One year ago — or even four months ago — no one with any knowledge of local politics and history would have predicted this year's race for mayor would be a tepid affair. New Orleans elections never have been dull, particularly those for mayor.
The answer is more a matter of what didn't happen: None of the early front-runners bothered to run. They include state House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger III, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, and businessman Sidney Torres IV. Each bowed out in the final days before qualifying in July, leaving a field of largely lesser-known candidates.
That's not to say the current field of 18 candidates lacks qualified successors to term-limited Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The three candidates who consistently lead in the polls — former judges Michael Bagneris and Desiree Charbonnet, and District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell — all have governmental experience at one or more levels, and all three have proposed solutions to the major problems that vex New Orleans.
Yet, a large swath of voters remains either undecided or open to changing their minds in the final few weeks.
"It's been slow to get going," said veteran pollster and analyst Ron Faucheux, who ran for mayor himself in 1982. "I think several things contributed to this. For starters, the intensity of feelings about the candidates is much less than it usually is. Nobody hates any of these candidates, and voters don't love one of them more than the others. Because of that, the intensity just isn't there the way it has been in the past."
Faucheux adds that while the leading candidates have all held elective office, none of them is extremely well-known among voters.
"You don't have a Barthelemy, a Morial or a Landrieu — people who were citywide figures before they qualified for mayor," Faucheux says. "In past elections, we had very well-known candidates for mayor. Today's candidates all have good records, but they don't have big citywide personas. There's nothing wrong with that. One of them may turn out to be a great mayor, but I think it's one reason why voters may not be excited to vote for or against anybody — even though they have to vote for someone fairly soon."
UNO pollster and political science professor Ed Chervenak says another factor that could affect turnout — and the results — is the large number of millennial voters now registered in New Orleans. "Thirty-two percent of the New Orleans electorate is age 18 to 34," Chervenak says. "If they turn out, they could make a huge difference in a lot of elections. They are a ticking time bomb waiting to go off."
- Three mayoral candidates consistently lead in polls: Michael Bagneris, Desiree Charbonnet and LaToya Cantrell.
Here's the wake-up call: Early voting begins Saturday, Sept. 30, and continues through Oct. 7. A week later, on Oct. 14, voters go to the polls to elect a new mayor and seven City Council members. Ready or not, voters are about to chart the next four or eight years of New Orleans history.
In recent election cycles, as much as 20 percent of the votes cast in major local elections have come during the weeklong early voting period. This year, the number of voters casting early ballots may drop precipitously, which could signal an unusually low turnout. If that happens, every vote truly has the potential to make a difference.
Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler often predicts voter turnout based on early voting. He has said the statewide turnout this season may struggle to get to 20 percent, though it should be higher in New Orleans.
The last two mayoral elections have seen relatively low voter turnouts, says Chervenak. "Turnout in 2010 was 32.7 percent, and in 2014 it was 35.2 percent," he says. "I think it will be similar this time."
Chervenak adds that while social media now "dominate" campaigns, it may actually have contributed to a decline in voter turnout.
"The campaigns are run differently these days," Chervenak says. "They are far more targeted in terms of reaching specific pools of voters rather than reaching out to all voters and getting them excited. In the past, it was all about street-level activity, which got people excited. Now it's all professionalized, all entrepreneurial, and all the activity takes place behind closed doors on some consultant's laptop. ... Social media may be the easiest way to reach a large number of people, but it doesn't bring people together."
One thing that still brings voters together is a neighborhood or citywide political forum, and candidates have taken advantage of such gatherings to get their messages out to voters. That's also where voters can meet candidates face to face. If turnout is as low as 30 percent, or even lower, the old-fashioned way of campaigning may actually make a difference this time.
- Candidates Troy Henry and Tommie Vassel are gaining traction among the field of 18.
In interviews and in forums, candidates have stressed their unique qualifications and attempted to distinguish themselves on the issues of crime and public safety, affordable housing, economic development and disparity, streets — and, since Aug. 5, flooding and Sewerage & Water Board (S&WB) management.
"I am the only candidate with experience in all three branches of government," says Bagneris, who served as executive counsel to Mayor Ernest "Dutch" Morial in the 1980s before becoming a Civil District Court judge. Bagneris counts his work with Morial's lobbying team as legislative experience. "Having been mentored by Dutch, I learned from the best," he says.
Bagneris has gained some traction in recent weeks after picking up support from many of the city's business leaders, along with endorsements from local ministers and the Alliance for Good Government. Some of his backers, like businessman Frank Stewart, opposed removing the city's Confederate-era monuments. Bagneris insists he has made "no deals" on the fate of the monuments, adding, "I haven't given a thought to their ultimate disposition." He did say that if voters petition to put the matter to a referendum, he would not interfere.
Cantrell cites her recent tenure on the City Council representing Central City, the Garden District, the CBD, Broadmoor and parts of Mid-City as her primary distinction, along with her leadership of the Broadmoor Improvement Association during and after Hurricane Katrina. "I worked to implement the recovery at the grass-roots level," Cantrell says. "Then I gained an understanding of how city government works and how it impacts people. I have been able to bring more than $750 million in economic development to District B."
Cantrell gained praise as well as criticism for pushing through the citywide smoking ban in restaurants, bars and casinos. The ordinance adversely affected some cigar bars that had been open for years, but she defended her efforts as promoting the health of patrons and hospitality workers. Cantrell's major endorsement is from the Independent Women's Organization, but she argues she's going the race alone and is beholden to no one.
Charbonnet began her career by winning the citywide Recorder of Mortgages office, then supporting legislation to combine it with the Civil Court clerk's office. She next won a seat at Municipal Court, where she became chief judge. "I'm a bridge builder, not a solo act," Charbonnet says. "I supported the merger of Municipal and Traffic courts, which was not easy, but I got it done because I know how to work with others."
Polls have cast Charbonnet as the front-runner, which made her a target. A recent mailer accused her of being "the queen of patronage" and likely to be controlled by her top supporters, including attorney Ike Spears, a well-known political operative. She dismisses the attack, saying, "I am not controlled and not controllable. I am independent." She has a broad slate of endorsements, including the AFL-CIO, New Orleans Firefighters, several state representatives and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.
Other candidates have struggled to gain attention and traction. Of those, consultant Troy Henry and CPA Tommie Vassel have had the most success.
Henry, who ran for mayor in 2010, says he is the only candidate who has "managed more than 40 people at a time." He is a former executive with United Water, which has managed public water systems in a number of cities and towns. After Katrina, he and actor Wendell Pierce, a childhood friend, led efforts to redevelop Pontchartrain Park. "If this job were posted online and applicants screened by headhunters, none of my opponents would get an interview," Henry says.
Vassel, who served on the Orleans Parish School Board, says he's the only candidate who has real experience at managing large government budgets. He served as president of the S&WB — before it became embroiled in controversy — and in that capacity helped garner $2 billion in recovery money after Katrina. "This race has to be about more than name recognition," Vassel says. "It has to be about qualifications and experience."
All candidates offer plans to reduce crime, increase affordable housing, grow the New Orleans Police Department and reform Civil Service. Until early August, the S&WB was not much of an issue. Then the rains came, and everything changed. Since the Aug. 5 flood, problems at the S&WB have dominated talk radio shows and many neighborhood forums.
Yet, no candidate has galvan- ized voters over this issue, even though voters are incensed about S&WB breakdowns.
"None of the candidates for mayor is responsible for this problem, and that means no candidate for mayor is open to attack on this," says pollster Faucheux. "If Mitch Landrieu were running in this election, it would be a more cutting issue."
Faucheux notes, however, that the S&WB's problems have "put more focus on management, waste and incompetence. They are now much bigger issues than before."
Faucheux adds that crime is "still the No. 1 thing hanging over people's heads."
That's one of many issues the next mayor will inherit.
On the issues
Want more specifics about all the candidates' positions on hot-button issues?
Check out their responses to questions from the League of Women Voters at www.lwvofla.org/lwvno-voters-guide-fall-2017-election.
Candidates also were asked to respond to questions posed by the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), a nonpartisan local think tank. Those responses are available at www.bgr.org.
A coalition of local business and civic organizations has banded together to propose a blueprint for the next mayor and City Council under the banner Forward New Orleans (FNO). Check out FNO's proposals and candidates' views on them at www.forwardneworleans.com. In addition, FNO is hosting a citizen-driven "issues forum" at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28, at the New Orleans Jazz Market (1436 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.). Attendance is free, but RSVPs are requested via the FNO website.