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Crunch Time



This week marks one of the crunch times in the annual political calendar -- qualifying opens for all district court judges (more than 40 in New Orleans and Jefferson), several appellate judgeships, all local district attorneys and various parochial offices. In addition, all seven Louisiana congressmen and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu must qualify for re-election this week.

Until now, various candidates and would-be candidates have been announcing their intentions. Some have spent lots of money. Some are still weighing their options. But starting Wednesday morning and continuing through 5 p.m. Friday, it's time to fish or cut bait.

Qualifying is always a tense time for incumbents. Most of them rush to be first in line at the local clerk of court's office to qualify for re-election, as if doing it first, or loudest, will somehow scare off opposition. It rarely does. Mostly, they file early to make real sure nobody doubts their intentions. Also, TV cameras usually show up bright and early on the first day of qualifying, and early birds get a shot at free face time on the evening news. Every ounce of publicity helps.

Then they sweat for three days. Every minute of every hour seems to drag s-l-o-w-l-y by. Second by second. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Often times, candidates will post sentries with blank forms and wads of cash just outside the clerk's office to see who shows up with qualifying papers. When a politico who's not known to be running turns up, everyone wants to know why he's there. What's he up to? Whose "papers" might he be carrying. Do we need to put somebody into a race as a result?

A candidate doesn't have to show up in person to qualify. As long as the papers are signed and notarized, they will be accepted. Back in the day, that led to lots of last-minute intrigue.

In the opinion of many long-time observers, qualifying was never more fun than when the late Nat Kiefer and the Bagert brothers, Brod and Ben, were active in local politics. Kiefer was the Ninth Ward senator; Brod Bagert was the District D City Councilman and brother Ben was a state representative. Kiefer and the Bagerts were often rivals, and they all loved the Machiavellian side of politics. They would spend weeks studying each other's moves, like Russian chess masters, each side plotting and anticipating several moves ahead of the game. Kiefer was especially crafty at qualifying time. The Bagerts knew this.

In the fall of 1981, when Dutch Morial was up for reelection as New Orleans' mayor, Kiefer had accepted the title of campaign manager for state Rep. Ron Faucheux, who was running against Morial. But, like Dr. Strangelove, he just couldn't help himself as qualifying drew near its close. One of his pals jumped into the race against First City Court Clerk Richard LeBlanc, a Bagert ally.

Immediately the political grapevine buzzed with news that Kiefer was taking a shot at a Bagert stronghold. With less than a minute to go before qualifying ended, LeBlanc raced into the clerk's office with a stack of papers. One of them bore a signature purporting to be Ben Bagert's.

The Legislature was in session at the time, and as Bagert was driving home from Baton Rouge he turned on his car radio to see if there was any news about qualifying. There were no cell phones then. A news flash informed him that he had just qualified to run for mayor against Morial and Faucheux. After he regained control of his car, he called home and instructed his wife not to answer the phone 'til he got there. He made it home, but barely.

As was often the case, tempers flared and then cooled. Kiefer's guy pulled out against LeBlanc, and Bagert ultimately withdrew from the mayor's race.

It's a side of democracy they don't teach in civics class. But if you want a lesson up close, mosey on down to the local clerk's office this Friday afternoon -- and keep your eyes and ears peeled. You might just see the ghost of Nat Kiefer.

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