support includes many of the well-known political personalities and families in that area. He also has the Alliance for Good Government, LIFE (former Mayor Marc Morial's group, which is struggling after Morial's departure from town) and COUP, the group of former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy. COUP's flagships today include state Sen. Lambert Boissiere Jr. and his son, First City Court Constable Lambert III, who is a candidate for the Public Service Commission against incumbent Irma Muse Dixon. Also opposing Dixon is state Sen. Cleo Fields.
The COUP-LIFE alliance in the sheriff's race is another interesting back-story. Those two groups are historic (and legendary) foes. For them to hold hands in a local election shows, on one hand, how far each has slipped down the political food chain in recent years. Then again, politics has always made for strange bedfellows. Another factor in that alliance is Nagin, who has disdained the kind of patronage that keeps groups such as COUP and LIFE in business.
Across town, an equally strange political back-story is unfolding in the Central City area, where rivals BOLD (the organization of Councilman Oliver Thomas and former Council President Jim Singleton) and Congressman Bill Jefferson have slugged it out for years. There were rumors that BOLD and Jefferson might both support Riley. Thomas is the only City Council member not backing Gusman. Meanwhile, District Attorney Eddie Jordan told me unequivocally last week that he is backing Riley as well. Jordan is a member of Jefferson's political group, the Progressive Democrats, and a close ally of Jefferson. However, Jefferson's office says the congressman will not personally endorse any candidate -- and that the Progressive Democrats will back both Riley and Gusman.
The final wild card in the sheriff's race is former sheriff, now Attorney General, Charles Foti Jr., who appointed interim Sheriff Bill Hunter to the job. Last week, Foti pronounced Hunter the most qualified man for the position. That he probably is, considering he has worked at the jail for more than two decades and is now running the joint. Whether he is among the best candidates remains to be seen -- along with the question of whether Foti will be a factor in the contest. All of those back-stories make Saturday's contest much more than a race for sheriff.