The beginning of the end of an era starts with the Oct. 5 primary. Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick retires Jan. 12, 2003, after nearly three decades in office. Eight candidates are running to succeed him.
In interviewing each candidate, we looked for three characteristics: impartiality, integrity and independence. The district attorney serves a six-year term at an annual salary of $104,906 -- and there are no term limits on DAs. Indeed, judging by history, the winner of this race will likely be the chief prosecutor in New Orleans for 20 years or more and in many ways will wield more power than any mayor or City Council member. Accordingly, we need a district attorney who will do the right thing for the right reason -- someone who will build the office from the top-down with conduct that is above reproach, and who will examine the facts of a criminal case free from even the appearance of outside influences.
We also need a district attorney who will work in concert with Mayor Ray Nagin and acting U.S. Attorney Jim Letten in the ongoing corruption investigations at City Hall. While rooting out corruption in government, the district attorney also must be an effective administrator who can both operate effectively on a tight budget and advocate for higher pay to stanch chronically high-turnover rates among prosecutors.
For each of these reasons, Gambit Weekly enthusiastically endorses Dale Atkins for district attorney. A former assistant district attorney who was re-elected Feb. 2 to a fourth consecutive four-year term as Clerk of Civil District Court, Atkins threw her hat in the ring when Harry Connick, her one-time boss, announced his retirement. Connick, who is without peer in the local criminal justice system for championing women to positions of power, has also enthusiastically endorsed Atkins. Notably, as a prosecutor in the early '80s, she earned a 90 percent conviction rate in more than 120 jury and bench trials.
At the same time, Atkins exhibits an understated personal style and crime-fighting philosophy that is clearly her own. She has set herself apart from the other candidates by pledging to make the prosecution of crimes against women and children a top priority. As district attorney, Atkins would assign a prosecutor to handle each sensitive case all the way through the system.
Atkins also pledges to institute ethics training for assistant district attorneys and promises to fire anyone who violates her zero-tolerance policy against prosecutorial misconduct. She vows to create a "Criminal Justice Foundation" to help build community support for reforming the entire criminal justice system. A systematic approach to our city's crime woes is long overdue. Her vast experience as a courthouse administrator should not be overlooked. Atkins can use her intricate knowledge of the system to help speed up the administration of justice.
Although we wholeheartedly endorse Atkins, we also find impressive qualities in other candidates. Louisiana will be forever grateful to Eddie Jordan, who during his tenure as U.S. attorney (1994-2001), played a vital role in busting up police-affiliated drug gangs and overseeing the prosecution of former Gov. Edwin Edwards. Jordan's association with the politically meddlesome U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson invites skepticism in some corners, but he has vowed to avoid even the appearance of conflict by referring any case involving any political supporter to the state attorney general for state prosecution.
Franz Zibilich, who has served as chief deputy city attorney for more than eight years, is the most charismatic and experienced litigator among the candidates. Although we do not endorse him in this election, we hope he will continue to serve (or seek to serve) the citizens of New Orleans in some public capacity.
Among other candidates, Dolores "Dolly" Smith, who served as an assistant district attorney from 1980 to 1989, impressed us as energetic and knowledgeable. She would make a great addition to any reform administration as a supervisor. We also heard good proposals from defense attorney Gary Wainwright, who is best known for focusing public attention on the small drug cases that clog the system, which often precludes speedy prosecution of violent offenders. Wainwright's proposal to expand the office's Economic Crimes Unit is especially sound.
Former Criminal Court Judge Morris Reed is running for district attorney for a third time since 1984. We think his leadership role for New Orleans is best found in the city's international relations community; he is widely regarded by World Trade Center officials for his voluntary role as the New Orleans honorary consul general to the African nation of Lesotho.
Gambit Weekly encourages all our readers to vote in the Oct. 5 primary election. We recommend Dale Atkins as the candidate who will combine the right people, ideas, policies and programs to help make New Orleans a better and safer city. We believe Atkins is the creative, managerial "turn-around artist" that the city needs in this very important post.