Stephanie Grace: New Orleans races stress familiar faces

If this year’s New Orleans municipal campaign season were a movie, it could be “Back to the Future.” If it were a golden oldie, the best fit would be “Seems Like Old Times.” Crankier voters might liken the election to a classic comedy bit from “Saturday Night Live,” a horror movie spoof featuring John Belushi as the houseguest from hell. Its title? “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave.”

Whatever you call it, the most striking aspect of Saturday’s primary is the extent to which experience and familiarity is on the ballot, with well-known faces trying to get re-elected, to switch jobs after being forced out by term limits or to come out of retirement.

On the City Council, at-large member Jackie Clarkson, who was all set to call it a day, instead jumped into the race for her old District C seat after Kristin Gisleson Palmer abruptly dropped out. Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who served two terms in District E but fell short in her two attempts to win at-large, is also trying to reclaim her old job. She’s running against an incumbent, James Gray, whom she supported in a special election just one year ago (the City Charter limits council members to two consecutive terms in each seat, but the clock starts again once a politician leaves office).

Elsewhere, term-limited District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell is trying to stick around by moving up to the seat Clarkson’s vacating. Even longtime Sheriff Charles Foti’s back after a single term as attorney general and a subsequent break from public life; he’s trying to unseat the man who replaced him more a decade ago, Marlin Gusman.

Many races feature incumbents, and in several that don’t, the former occupant’s old aide is running. That’s the case in City Council District D, where state Rep. Jared Brossett once worked for Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, and the coroner’s office, where Jeffrey Rouse served under the retiring Frank Minyard.

And at the top of the ballot, both of the two best-known candidates know the ins and outs of City Hall well. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, of course, is seeking a second term, and retired Judge Michael Bagneris frequently reminds voters that, as a young man, he learned at the knee of Mayor Dutch Morial.

Campaigns based on longevity can cut both ways, of course. Some voters appreciate institutional knowledge and accomplishment, while others yearn for new blood or fixate on disappointment. In the case of the distinctly unpleasant sheriff’s race, the question isn’t so much who performed better but who’s more to blame for the notoriously unruly and, according to a federal consent decree, officially unconstitutional Orleans Parish Prison.

But it almost always helps to have a name people already know. I’d guess it particularly helps this time around, in what has become, in effect, the shortest campaign season in memory.

Not only did several major contenders — Clarkson, Willard-Lewis and Bagneris among them — jump in at the last minute, but the campaign’s closing days were dominated not by politics but by a weather emergency, one that offered Landrieu in particular a chance to perform in command and control mode. If he were the mayor of Atlanta, that might be a problem right around now, but things went a whole lot better here, so Landrieu got to look like he’s putting politics aside for more important things.

If there were any consolation for Bagneris, it was that people were glued to local news coverage on TV, so they probably saw his attack ad against Landrieu, which was in heavy rotation, repeatedly. On the other hand, they would have seen Landrieu’s own feel-good spot a lot, too.

Hard as he and all those other challengers and lesser-known contenders tried, it was just harder than usual to break through and get a full hearing this time around.

So maybe the best way to sum up the campaign season isn’t by looking to the movies, the musical canon or a vintage video clip. Perhaps it’s easier to paraphrase a familiar phrase out of contemporary politics: If you like your politicians, you can keep them.

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