Stephanie Grace: Voters’ must choose familiar faces or new blood

Of all the campaign kickoffs leading up to qualifying for New Orleans’ municipal elections, none captured the likely themes of the upcoming season like outgoing At-Large Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson’s hastily planned announcement that she’d run for her old District C seat.

Clarkson’s announcement touched directly on whether voters should choose new blood or old hands, an issue not just in this race but in others featuring familiar names, from octogenarian Coroner Frank Minyard to former Sheriff Charles Foti to onetime Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis. Clarkson, who looked invigorated in the cold as Mayor Mitch Landrieu introduced her on the West Bank levee, said she has as much energy as ever and joked about being the only great-grandmother on the ballot, but the fact that she’d turn 80 in office is bound to come up.

It indirectly raised the uncomfortable topic of race; District C is majority black, and the other high-profile candidate, former Civil District Court Judge Nadine Ramsey, is African American, while Clarkson is white. Race may play a role elsewhere too, including in the mayoral contest; polls show that Landrieu, the first white mayor in a generation, remains popular across racial lines, but those looking to make a statement will likely have at least two African-American candidates to choose from, local NAACP President Danatus King and retiring Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris.

And more than anything, Clarkson’s announcement highlighted the role of Landrieu himself and the question of to what extent he’ll get his way.

The mayor made a point of telling everyone that he’d recruited Clarkson out of retirement — a line of argument that may help inoculate her against concerns that she’s trying to hold on too long, but that also makes her campaign almost as much about him as it is about her.

“I told her it was her duty,” Landrieu said. “What we need now is steady leadership to keep moving in the same direction. … I need a partner on the City Council.”

Make that five partners, he confirmed afterward. In an unusual move for a politician with his own race to run, Landrieu is supporting a slate of incumbents and next-best-things, including some former adversaries. For re-election, he’s with Susan Guidry in District A, LaToya Cantrell in District B (although he’d endorsed her opponent in a 2012 special election), and James Gray, his choice in another special election last year, in District E. In District D he’s with state Rep. Jared Brossett, a former aide to term-limited incumbent Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. And in District C, which Clarkson has already represented in two separate stints dating back to 1990, he said he’d originally planned to back Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who stood with Landrieu and Clarkson Tuesday, until her last-minute withdrawal.

Although her supporters will surely see it that way, Landrieu insisted his intent is not to block Ramsey. He said he likes her, even as he noted her lack of council experience. Instead, he said he wants to avoid the free-for-all that Palmer’s sudden absence might cause.

Conspicuously absent from Landrieu’s unofficial ticket are two very familiar faces, the two Cynthias. Hedge-Morrell has generally been considered an ally, particularly early in the mayor’s tenure, but he’s not weighing in on either at-large race, Hedge-Morrell’s versus at least two other major candidates or sometime foe Stacy Head’s quest for reelection.

“I always look for unity. I always look for consensus-building, I always look for someone who’s easy to work with,” he said. “Continuity isn’t an end in itself.”

His preference for Gray has to come as a blow to Willard-Lewis, whom Landrieu once supported for an at-large seat against Head in his most talk-about endorsement until his nod for Clarkson. She’s hoping to reclaim her old District E seat, although she, like the mayor, backed the current councilman just last year.

All this comes at a time when the mayor is involved in several ongoing disputes with other officials, including Sheriff Marlin Gusman and Criminal District Court Clerk Arthur Morrell, Hedge-Morrell’s husband, over his obligations to fund their operations. He’s also locked in a long-running battle with the Civil District Court judges — led in part, until now, by Bagneris — over whether they should get their own courthouse or join the rest of city government at the old Charity Hospital site.

Still, as campaign season get underway, there’s no doubt that Landrieu remains the alpha dog of city politics — unless and until someone manages to use any of these elections to prove otherwise.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.