Campaign attacks and counterattacks are nothing new, but the volleys exchanged in the Nov. 18 mayoral runoff will make that race historic for more than the election of New Orleans' first female mayor. The contest marks the beginning of the PAC era in mayoral politics.
Independent political action committees, or PACs, have been on the state and national scenes for a while, but PACs have not played a major role in citywide races — until now. Henceforth, PACs will be the unofficial attack dogs of all major candidates or special interest groups.
It's all perfectly legal, provided those funding and leading the PAC efforts play by the rules, which bar collusion between PACs and candidates.
In September, a group funded largely by eight high-profile business people (seven in New Orleans, one from Baton Rouge) launched a carefully coordinated offensive calculated to take out then-frontrunner Desiree Charbonnet, a former Municipal Court judge. By the Oct. 14 primary, attacks by the NotForSaleNOLA PAC had knocked Charbonnet from clear frontrunner down to second place. Charbonnet trailed District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell by 8.5 percentage points but finished well ahead of former Judge Michael Bagneris, who was widely seen as the PAC's undeclared favorite.
"The primary was interesting because there were very few candidate-on-candidate attacks, and specifically there were no candidate-on-candidate attacks between Charbonnet and Cantrell," said WWL-TV pollster Ron Faucheux, a former state lawmaker who ran for mayor in 1982. "Now the runoff is loaded with candidate-on-candidate attacks."
And there's a renewed round of attacks against Charbonnet by NotForSaleNOLA.
To the average voter, the back-and-forth must seem like so much noise. Even some political insiders say they have trouble keeping up with all the missives.
As the runoff enters its final two weeks — and with early voting underway through Nov. 11 — it's fair to say that the candidates, as well as NotForSaleNOLA, have thrown some wild punches. Some have landed, some have missed.
Knowing she had to make up a lot of ground by Nov. 18, Charbonnet went on the offensive early in the runoff. The former judge's campaign launched a radio blitz accusing Cantrell of grossly misusing her city-issued credit card. The ad also reminded voters of Cantrell's history of personal financial troubles — foreclosures, ethics fines and more — and claimed Cantrell could not be trusted to mind the city treasury.
Then came the bombshell: Several news organizations received packets of documents detailing nearly five years of questionable (and possibly illegal) expenditures by Cantrell — all on her city-issued credit card. The highlighted charges range from dozens of out-of-town trips to meals at high- and low-end restaurants, from T-shirts to Thanksgiving turkeys, cab fares, Uber rides and more.
Almost daily since the story first appeared on Oct. 25, Cantrell has had to defend her use of the city credit card — and occasionally shoot back.
Cantrell's camp initially tried to deflect attention away from her use of a city credit card and toward Charbonnet's use of judicial expense account money to redecorate her Municipal Court judge's chambers and take several trips to posh resorts for legal conferences. Cantrell did not turn those accusations into attack ads, however; she merely passed them along to media reporters.
"Other than what we've spoken to the media about, we have taken the high road," Cantrell media consultant Karen Carvin Shachat said. "We have not attacked her on radio and TV, and that directive came from the top — the candidate — because LaToya feels there are major issues that need to be discussed rather than just wallowing in mud."
Charbonnet spokesman Kevin Stuart dismissed Cantrell's counterattacks as "a cynical ploy." He doubled down on Team Charbonnet's allegation that Cantrell "broke the law by using a city credit card for personal and campaign expenses. ... Everything Desiree did was through normal channels of the law."
Meanwhile, NotForSaleNOLA, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the primary on slick mailers attacking Charbonnet, returned in the runoff with a less expensive line of social media broadsides. A Nov. 1 campaign finance report filed by the PAC show just one contributor this time: former local and state school board member Leslie Jacobs, who ponied up $35,000. That's in addition to the $40,000 Jacobs gave the PAC in the primary.
One of the PAC's latest attacks claims Charbonnet "ducks property taxes" because she still co-owns her former residence with her ex-husband (who lives in the home); another alleged Charbonnet was getting thousands in campaign donations from French Quarter bars and strip clubs; and yet another blasted the candidate's brother, attorney Bernard "Bunny" Charbonnet, for having a $90,000-a-year gig in Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro's office.
So which of those attacks, if any, are true? And will any of them affect the outcome of the election?
It's easier to answer the first question.
Of all the attacks and counter-attacks leveled since the Oct. 14 primary, accounts of Cantrell's use — and potential misuse — of a city credit card have the most merit. That's why they have received the most attention from the media, along with the fact that most if not all of the information relating to Cantrell's use of the card is available via public records.
For example, it's undisputed that Cantrell charged thousands of dollars in travel, meals and assorted other expenses to her city-issued credit card since taking office in 2013. It's also undisputed that she periodically reviewed those expenses and "reimbursed" the city for expenses she felt may have been personal or political in nature. Some of the reimbursements came from Cantrell's personal checking account and some were paid via her campaign account.
Furthermore, of the $8,950 that Cantrell has reimbursed the city since taking office, almost half — more than $4,400 — was reimbursed in a lump-sum payment just days after she qualified for mayor.
The Charbonnet camp said the reimbursements prove Cantrell misused the credit card in violation of City Council policy, state law and federal law. Cantrell claims the reimbursements were made in an abundance of caution because she anticipated her opponent would try to mischaracterize her purchases. Cantrell described many of the reimbursed expenditures as "gray areas" that nonetheless were within the council's guidelines.
Charbonnet spokesman Stuart compared Cantrell's explanation to a bank robber who returns the money. "If you rob a bank and pay the money back three years later, you still robbed the bank," he said.
But did Cantrell actually rob the bank, metaphorically speaking? That's up to state and federal prosecutors.
Cannizzaro, a vocal Charbonnet supporter, acknowledged that his office received separate "anonymous" criminal complaints against both candidates. He said he immediately recused his office from the matters, referring them to state Attorney General Jeff Landry as the law requires. Landry made no comment on the matters as of press time. Federal authorities never acknowledge an investigation unless it becomes so public it cannot be denied.
Among the most eye-popping expenses Cantrell charged to the city credit card were several racked up in San Francisco during a campaign fundraising trip. While in Frisco, Cantrell charged a $600 meal to the city card, then paid it back several months later. There were conflicting accounts of how that reimbursement came about, however.
A report by WWL-TV's David Hammer stated that Cantrell received $600 in cash from others at the dinner, then got someone else to reimburse the city later. Cantrell spokesman David Winkler-Schmit initially told Hammer in an email that Cantrell took some family members out to dinner and admitted it was "personal." He later retracted that story and said Cantrell took Bay area nonprofit leaders to the dinner, after which Cantrell's guests collected $600 and turned it into a money order that was used to repay the city. Hammer told Gambit he stands by his story.
The evolving, if conflicting, versions of that particular expense reflect the difficulty that Cantrell and her campaign have had trying to deal with the whole matter of her frequent use of the city credit card. It has given Charbonnet's camp a weakness to exploit.
"Every day, there's a new revelation of LaToya Cantrell's lack of integrity and honesty," Stuart said. "This time it's taking personal trips on the backs of the taxpayers of New Orleans. The whole episode tells the voters everything they need to know about LaToya: She abused their trust, used their money as if it were hers, and she continues not to be honest with them about it."
For her part, Charbonnet has had to defend herself on several fronts from attacks by Cantrell as well as NotForSaleNOLA. One attack that gained limited traction in the media — that Charbonnet improperly claimed a homestead exemption — was debunked by WWL-TV's Hammer, whose "Verify" report labeled the accusation "false." Both Orleans Assessor Erroll Williams and Jefferson Parish Assessor Tom Capella told Hammer that Charbonnet's ex-husband qualified for the entire exemption by living in the home and paying the annual property tax bill, even if the candidate's name was still on the title with him. The exemption was the subject of the anonymous complaint Cannizzaro received against Charbonnet.
Cantrell's claim that Charbonnet made "lavish" purchases to redecorate her former Municipal Court chambers and that she traveled to posh resorts to attend legal conferences did not garner much media attention, mostly because the amounts spent by Charbonnet were within the legal limits. Judges are given annual expense accounts to travel to such conferences and to furnish their chambers.
On another front, the claim that Bunny Charbonnet had a cushy gig in the DA's office even though he's "never prosecuted a case" was easily brushed aside. Bunny Charbonnet handles civil matters for Cannizzaro. It is common practice for DAs to hire civil attorneys to handle civil matters for their offices.
As for the NotForSaleNOLA assertion that Charbonnet raised thousands in campaign contributions from French Quarter bars and strip clubs, Stuart said the PAC's allegations are "full of misrepresentations, half-truths, and outright lies, as typifies everything that comes from them." He said Cantrell's campaign finance report shows her getting money from some of the same people, many of whom are merely property owners or "registered agents" who are not operators of bars or strip clubs. "Desiree Charbonnet has a national reputation as a leader in the fight against sex trafficking and as a reformer who created innovative, nationally recognized diversion programs," Stuart told Gambit.
The frequency and intensity of the attacks suggest Charbonnet is still trying to catch Cantrell — though she probably has gained some ground. At the end of the day, it will be up to voters to decide whom they believe and whom they wish to see as mayor.
"Cantrell walked into the runoff as the big frontrunner," said WWL pollster Faucheux. "The big question is, do those news stories change that? What we're seeing is a very personal campaign [that] very well could turn voters off. If voters were hoping that this runoff would be a forum for discussing the great issues, they're going to be sadly disappointed. I think a lot of voters are very soft on both candidates right now."