For months, the biggest question mark in New Orleans politics has been whether a big-name challenger would try to unseat Sheriff Marlin Gusman in February’s elections.
Four days of eye-popping testimony back in April in a federal lawsuit over conditions inside the Orleans Parish Prison made Gusman look uniquely vulnerable. And Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s decision to publicly blame Gusman’s management for the jail’s problems suggested the sheriff might face a concerted attack from a mayor with strong approval ratings and campaign dollars to spare.
But with less than two months for candidates to throw their names in, the narrative has been interrupted by a twist that few might have seen coming when Landrieu and Gusman started sparring back in April.
A big-name candidate has indeed stepped forward, but it is not some fresh-faced reformer. Instead it is Charles Foti Jr., the man who operated the local jail for three decades before Gusman took over. Foti gave Gusman his tacit support at the time, and he also faced many of the same criticisms during his tenure that Gusman has — though he did not attract anywhere near as much attention from the U.S. Justice Department.
Meanwhile, despite repeatedly attacking Gusman over jail conditions, Landrieu has remained absolutely mum on the sheriff’s race, with few outward signs of an effort to drum up a challenger. Foti says he hasn’t even approached Landrieu, who is a distant relative, about an endorsement. Nor has Ira Thomas, a School Board member who is so far the only other hopeful to say he will run.
So instead of a battle between two of the city’s most powerful elected officials, the sheriff’s race could shape up to be a political spectacle of a different order: A competition between two erstwhile political allies over who is to blame for problems at an allegedly unconstitutional jail that they have both had a hand in shaping over the past four decades. While it seems beyond argument that the jail is in dire straits, the race may turn in large part on who bears the blame.
For the advocates who have been hoping to improve conditions for local inmates, it’s a race that only seems to underscore the need for a federal judge’s intervention at the Orleans Parish Prison. They see little daylight between Gusman and Foti to begin with, and they have lost faith that the normal political process will bring needed reforms.
“The problems that Marlin Gusman inherited, he inherited from Foti,” said Marjorie Esman, head of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Now, Gusman did not handle the mess in the way I think he should have, but he did not create the mess.”
Indeed, laying the prison’s well-documented problems at Gusman’s feet may be Foti’s biggest hurdle in trying to win his old job back. While the two men are now on opposite sides of an election, some close observers of the local jail see mostly continuity in comparing the two men’s tenures.
Just as Gusman does today, Foti faced accusations that he neglected the well-being of prisoners.
In one notorious case, a 24-year-old inmate named Shawn Duncan was found dead in 2001 after spending nearly two days restrained in the jail’s psychiatric ward. An autopsy found that Duncan died of dehydration, prompting the ACLU to commission a study that faulted the Sheriff’s Office for inadequate staffing and improper use of restraints.
To alleviate overcrowding, Foti built a “tent city” to house an overflow of prisoners, which remained open for the better part of a decade and drew complaints from the ACLU about unsanitary conditions and exposure to the elements.
The tension that exists today between the Sheriff’s Office on one side and the mayor and City Council on the other over how much money the jail needs to operate was present in Foti’s day as well. He took over the jail when it was already under a federal consent decree, a judge’s order mandating that the city hand over a certain number of dollars per day for each local inmate housed there.
That agreement meant the sheriff had a steady revenue stream whether or not he decided to share details of his budget with the city, a reality that irked council members back in the 1990s as much as it does today. Ironically, Gusman, as chief administrative officer under then-Mayor Marc Morial and then as a councilman, was a vocal critic of the sheriff’s opacity.
But after he took over as sheriff, he continued the tradition of telling the council as little as possible. And even the top officials who work under Gusman at the Sheriff’s Office are largely holdovers from the Foti era — including lieutenants, wardens and medical staff. The attorney Allen Usry, having fallen out with Foti after Foti became the state’s attorney general, never stopped representing the Sheriff’s Office.
Usry’s firm continues to bill the office a flat retainer fee for $68,000 every two weeks under a contract that Gusman, on the witness stand, said he had never really examined.
“You struggle to see where there’s been any real change,” said Mary Howell, a local civil-rights attorney.
In an interview this past week, Foti, now 75, argued that the criticism he took as sheriff never involved the sort of constitutional infractions Gusman is accused of. He blamed most of the jail’s problems at the time on forces beyond his control, including a spike in crime and an influx of state prisoners who had to be housed somewhere.
“I think that you have to establish a new team,” Foti said. “You’ve got to look at how to run a constitutional jail, how to meet constitutional standards, how to comply with the court order. Not only do that, but go above that and make the jail one of the most modern and efficient institutions in the country.”
Still other factors could line up in this election to make Gusman seem less vulnerable than he did in the spring. For starters — another irony in a race full of them — Foti will also be in the rare position in this election of facing off against an incumbent instead of being the incumbent himself.
“Marlin certainly has had his problems,” said veteran political consultant Karen Carvin, “but I would never underestimate an incumbent. Even with the incredible negative press that the office has received, I think he still has a great deal of support in the community.”
And even though Landrieu has said explicitly that he would like to see someone else running the jail — he asked a judge earlier this year to put the Orleans Parish Prison in federal receivership — it may be awkward timing for the mayor to publicly back a challenger.
Debate continues over how much the city will have to cough up to pay for reforms outlined in a new consent decree, as well as how big the jail should be when the Sheriff’s Office is done with its construction program. The council and a federal judge will help make those decisions, but Gusman, whether or not he’s re-elected, will have a voice as key decisions are made in the coming months. Landrieu may want Gusman out of office, but for the time being, he still needs to negotiate with him.