Judge Bagneris explains jump into mayor’s race

His newly launched campaign to unseat Mayor Mitch Landrieu is not a personal grudge match, Judge Michael Bagneris insisted Thursday.

It’s about the bread-and-butter issues that shape just about every campaign in New Orleans, Bagneris said, like a troubling crime rate,streets that are becoming “legendary bad” and often go dark at night for lack of proper lighting.

“I have friends with college degrees and some with advanced degrees who can’t get a job,” he said, summing up his view of the economic scene. “For all those reasons, I decided to get into the race. I just truly, truly believe I can do a better job.”

All this needed clearing up for at least two reasons: First, because Bagneris has been wary of speaking at all about his decision to run, citing judicial ethics rules that bar judges from joining nonjudicial races without resigning a full day beforehand.

And second, because in the 24 hours between tendering his resignation as a Civil District Court judge and finally speaking with the press, the only obvious — if seemingly implausible — explanation available was his recent high-profile dueling with Landrieu over where to put a new courthouse and City Hall building.

Bagneris and some of the other judges at Civil District Court have been pressing for a new courthouse on Duncan Plaza, while the mayor favors combining court and municipal offices in the old Charity Hospital building.

In his first interview since deciding to run, seated in the living room of his home near Bayou St. John as he prepared to head out for a pair of early campaign stops, Bagneris denied that his candidacy has anything to do with the courthouse dispute, fleshed out his biography and hinted at campaign themes to come.

He seemed aware he will have to counter the narrative that Landrieu has been hammering on for the better part of a year: that New Orleans under the incumbent’s leadership is bouncing back not just from Hurricane Katrina, but from a decades-long decline that saw its population drop, its public schools crumble and violent crime explode.

Landrieu in particular has been pointing to a sharp drop this year in the number of murders in New Orleans, long the country’s “murder capital,” but Bagneris said he doesn’t see crime on the decline at all. “Ask the average guy on the street if he believes the murder rate is down,” he said.

And the mayor’s NOLA for Life anti-murder initiative? Here the judge’s campaign manager, Greg Buisson, cut in with a reference to the advertisements Landrieu commissioned from director Spike Lee: “You mean solving crime with the billboards?”

So much for the negative — and in fairness, the mayor’s anti-crime campaign has also included more substantive elements, including a new law enforcement task force that is targeting gangs.

In proposing himself as the alternative, Bagneris seems ready to tout his role as a long-serving judge.

A graduate of St. Augustine High School and Yale University, where he earned degrees in American history and African-American studies, as well as Tulane Law School, Bagneris was born in the Treme neighborhood but grew up in the Desire housing development.

He returned to New Orleans after Yale to join the Fine, Waltzer law firm, where he became a partner after earning his law degree and got involved in the Treme Improvement Political Society, or TIPS, a Treme political organization.

He joined the administration of Dutch Morial, the city’s first black mayor, in 1980, serving as executive counsel, then ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat on the City Council against Dorothy Mae Taylor.

In 1993, he ran for a Civil District Court judgeship and defeated two other candidates with just over 50 percent of the vote. He hasn’t faced a challenge since.

In what seemed like a clear preview of campaign themes Bagneris will be employing in the next few weeks, his campaign manager pointed out, “Judge Bagneris has spent the past 20 years perfecting the art of listening.”

“That’s going to be a tremendous quality for someone who is the mayor of this city,” Buisson continued. “To be able to listen to people from all walks of life and what their concerns are.”

One factor that will doubtless make some type of appearance in the campaign is race. Bagneris is African American and will be challenging the first white mayor New Orleans has had since Landrieu’s father Moon held the office in the 1970s.

Some veterans of the city’s politics, in fact, think the campaign could be a particularly unpleasant one.

Political consultant Cheron Brylski called both men “great candidates” but said, “I can’t help but look at this race and think the only road political consultants will urge these candidates down is a very ugly and divisive one.”

Bagneris said he doesn’t think so. He acknowledged race will play a part but said he’s confident voters will support the candidate they feel is the better man.

Nor is he concerned about the mayor’s strong poll numbers, he said, citing unspecified survey results that he said his own campaign has access to.

“If the prospect of victory weren’t greater than the prospect of defeat, I wasn’t giving up a judgeship,” he said.