After endless months of tedium, the New Orleans mayor's race took off like a bat out of Beelzebub last week. Attorney James Perry, who had campaigned in the shadows of better-known candidates for months, slam-dunked his more experienced opponents at a candidate forum last Wednesday morning. Later that same day, Perry unleashed a foul-mouthed TV ad that probably got him a lot more attention than votes.
Last Wednesday must have been a wild ride for Perry. In the morning, his candidacy took off like a phoenix, but by nightfall it appeared to be crashing prematurely.
The forum was sponsored by the nonprofit Afterschool Partnership. All seven announced and presumed candidates attended, and four of them muffed the very first question, which dealt with the city-run juvenile prison known as the Youth Study Center. Apparently four of the candidates thought the facility was an after-school study hall, and their responses were embarrassingly off the mark. The four who blew the question were businessman Troy Henry, businessman John Georges, state Sen. Ed Murray — whose district includes the facility — and former school board member Leslie Jacobs. Each gave a vague response applauding the idea of "studies centers," with some even suggesting that they be incorporated into existing schools.
Then Perry knocked it out of the park: "I want to be clear, because I think some folks misunderstood this issue. The Youth Studies Center [sic] is a jail. It is a prison, the subject of some very difficult litigation. Children have been imprisoned for long periods of time with no access to quality education at all."
Perry went on to note that winding up in a juvenile prison should not "define the outcomes of the rest of their lives" — to enthusiastic applause from the audience. If only he had stopped there, last Wednesday would have been a turning point for his nascent campaign. It might even have made him a serious candidate in the eyes of voters, the vast majority of whom knew nothing about him before then.
But "serious" is not a word likely to be associated with Perry now, thanks to his first TV ad, which debuted on the Internet hours later. Instead of introducing himself and his platform to viewers, the ad begins, ironically, with a juvenile attempt at humor: a series of people reacting to the "political insiders" (Murray and Georges, the two presumptive frontrunners) by exclaiming, "Are you sh—ting me?" and "Are you f—king kidding me?" and "What the f—k?" Their mouths are pixilated so their lips are unreadable, but the ad leaves no room for guessing what they're saying.
Then Perry appears, promising to cut the murder rate by 40 percent — or he won't seek a second term. Promising to cut the murder rate is a good thing, but saying you won't run for re-election is hardly giving up something. If the next mayor doesn't cut the murder rate significantly, it won't matter if he or she runs — voters will pick someone else.
The lasting impression of the ad is the shock value of the "WTF" moment up front. New Orleans is not a prudish city, and politics is a rough sport, but this ad is likely to make Perry a household name for all the wrong reasons. The job of mayor is a serious one, and the ad does not introduce Perry as someone to be taken seriously.
Local blogger Adrastos summed up the situation best: "The Perry campaign, such as it is, is run by hipsters for hipsters. They seem to need some adult supervision."
The campaign is just getting started, so there's time yet for Perry to be that adult.