Appellate Court Judge Leon Cannizzaro has resigned from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal to run for Orleans Parish District Attorney in the fall. His decision makes the DA's race more wide-open than ever. He will officially announce his candidacy this Wednesday evening (April 30). Cannizzaro's candidacy guarantees that the contest will go to a Nov. 4 runoff, which adds many layers to the political mix. Until now, former first assistant DA Ralph Capitelli, who led the office under Harry Connick from 1979 to '80, had been the most well known white candidate in the race. Mathematically, Capitelli had a shot at winning in the primary. No longer.
So far, Jason R. Williams, a 35-year-old defense attorney and one-time interim judge at Criminal Court (in 2003), is the only announced African-American candidate. Rounding out the field of announced candidates is former federal prosecutor Linda Bizzarro, who began her legal career in 1979 in Connick's office when Capitelli was first assistant. She is the lone "no party" candidate; all the others are Democrats.
One other oft-mentioned name is that of Keva Landrum-Johnson, the interim DA. She remains tight-lipped as to her political aspirations. There are conflicting accounts of whether she promised not to run for the job when she was named Eddie Jordan's successor. Many say she got the appointment on the condition that she would not run; others say Jordan uttered that promise, not her. Meanwhile, she gets high marks for cleaning up Jordan's mess. Rumor has it that she really wants to run for Criminal Court judge. If that's the case, she will have ample opportunity, thanks to several announced retirements on that bench. For now, she's the wild card in the DA's race.
Even if the announced candidates are the only ones who qualify which is unlikely the race is already plenty complicated. Williams, if he remains the only black candidate, would appear to have an easy road to the Nov. 4 runoff. But, he is the youngest and least experienced of the bunch. He also is the only candidate who has never worked as a criminal prosecutor. With crime out of control in the city, voters may yearn for someone with at least some experience at putting criminals behind bars. Affable and confident, he will get good political advice from veteran strategist Ron Nabonne, so he cannot be ruled out. Whether he remains the only black candidate will play a big role in how this race unfolds.
Capitelli has the most experience as an attorney, although Bizzarro has the most as a prosecutor. That's virtually all she's done since graduating from law school. Capitelli and Cannizzaro both have balanced experience as prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers, although Cannizzaro was never Connick's top assistant. Cannizzaro does have 22 years of experience as a judge, first at Criminal Court (starting in 1986) and then on the Fourth Circuit (in 2002). Capitelli has raised the most money so far, and last week he began running ads touting the endorsements of more than 100 former assistant DAs. He will run as the prosecutors' choice.
Politically, Cannizzaro is the only candidate who has successfully run for office citywide, something he has done four times. Moreover, he demonstrated significant crossover appeal among black voters, even when his opponents were African American. That will be a major factor in the Nov. 4 runoff the same day Barack Obama is likely to lead the Democratic presidential ticket.
Normally, the presidential race is an afterthought in New Orleans politics. Not this year. In fact, one cannot overstate Obama's impact on this year's local elections. The obvious assumption is that he will bring black voters to the polls in droves. But, does that mean they will automatically vote for the black candidate for DA? Much of Obama's strength derives from his crossover appeal among white voters who embrace his message of hope.
In the DA's race, it's possible that the candidate with the right message no matter what color his or her skin may be will be the real beneficiary of the Obama Factor. This race will be very, very interesting to watch.