A friend of a friend came to New Orleans recently, so I offered to show him and his wife the town.
The purpose of our tour was serious; he works in New York City on Hurricane Sandy recovery and wanted to learn more about the aftermath of Katrina.
My visitors also wanted to get a feel for the city as a whole, and to that end, we followed our noses. We stopped for Bloody Marys.
We pulled over at the plaque marking where Homer Plessy once boarded a train, setting off a chain of events that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s separate-but-equal ruling.
We even followed the singsong voice of Mr. Okra as he informed everyone in earshot that he had bananas, tomatoes, and whatever else he’d loaded onto his brightly painted pickup that morning.
The recovery specialist’s wife said he reminded her of street hawkers in her native China.
My visitors took it all in, and by the end of the trip, they’d developed an ongoing riff over something else that had grabbed their attention. As we drove past countless signs advertising what seemed like countless candidates for Traffic Court judge, they started jokingly debating which one of them should move to New Orleans and run for the seat. They didn’t know what the job was, they said, but judging by the competition and the amount of money being spent on the race, it was clearly something good.
They were, of course, right. It is a good, six-figure-salary for basically part-time work. So it’s no wonder that eight candidates went all-out in Saturday’s primary.
From the beginning, candidates jockeyed for a unique angle.
Marie Bookman pitched herself as a lower-court version of Hillary Clinton, out to break the glass ceiling and become the city’s first female Traffic Court judge. Nanak Rai ran a populist campaign channeling resentment towards the city’s unpopular red-light traffic cameras. Nicole Sheppard hoped to capitalize on her public access television show.
Demetrie Ford claimed that, as an assistant city attorney, he’d prosecuted a seemingly impossible 300,000 traffic cases — including over 20,000 DWIs in 11 years, more than all four sections of the court, each with its own prosecutor, would likely have handled.
When asked, Ford acknowledged that he’d counted each docket entry, not each individual case.
The campaign’s waning days though, were dominated by claims, counterclaims and outright attacks involving Patrick Giraud and Richard Perque.
After Rai sought an injunction, Giraud, the son of a retired Traffic Court judge who’s worked in various other capacities in the court, was ordered to stop airing a television ad in which he asked voters to allow him to “continue to serve you as a Traffic Court judge.” Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris agreed the ad misleadingly suggested he was an incumbent.
Perque, meanwhile, sent out a Halloween-theme flier portraying a red-eyed Giraud as a courthouse “zombie,” and linking his long tenure at the court with an overlapping era of scandals, including a ticket-fixing scheme that ended with federal convictions.
Perque’s sponsorship of the piece appeared in tiny, easy-to-miss type.
The campaign hit bottom when a last-minute piece targeting Perque landed in voters’ mailboxes. It was sponsored by something called the “Committee for Common Decency,” which doesn’t officially exist, and plastered with a warning to keep out of the sight of children.
“Before you even consider voting for this indiviual [sic] for judge, think about it long and hard,” said the flier, which contained a photo of Perque hugging another man while both were shirtless and wearing skimpy swimsuits.
Giraud insisted he had nothing to do with it, but a long-dormant Twitter feed that had previously promoted an earlier Giraud candidacy sprung back to life in the campaign’s final days and sent out dozens of tweets echoing the mailer.
After all that, it was frankly something of a relief Saturday when voters sent two different candidates, Clint Smith and Steven Jupiter, to a runoff. Both Smith and Jupiter skipped the theatrics and ran more traditional campaigns highlighting things like endorsements and qualifications.
Even with a lower-key surviving field, though, expect the heat over the office to continue. As the zombie flier noted, Traffic Court’s practices have come under withering criticism by the city’s inspector general, as well as unwelcome attention from federal law enforcement. It’s also been singled out as overstaffed and overly costly by the Bureau of Governmental Research and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who wants the Legislature to consolidate some of the city’s courts.
Still, as anyone who’s watched the Legislature knows, the status quo has a pretty powerful and entrenched constituency.
Why? Well, even a first-time visitor can answer that.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com.