5 vie for vacated council seat

Updated at Originally published Oct. 1, 2012 — NEW ORLEANS — A slew of candidates are seeking to replace disgraced former New Orleans City Councilman Jon Johnson in the Nov. 6 election, and while each has a slightly different approach to revitalizing District E, they all agree the city’s largest council district deserves better leadership.

Johnson vacated the seat in July shortly after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges, and his departure has sparked a lively, hard-fought campaign.

Court challenges have dominated the race early, including one that barred former longtime Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis from running for the seat. Another challenge seeking to disqualify attorney James Gray II from running was unsuccessful.

Amid the legal wrangling, the candidates agree that it’s time for District E to finally receive an equitable distribution of the city’s resources, particularly if the area is to ever fully recover from Hurricane Katrina.

District E represents about 40 percent of the city’s tax base and has seen strong residential recovery. However, commercial investment, particularly from larger retail chains, has lagged behind.

All of the candidates point to Johnson’s leadership as a problem and said the district needs a stronger advocate.

Community organizer Mary Fontenot-Smith said District E’s recovery initially was hamstrung by the troubled Road Home program, and that sort of addled bureaucracy has continued to be a hindrance.

Smith, who has been an advocate for the lower Ninth Ward with All Congregations Together, said her experience as a grass-roots organizer gives her a unique outlook on the community’s needs. District E needs a unifier who is committed to creating concrete solutions while fighting for social justice, she said.

“I’m not interested in a whole lot of symbolism and no work,” Smith, 55, said. “I not only have my finger on the pulse of the community, but I have my hand firmly around its wrist. … What many residents are telling me is that they feel the city has not done all that it could to facilitate their return.”

That complaint was echoed by Jerrelda Drummer Sanders, who unsuccessfully challenged Johnson and state Rep. Austin Badon for the seat in 2010 before taking a job in Johnson’s council office.

Sanders, 39, said her tenure with Johnson was marred by frequent clashes as she sought to convince him to be more proactive in addressing residents’ needs.

However, Sanders pointed to that time as a valuable experience that taught her how city government works and gave her a good idea of where District E is losing ground. Sanders, a bookstore owner and director of a local nonprofit, promised to attack the bureaucracy in City Hall as a consistent advocate for both small and large businesses.

Sanders claimed the city’s permitting process is in desperate need of streamlining, and she has some plans for how to accomplish that task.

“I worked in the office; I know what the issues are. … I just feel let’s move forward,” Sanders said. “District E is a gold mine right now. … You have to sell the district, and it wasn’t sold properly,” she said.

Attorney Dana Henry said everything comes back to a lack of leadership.

Henry, 39, said he’s been active in the community for years, and joining the city council would be a natural progression. He believes the key to encouraging growth in District E and fighting the common perception that the area is a crime-ridden wasteland is a strong council member who has a definite vision and a commitment to hard work.

Henry said, if elected, he would go after “low-hanging fruit” by attacking blight and code violations while working his way up to more serious issues.

“We have to get small victories before we talk about the murder rate. … There has to be confidence instilled in the residents in their leadership,” Henry said. “There’s a sense of hopelessness right now in the district,” he said.

James Gray said what the district needs is a skilled ambassador who can intelligently protect District E’s interests in boardrooms and council chambers. Gray said District E is full of untapped potential, but its exterior doesn’t match that reality.

He said eastern New Orleans must see some progress in the push to secure a dedicated hospital, and the facility must reflect the size of the district. He also said the city needs to change the way it deals with District E and the district’s residents need to change some of their habits.

“I think there is tremendous potential here, and I don’t think we’ve been reaching that potential,” Gray said. “The position of city council person would merely give me a bigger podium to stand on.”

Austin Badon also promised to be an ambassador for District E, adding he’s already discussed the area’s prospects for development with business people but that those investors want leadership they can trust.

Badon, who has already made two unsuccessful bids for a council seat, said none of his opponents have the level of legislative experience he’s gained working in the state House of Representatives. More importantly, none of them have cultivated a web of contacts similar to his own, which is one of the ways he is able to get things accomplished quickly.

Badon said he would create tax incentives and other economic carrots to attract businesses to the area. He said the district’s next council member needs to be out in the community promoting District E, not just pontificating from the council chambers.

“My people are suffering, and they’re not getting good representation at the city council level,” Badon said. “I’m not doing this just as a job; this is a calling for me.”

Austin Badon

PARTY: Democrat.

PROFESSIONAL: Coordinator of Community Services, Southern University New Orleans.

EDUCATION: Master’s degree from Troy State University; undergraduate degree from University of New Orleans.

FAMILY: Married to Therese Badon.

Jerrelda Drummer Sanders

PARTY: Democrat.

PROFESSIONAL: Social entrepreneur; owns a bookstore; runs a nonprofit.

EDUCATION: Master’s degree in criminal justice from Southern University New Orleans.

FAMILY: Married to Noel Sanders; three children.

Dana Henry

PARTY: Democrat.

PROFESSIONAL: Attorney.

EDUCATION: Doctorate in law from Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge; bachelor’s degree in English from Howard University.

FAMILY: Two children.

James Gray

PARTY: Democrat.

PROFESSIONAL: Attorney.

EDUCATION: Doctorate in law from Harvard University; bachelor’s degree from Morehouse University.

FAMILY: Married to Ernestine Gray; two adult children.

Mary Fontenot-Smith

PARTY: Democrat.

PROFESSIONAL: Community organizer.

EDUCATION: Attended University of Southwestern Louisiana.

FAMILY: Married to Gregory Smith; three adult children.