To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of a deathly quiet mayoral election were greatly exaggerated. The eleventh-hour candidacy of former Judge Michael Bagneris makes it a real race, but his late entry raises a lot of questions.
For starters, many are wondering whether — and where — Bagneris can raise the money to take on Mitch Landrieu. Then there's the question of timing: Why would he wait until the last day of qualifying to get into the race against a popular mayor who has more than $2 million in the bank?
Speaking of timing, the calendar is one factor that remains immutable. No amount of money can change the fact that Christmas is next week, followed by New Year's Day, the Sugar Bowl and the New Orleans Saints playoff schedule.
Sound familiar? That's the same scenario that accompanied Landrieu's first successful race for mayor in 2010. Landrieu, who had more name recognition than any two of his opponents in that race, coasted to victory as voters were too distracted to pay much attention to the other hopefuls. They voted overwhelmingly for the guy they knew.
No two elections are alike, but the template for this mayoral contest looks familiar. Bagneris has a small window of time to raise money, organize a campaign, formulate a message and get that message out to voters. As the challenger, Bagneris must articulate a compelling reason to toss out the incumbent — something Landrieu failed to do in 2006 when he challenged then-Mayor Ray Nagin (and lost). This time, Landrieu says, he will "run a full-blown campaign."
Effectively, the race will occur in two stages, the first between now and Dec. 20. Between Dec. 21 and Jan. 3, 2014, voters will be celebrating the holidays and generally not paying attention to politics. Then there is a four-week sprint to the Feb. 1 primary. That's not a lot of time for a challenger who probably starts out with less than 10 percent name recognition and whose opponent has 65 percent voter approval.
So why did Bagneris jump in so late?
There are two answers to that question: the one Bagneris will give and the real one. The answer he will give is that he could not campaign while serving as a judge. While that's true, it's also true that he could have retired months ago and started running sooner, but didn't. The real reason, I suspect, is because the offer of sufficient money didn't come through until recently — and it's coming, according to several sources, from an unlikely source for a black Democrat: the GOP.
My sources tell me Bagneris will benefit from a massive anti-Landrieu fundraising effort directed by Republican mullahs who are hell-bent on tarnishing the Landrieu brand in advance of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's re-election campaign next year. If that means financing a Bagneris campaign for mayor (or mounting a third-party ad campaign to help him), so be it.
But that's all inside baseball. Publicly, Bagneris will have to introduce himself to New Orleans voters all over again. He won his first judicial race 20 years ago and has been unopposed ever since, which means an entire generation of voters never heard of him. Many older voters remember him as the bright young executive counsel to then-Mayor Dutch Morial in the 1980s. He ran (unsuccessfully) for an at-large seat on the City Council in 1986 before winning his judgeship in 1993.
As a judge, Bagneris earned high marks from the legal community, and he recently served as chief judge at Civil District Court. In that capacity, he locked horns with the mayor over construction of a new courthouse. Landrieu wants the new courthouse located in Big Charity; the judges want their own stand-alone courthouse. Rumors of Bagneris' candidacy began when the courthouse fight heated up.
Landrieu starts out as the favorite, but he cannot afford to appear overconfident. "We have overcome great odds," he told me last week, "and we will press on. I consider every candidate to be a serious candidate and a formidable challenger."
If the rumors are true and Bagneris benefits from a full-scale GOP assault against Landrieu, the mayor's words could prove to be prophetic.