Stephanie Grace: Six months from qualifying, all’s (somewhat) quiet on the New Orleans election front

Qualifying for New Orleans’ municipal offices is less than six months away, but the average voter wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell by what he or she is hearing.

Sure, names are being floated and waters are being tested, but despite the big electoral prizes up for grabs Feb. 1, many contests have yet to develop. At this stage, it’s looking like some of them never will.

Just about everyone whose term ends next spring can run for re-election. Most of them plan to, and few have reason to stress over their chances.

That goes for Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Sure, Landrieu ruffles feathers every now and then, but he’s also sitting on a seven-figure campaign fund and an approval rating of 70 percent, according to a recent University of New Orleans survey. It also goes for Assessor Erroll Williams and court clerks Dale Atkins and Arthur Morrell. If octogenarian coroner Frank Minyard decides to run again, he too would start off as the favorite.

It even goes, shockingly, for Sheriff Marlin Gusman, whose domain has been rocked by a criminal investigation, civil rights violations so severe that the Justice Department has gotten involved, and accusations by Landrieu and others of reckless overspending and disturbing videos out of Orleans Parish Prison showing prisoners gambling, swigging beer, brandishing guns and strolling down Bourbon Street. Some politicians are said to be considering a run, including Orleans Parish School Board President Ira Thomas. But it’s not clear that anyone can raise the money and attract the political support to take Gusman out — even though a strong candidate would surely earn Landrieu’s backing.Or maybe it’s not so shocking. Gusman, like his fellow incumbents, benefits from a built-in public profile and political operation, and can raise money from donors seeking favor. It’s simply hard for nonincumbents to put the whole package together without a big head start, and it’s getting perilously late for that.

The power of incumbency is showing in downballot races too.

Just two of seven City Council members are term-limited, but even contests to fill those seats will feature near-incumbents. Cynthia Hedge-Morrell can’t run again in District D, but she is expected to seek an at-large seat. Most handicappers think her former council aide, state Rep. Jared Brossett, will replace her. In Districts B and E, LaToya Cantrell and James Gray both triumphed in competitive special elections last December, and are still new enough to be enjoying their political honeymoons. Neither is likely to face a serious challenge.

The contests could be more spirited in A and C, which has as much to do with the districts as with the current council members. District A is always in play, and when Susan Guidry got embroiled in the fierce neighborhood controversy over Tulane’s new football stadium, she was following in the footsteps her predecessors.

District A once regularly elected Republicans, and Guidry, a Democrat, might also face a partisan challenge — although she secured some breathing room when several neighborhoods along Lake Pontchartrain shifted into District D during the last round of redistricting. While several potential challengers are said to be looking, so far, nobody has stepped up.

Assuming Kristin Gisleson Palmer seeks a second term, District C could get interesting too. State Rep. Jeff Arnold is thinking about getting in. Another challenge could come from a major African-American candidate, perhaps former judge Nadine Ramsey, according to strategists who point to recent victories in Algiers by black politicians against nonblack incumbents. The district is 58 percent African-American, according to the latest registration figures. Palmer and Arnold are white.

Racial politics could also play a factor in the at-large elections, which for the first time will feature two separate slates. In fact, racial politics — specifically the desire to return to the days when one at-large member was white and one black — figured in the procedural change in the first place.

Each division is expected to feature a frontrunner, incumbent Stacy Head, who is white, and Hedge-Morrell, who’s African-American. They won’t have the field — or fields — to themselves, One potential contestants is former interim Councilman Freddie Charbonnet, a Head ally who would run against Hedge-Morrell. Others are sure to follow, and the jockeying for who goes after which seat could continue right up until qualifying in mid-December.

If any contests turn competitive, the mayor could well pick sides, as he’s already shown an inclination to do. He’s got plenty of motivation, from existing alliances and tensions to the desire to make sure the council can’t override his veto.

And of course, Landrieu enjoys a good political throwdown as much as anyone. Particularly, one can presume, from the safety of an easy race of his own.

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