Who would have guessed a year ago that New Orleans politics would seem tame — boring, even — compared to those of Jefferson Parish? The city's heated debates over crime, streets and Confederate-era monuments look like Junior League socials compared to the political war in Jefferson these days.
The two principal combatants are Parish President Mike Yenni and Council Chair Chris Roberts. They never got along very well, but their previously muted hostilities are now out in the open — and spreading.
Last week's parish council meeting erupted into a barrage of cross-accusations that included graphic sexting, conflicts of interest, ethical lapses and criminality. Yenni and Roberts accused each other being "unfit" to hold public office — and that's a polite summary.
A day before last week's council meeting, Roberts sent his fellow council members a letter questioning the legitimacy of Yenni forming a task force on education in light of his banishment from public and parochial schools in the aftermath of his sexting scandal last September. Roberts' letter contained sexually graphic details that he alleged came from text messages Yenni sent to a 17-year-old high school student in 2015.
Yenni denied Roberts' allegations and responded with a broadside of his own: accusing the councilman of bouncing a check for more than $6,000 (which Yenni said is a felony), incurring and then failing to pay ethics fines, failing to file income tax returns and voting on council matters that could benefit creditors to whom he owes more than $185,000.
Roberts denies Yenni's accusations.
The root of all this carnage, of course, is power and control over the state's second-largest parish.
Since Yenni took office a year ago, he has held together a slim 4-3 majority on the parish council, with Roberts, Cynthia Lee-Sheng and Ricky Templet in the council minority. Yenni's sexting scandal has undercut the parish president's political standing and subjected him to a recall petition. That petition may or may not succeed in gathering the more than 90,000 signatures required, but in matters of public policy, Yenni tenuously held his four council votes.
One of Yenni's staunchest council allies, Ben Zahn, is the new mayor of Kenner, the job Yenni held before his election as parish president. The vacancy created by Zahn's election means his council successor could tilt the balance away from Yenni and toward Roberts. Battle lines already are being drawn in the Kenner-based council district and on the council itself, which now has a 3-3 split.
Last week, as Yenni and Roberts were nuking each other in the Council Chamber and in the media, the council deadlocked on appointing an interim successor to Zahn. A candidate proposed by Roberts got only three votes, as did a candidate nominated by Paul Johnston, a Yenni ally.
If the council can't break the deadlock by Feb. 12, Gov. John Bel Edwards will have 20 days to name an interim council member — who will determine Jefferson's balance of power.
On a larger stage, this is how world wars begin.