Stephanie Grace: Bagneris’ Seinfeld-like kickoff

Something about judge-turned-last minute mayoral candidate Michael Bagneris’ campaign kickoff got me thinking of, of all things, “Seinfeld.”

Maybe it was because the event fell on Christmas week, but as I listened to Bagneris and his supporters outline the many, many, many problems they have with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, my mind went straight to the classic sitcom’s secular holiday of “Festivus” and its ritual “airing of grievances.”

It turns out I wasn’t the only one. About midway through the program, a political junkie friend who’d stopped by to see the show whispered that it all reminded her of “Seinfeld,” too — not the Festivus episode, but the finale. That was the one where the show’s narcissistic protagonists found themselves on trial and faced a barrage of character witnesses from the show’s long run who relished recounting a series worth of bad behavior.

By their very nature, campaigns against incumbents tend to focus on how the challenger would do things differently. And while any strong mayor is bound to rub some people the wrong way, Landrieu, who continues to poll well with the public, has spent more time than most engaged in turf wars with other politicians.

Even by that standard, though, this was pretty spectacular.

In introducing Bagneris, Clerk of Civil District Court Dale Atkins launched a litany of implicit comparisons.

“We like Mike for mayor because he is a good leader,” she said, adding that he “learns by listening,” “won’t hide behind deputy mayors,” and “won’t conduct frivolous, bogus, national searches.” He also “won’t tell us that there is no crime problem when we know that there is a crime problem,” and “will treat other public officials with respect,” she added.

Bagneris picked up where Atkins left off, declaring himself someone who can “work well with others” and won’t govern by “public relations.”

“His management style is one of division,” Bagneris told reporters afterward, as he detailed what he termed a pattern of mayoral “strong-arming.” “Why do you think you have the firefighters upset, the police department upset, the Wisner Board upset, the Civil Service upset, the judiciary upset?” he asked, referring to just some Landrieu’s recent battles over everything from the firefighters’ pension fund to the size of the city’s various courts to Bagneris’ own attempt to secure a new, custom-built Civil District Court. Landrieu is pushing the judges to join the city administration at the now-vacant Charity Hospital instead.

Much of Bagneris’ speech focused on crime, which he said will be his campaign’s primary issue.

He zeroed in the police force’s dwindling ranks and the practice of cops patrolling alone rather than in pairs, which he labeled dangerous. He pegged departmental morale at “below sea level.”

Bagneris also questioned the administration’s assertion that it has made a dent in the crime problem.

“You know that there has not been any reduction in crime. There’s been a reduction in the reporting,” said Bagneris. “There’s been doctored statistics … The books have been cooked. They’re almost burning now.”

But even as he took a swipe at Landrieu for wasting “time, money and resources” fighting a federal police department consent decree that he had once championed, Bagneris steered clear of any specific proposals to do better. Instead, he said he’d outline a platform in the coming weeks.

Nor was it obvious how he’d broaden his message for a more general audience. The crowd at the kick-off was boisterous, but it was also teeming with insiders. Among those joining Bagneris on the stage were retired appeals court judge Miriam Waltzer, whose husband was once Bagneris’ law partner; state Sen. Ed Murray; and, unexpectedly, boxing great Evander Holyfield, a friend of a friend, who said Bagneris has the “spirit of a champion” but couldn’t quite master the pronunciation of his last name. Other familiar faces in the crowd included “Treme” actor Wendell Pierce, former state Reps. Sherman Copelin and Juan LaFonta, and Bagneris’ old judicial colleague Kern Reese, who can’t endorse but said he was there as an interested observer.

Bagneris is a smart, serious player, and he certainly proved this week that he can gripe with the best of them. But it will a take a lot more than that to convince voters that he’s not just pursuing a vendetta over the courthouse, that Landrieu’s on the wrong side of all those interagency fights, and of course, that he’s got his own ideas to tackle the city’s problems.

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