As qualifying looms, incumbents seem to have leg up

Mayor Mitch Landrieu seems to be in for a potentially divisive re-election campaign, but one in which he is the overwhelming favorite.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman will debate the last guy before him who ran the local jail over who is to blame for that jail’s many alleged problems. He’ll also face a School Board member who is not known for pulling punches.

And perhaps half a dozen hopefuls will vie for the two important at-large positions on the New Orleans City Council, with a likely outcome being a reversion to the former status quo, in which the two seats are split between black and white members.

With less than a week to go for individuals to qualify for the Feb. 1 primary races — qualifying starts Wednesday and ends Friday — this year’s campaign season has begun to take shape, even if last-minute developments could still alter the dynamics of any given race.

Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer gave everyone a sharp reminder of that last week, announcing that she would not run again for the District C seat on the council.

In fact, her decision makes for one of the season’s most interesting questions: Who will challenge the only other announced candidate for that seat, former civil court judge and mayoral candidate Nadine Ramsey? It’s rare for a non-incumbent to claim a council seat without a fight, and few political observers think Ramsey will get a free ride.

One question that has been settled is that this will be the last campaign season in New Orleans in which candidates have to compete for attention with Christmas, Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl (which the local squad could make especially distracting this year, if they get to the playoffs and can find some way past the Seattle Seahawks).

The City Council voted last week to put up a ballot measure in March asking voters to bring the inauguration date in line with a new election calendar established by the state Legislature. That law moved city elections to the fall, with qualifying in August, the primary in October and runoffs in November.

That four-month shift could make a big difference. One salient feature of the coming elections is the extra advantage held by incumbents because of the many distractions that any latecomers to the various races have to overcome as they try to raise money and get their voices heard.

That could be one reason some of the biggest names in city politics haven’t attracted much opposition. Danatus King, the head of the local NAACP branch and Landrieu’s only declared challenger to date, has acknowledged that he faces a “David and Goliath” situation in running against Landrieu, who polls well and has raised more than $2 million, another factor that probably has helped ward off other potential challengers.

In framing the post-Katrina comeback in New Orleans as a “tale of two cities,” however, King offered a preview of how the campaign is likely to unfold: as a racially charged debate about why majority-black sections of town like Gentilly and the neighborhoods east of the Industrial Canal haven’t come back as quickly as the more heavily white sections of town closer to the river.

Race also may figure in another contest where a big-name politician has attracted only one opponent: Stacy Head’s bid to hold her at-large seat for a second term. Here, Eugene Green, who served as economic-development chief in Mayor Marc Morial’s administration and later was U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s chief of staff, has said explicitly that he plans to challenge Head in order to bring the council’s racial balance back into synch with the city as a whole.

Not only does the seven-member council currently have only three black members, but for most of the past six years, the two at-large seats — whose occupants take turns as council president — have both been held by whites, a historical anomaly.

Whether Green can unseat Head or not, however, the council’s racial makeup seems all but certain to shift. All three announced candidates for the at-large seat that Jackie Clarkson will be leaving because of term limits — Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, Ernest “Freddie” Charbonnet and Jason Williams — are black.

“You might be going back to that equilibrium where there was this unspoken understanding that the at-large seats would go to a black candidate and a white candidate,” said Ed Chervenak, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans.

In general, though, Chervenak said, the incumbent advantage in this year’s races is likely to keep turnover at a minimum. “People are relatively happy with the performance of Head and the mayor,” he said. “You’ve got to give people reason to remove them from office.”

That goes for the district council races as well. State Rep. Jared Brossett is so far the only announced candidate to replace Hedge-Morrell, whom he used to work for, in District D. No one has said for sure that they will challenge either Susan Guidry or LaToya Cantrell, the District A and District B representatives, respectively.

And in fact, where a real competition does appear to exist, it’s because there is no incumbent — District C — or because there could be a challenger who already has the name recognition of an incumbent: District E, where former Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis is considering a bid to unseat James Gray. Willard-Lewis held the seat for eight years previously until term limits forced her out.

The same dynamics may be at work in the sheriff’s race. Few candidates would have time to raise as much money as Gusman, who had more than $500,000 in the bank at last count, but Charles Foti won’t need to spend much to introduce himself to voters, having served as sheriff for three decades before Gusman succeeded him.

Of course, name recognition could hurt Foti also. Inmate advocates tend to lay blame on both men for conditions at Orleans Parish Prison that have landed the Sheriff’s Office under a federal consent decree, a court-enforced blueprint for reforms at the jail. But a poll by the consulting firm Win Partners LLC put Foti just a few percentage points behind the incumbent.

The only other announced hopeful, Orleans Parish School Board President Ira Thomas, has made some big waves recently with an attempt to oust the district’s superintendent. However, he may have to play catch-up to get his name known beyond education circles, having served on a board that’s been relatively low-profile since the state takeover of public schools that followed Hurricane Katrina. The Win Partners poll, which was taken before Thomas announced, did not list him as a candidate.

Editor’s note: This story was changed Dec. 9 to reflect that the city elections calendar has already been changed, and that voters will be asked to change inauguration dates, not election dates.