The two at-Large seats on the New Orleans City Council are among the city's highest elective offices. At-Large council members take turns presiding over the legislative body and appointing council committees. However, Saturday's special election is overshadowed by the governor's race and other contests.
The cluttered ballot, crowded field and short campaign favor candidates with money and political name recognition. Blame that on former Councilman Oliver Thomas, who resigned in August after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges.
Crime, corruption and the recovery are major issues in the citywide race. Most candidates favor a Master Plan with the force of law, funding the new Inspector General's office to fight corruption, and a rollback of local property tax millage rates in the wake of citywide reassessments.
Term-limited Sen. Diana Bajoie, a political advisor and marketing consultant, is leaving the Legislature after 32 years in office. A founding member of the Legislative Black Caucus, she served in the House for 16 years and then moved to the Senate for 16 more years.
In 1991, she became the first African-American woman elected to the state Senate. She represents Senate District 5, which includes Uptown and the Central Business District. She won her final four-year term in 2003 with 88 percent of the vote.
A breast cancer survivor, Bajoie helped win legislative approval of mandated health insurance coverage for cancer screening tests.
She says she will be a coalition builder on the council. She vows to use her knowledge of state government to help the city administration speed up the pace of the recovery. Rebuilding police and fire stations are top priorities, she says.
Bajoie also pledges to help the local criminal justice system get more resources and to support the New Orleans Recreation Department as a 'positive alternative" to juvenile crime. She gives both NOPD Chief Warren Riley and District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. 'passing grades" and says troubles at both agencies stem from a lack of personnel and resources.
On ethics, Bajoie says the city can increase transparency by using the state contracting process as a model. She supports the new office of Inspector General, but is unsure if she will vote for the $3.8 million annual budget the IG has requested.
Attorney Virginia Boulet is making her second run for political office in less than two years. A director of two corporations on the New York Stock Exchange (CenturyTel Inc. and W&T Offshore Inc.), Boulet reported a campaign war chest of $123,000 on Sept. 10.
She has aired several television commercials, including at least one excoriating Mayor Ray Nagin " whom she endorsed in the 2006 mayoral runoff and whose administration she joined after he won a second term. Other candidates have tweaked her for her endorsement of Nagin's re-election in last year's runoff " and her current posture of criticizing the man she helped put back into office.
Boulet advocates full funding of the New Orleans Recovery Authority and vows to 'jump-start" NORA and the recovery by returning storm-damaged homes to private use.
She gives DA Eddie Jordan and NOPD Chief Warren Riley the same letter grade: F. She supports funding an Independent Monitor of the NOPD. Boulet also gives Nagin recovery czar Dr. Ed Blakely an F. Boulet favors immediate implementation of the Unified New Orleans Plan for rebuilding neighborhoods.
She favors limiting no-bid 'professional service contracts" to architects, lawyers, investment bankers and other professions. She says she will generally defer to district council members on land-use issues but reserves the option to disagree when the district representative is at odds with neighborhood groups. She says more utilities should put cables and wires underground to improve the appearance of the city.
Former City Council member Jackie Clarkson, a realtor, is one of several presumed front-runners in the race. Despite her age " she's 71 " Clarkson appears energetic as ever. She cites 38 years of business experience and 16 years of public service " and 'unblemished records" in both arenas " as qualifications for council at-Large.
Clarkson served Council District C twice, from 1990 to 1994 and from 2002 to 2006. She ran for an at-Large seat last year but lost a runoff to Arnie Fielkow. She also served in the state House of Representatives for eight years, from 1994 to 2002. There, she championed legislation for governmental ethics, women's health care, the military, law enforcement and neighborhood preservation. A founding member of the National D-Day Museum, she helped lead the charge to save a military base in Algiers, winning Washington's approval for a 'Federal City" on the West Bank. Clarkson also was at the forefront of efforts to establish a biomedical district on Tulane Avenue.
Crime, corruption and reforming the city contracting process will be top priorities, Clarkson says. 'I would start with crime, especially violent crime," she says. 'We must get our police out of trailers. We must devote money to retention and recruitment of our police."
She favors funding of the Inspector General's office at a level 'approved by the entire council" and 'total autonomy" for the IG. In addition, all city contracts should be put up for public bid, she says.
A former president of the Louisiana Realtors Association, she says she knows more about housing, zoning and neighborhood issues than any other candidate in the race. Clarkson is one of the few candidates to favor reducing council power over zoning matters. Too much council time is spent on zoning, she says. Instead, the city needs a strong comprehensive zoning ordinance that is regularly updated.
She is endorsed by Alliance for Good Government, the Homebuilders Association of Greater New Orleans, the Orleans Parish Republican Executive Committee and the Regular Democratic Organization.
Cynthia Willard Lewis, a public relations consultant for Lakeland Hospital and a former state representative (from 1993 to 2000), is the longest-serving member of the City Council, representing District E since 2000.
Her district, which includes eastern New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward, was hit hardest by flooding from Katrina. She won re-election in the 2006 primary, swamping eight male challengers with 71 percent of nearly 16,000 votes cast.
A tireless campaigner from a politically active family, Willard-Lewis has been an aggressive advocate for repopulating her devastated district. Her council duties include chairing the Ground Transportation Committee, which oversees parking issues as well as taxis and other for-hire vehicles. She also chairs the Sanitation Committee, which monitors garbage collection and disposal. She touts her vote in favor of the contract for the wildly successful cleanup of the French Quarter.
If elected, Willard-Lewis says her three priorities will be public safety, seeking funding for the state Road Home program and insurance reform. 'We need to stabilize and mobilize our police and firefighters," she says.
She also wants to shore up other city departments whose ranks have been decimated since Katrina. She says she will vote to 'fully fund" the Inspector General's Office. She is opposed to reducing council power over zoning matters. She has authored an 'Equity Ordinance" to require the fair distribution of hurricane aid citywide. She holds a seat on the Sewerage & Water Board.
Willard-Lewis is expected to carry the endorsement of the LIFE political organization.
Tommie A. Vassel is a Certified Public Accountant and president of Global Profit Strategies LLC, a local consulting firm. He recently resigned as president pro-tempore of the Sewerage & Water Board to make the race.
He ran for one of two at-Large City Council seats in 2002, finishing third to primary winners Eddie Sapir and Oliver Thomas. In 1997, the Orleans Parish School Board appointed Vassel to finish an unexpired term in District 7. Vassel ran for the seat in 1998, but lost narrowly to Elliott C. 'Doc" Willard " father of his current opponent Willard-Lewis.
In 1996, then-Gov. Mike Foster appointed Vassel to the board of the Louisiana Economic Development Corporation, which he chaired for seven years. He also served as CFO of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce/MetroVision. He has extensive volunteer experience, including 100 Black Men and the Boys to Men Mentoring program.
If elected, Vassel would make the city's recovery and reconstruction his top priorities. He says his 25 years of experience as a CPA have prepared him for the council's fiscal responsibilities, including adoption of annual operating and capital budgets.
Although appointed by Nagin to the S&WB, Vassel says he will be an independent voice on the council and will work to resolve any disputes with the city administration. 'I've had differences with the mayor on the Sewerage & Water Board," he says. 'But at the end of the day, we were able to sit down and discuss issues and move forward."
Vassel favors enforcing laws and levying fines against property owners who fail to clean up their storm-damaged properties. He says he will continue to seek federal monies to help improve the infrastructure of the S&WB.
With money tight and time short, three political newcomers will need a windfall of financial and political support to catch the front-runners in the top tier.
Kaare Johnson is making his first run for political office. Don't be surprised if you recognize his voice but cannot recall his face. Johnson is a popular radio talk show host for WIST-AM/690. Previously, as a field reporter for WWL-AM radio, he covered the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The son of Phil Johnson, the iconic editorial writer at WWL-TV, Kaare (pronounced 'Corey") says crime and corruption are his top priorities. If elected, he promises to add 100 cops to the NOPD " in 100 days.
He strongly advocates funding the Inspector General's office at $3.8 million a year as proposed by the new IG. Of recent tension between Nagin and the council, Johnson said: 'I'm a bridge builder; I'll get everybody working together."
Thomas L. Lewis, a Realtor, is a civic activist in the Faubourg St. John neighborhood. He too is making his first run for public office.
Lewis says he would remove limitations placed on the Inspector General by the present City Council. He favors implementing the UNOP plan, adoption of the city's Master Plan for land use, and an end to widespread ad hoc zoning.
He supports funding an independent monitor of NOPD, saying it's long overdue. He also supports increased funding for Park & Parkways to improve the city's appearance.
Like other promising political newcomers, Lewis may have given more serious thought to issues than how to win the election. The good news: after Oct. 20, he will no longer be a 'political unknown."
Malcolm Suber, a longtime community activist and Marxist-Leninist, is making his first foray into mainstream politics aided by young supporters who share his radical, grassroots approach.
A founding organizer of the nonprofit People's Hurricane Relief Fund, Suber's campaign centers on making New Orleans more 'union friendly." He also favors forcing government to live up to its responsibilities for a 'full and just reconstruction" and ending the Diaspora. 'Our crime rate is produced by the criminal neglect of our public schools," he says.
An activist since he was a youth in South Carolina, Suber was a member of the United Auto Workers in Detroit. Since arriving in New Orleans in 1977, he has been involved in numerous pro-labor and antiwar activities but is perhaps best known for protesting police misconduct. Suber gave Chief Riley a C grade, saying police brutality persists in black neighborhoods; DA Jordan also got a C and an admonition to come up with more diversion programs for nonviolent, first-time offenders and drug users.
Suber's endorsements include the South Carolina AFL-CIO and former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia.
Former Clerk of Criminal Court Kimberly Williamson-Butler received 1 percent of the vote in her race for mayor last year. Butler, Nagin's former CAO, now seems to be running to clear her name, reminding voters that a grand jury last year exonerated her of criminal malfeasance charges. She says the allegations were politically motivated.
Rounding out the field are: Joe Jones, a cable television producer; political newcomer Gail Masters Reimonenq; Dyan 'Mama D" French, who refers voters to mentions of her in Douglas Brinkley's book, The Great Deluge; and Quentin Brown, a self-employed landscaper.