Parochial Contests: Hot and Cold

Challengers, incumbents struggle to get noticed amid the sound and the fury of "bigger" elections -- and some make their own noise.



In the closing days of a tumultuous campaign for mayor and City Council, candidates for several parochial offices are hoping not to get overlooked. Two incumbent sheriffs and one incumbent clerk of court face mostly unknown opponents, but even veteran incumbents sometimes have to worry about getting lost in the larger fray.

That's the case for Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau Jr., Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman and Clerk of Civil District Court Dale Atkins. Each faces at least one opponent in what would normally be a cakewalk back into office. But, in this post-Katrina reality, no one is safe.

The challengers to Atkins and Valteau have remained particularly low-key, but in the closing weeks 34-year-old attorney Gerald DeSalvo has mounted a surprisingly aggressive campaign against Gusman for criminal sheriff. That office is primarily responsible for operating and maintaining the city's huge prison complex.

DeSalvo's TV ads blast Gusman for allegedly letting prisoners escape during the storm and for transporting temporarily jailed misdemeanor offenders -- who had the bad luck of getting busted on traffic offenses right before Katrina struck -- to Angola State Penitentiary during the local jail's general evacuation. He also calls Gusman, 50, "a career politician." Gusman served on the City Council before winning the sheriff's job in 2004, and prior to his Council tenure, he served in the administrations of former mayors Dutch Morial and Marc Morial.

As of 10 days before the election, Gusman stayed positive, touting his removal of more than 6,000 prisoners from the jail and working with state prison officials to build a temporary jail site upriver. His TV ads also included a testimonial from Angola Warden Burl Cain lauding Gusman for his courageous and cool-headed response to the storm.

"You are to be commended for your courage and for you being the last man out, you and Chief Short," wrote Cain, referring to Orleans Parish Chief Deputy Bill Short. "I will never forget your struggle that night, Thursday, I think it was, to find shelter for your deputies."

An official report by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections also noted that the entire Orleans Parish Prison population was evacuated in approximately 72 hours, despite rising floodwaters that destroyed many inmate records and forced deputies and inmates alike to seek shelter on the nearby Broad Street overpass. For a while, inmates were evacuated by boat in parties of six or less.

DeSalvo supporters answered Gusman's TV ad with a lawsuit, claiming it was false -- or greatly exaggerated -- and seeking to pull it off the air. A Civil Court judge tossed the suit, saying it was utterly without merit, but that didn't stop DeSalvo from continuing to allege that Gusman's claims of heroism and efficiency were vastly overblown. He cites news reports quoting prison deputies and other staffers who described the scene during and immediately after Katrina as chaotic and desperate -- and blaming Gusman for not planning adequately in advance of the storm. DeSalvo's Web site also claims more than a dozen prisoners escaped during and after the evacuation.

Gusman has endorsements from former sheriff, now state Attorney General Charles Foti Jr., the Alliance for Good Government, the New Orleans Coalition, the Regular Democratic Organization, and the AFL-CIO.

DeSalvo has been endorsed by the Police Association of New Orleans, the Fraternal Order of Police, Victims and Citizens Against Crime, the Forum for Equality, and the Orleans Parish Republican Executive Committee. Both DeSalvo and Gusman are Democrats.

In contrast to the raucous tenor of the criminal sheriff's race, the contest for civil sheriff has been a yawner. Ditto for the civil court clerk's race.

Valteau, 59 and a Democrat, was first elected in 1982 and has faced no opposition until now. Although he has two opponents this time -- 37-year-old graduate student Kevin Gremillion, who is registered as an independent; and 54-year-old attorney Justin Zitler, a Democrat -- Valteau has more or less followed the pattern of previous re-election campaigns. He has garnered the lion's share of endorsements, such as those of the Alliance for Good Government, AFL-CIO, Louisiana Republican Party, Forum for Equality, New Orleans Coalition and the Regular Democratic Organization.

The closest thing to an issue is the legislative debate over whether to combine the criminal and civil sheriff's offices. However, even Valteau acknowledges that it's "a foregone conclusion," leaving only the question of "how soon" open to discussion. Gremillion says it should happen quickly; Zitler says there should first be some consolidations within the civil court system, followed by a merger with the criminal sheriff's office.

In the contest of clerk of Civil Court, Atkins, a 47-year-old Democrat, faces Republican business owner Douglas Castro, who has not mounted anything resembling a campaign. In fact, Castro did not even answer a questionnaire promulgated by the League of Women Voters or respond to media inquiries about his candidacy. Consequently, Atkins has received every endorsement under the sun and has spent the entire campaign just waiting for Election Day to make the inevitable outcome official.

Civil Sheriff

Kevin J. Gremillion, 37, Independent

Paul R. Valteau, Jr., 59, Democrat

Justin Zitler, 54, Democrat
Clerk, Civil District Court

Dale N. Atkins, 47, Democrat

Douglas A. Castro, Republican
Business owner
Criminal Sheriff

Gerald DeSalvo, 34, Democrat

Marlin N. Gusman, 50, Democrat


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