Doug Hammel was the clear favorite in political circles in the May 4 runoff election for a Juvenile Court judgeship but Yolanda King and her volunteers had a big surprise for him. In an election where the turnout was just about five percent, King won 54 percent of the vote.
As is almost always the case in New Orleans politics, race was a major factor. King, who is an African-American, was making her fifth race for a judgeship and was considered by some to be a perennial candidate. She spent just $7,750 on her campaign. Hammel, who is white, spent more than $125,000 and, in the view of many of his advisors, didn’t spend enough.
The political rule of thumb since Hurricane Katrina is that in low-turnout elections (like the May 4 runoff), the white candidate will defeat an African-American candidate because there are more white chronic voters — those who go to the polls in 80 percent or more of all elections — than black chronic voters. At least that was true until last Saturday. The results of that election suggest to political insiders that the number of black chronic voters may have caught up with or surpassed the number of white chronic voters.
African-American voters, eight years after Katrina, now number close to 60 percent of the electorate. So it would not be surprising that African-American chronic voters –- the kind who would go out and vote in a hurricane -– now are equal in numbers or slightly more than their white counterparts who vote regardless of how light the ballot is or the wind conditions.
Of course, in New Orleans politics, if a candidate can attract a cross-over vote and build a coalition, that vastly improves one’s chances of winning. It is interesting that King got 16 percent of the white vote while Hammel got just eight percent of the black vote.
Another interesting factor in the race was the role played by Cynthia Samuel, an attorney who practices frequently in Juvenile Court. She sought to portray Hammel as an interloper with meager credentials who has been rarely seen in Juvenile Court. Samuel spent about $100,000 of her own money on the race, and put out a mailer in the primary attacking Hammel as an opportunistic lightweight who moved to Florida after Hurricane Katrina and registered to vote there. Samuel’s attack may have kept Hammel from winning in the first primary. He came up about 900 votes short of a first primary win. Samuel ran third. King just squeaked into the runoff.
So what does it all mean? A post-Katrina era when white candidates almost invariably won low-turnout elections may have come to an end. Those who run for office – whites and blacks, males and females – would be wise to put even more emphasis on winning cross-over voters. In a word, New Orleans politics seems to have gotten even more competitive and, in all likelihood, more hard-fought.
IS THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM STILL DYSFUNCTIONAL?
An aspect of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s well-done State of the City address was the bombshell regarding the “dysfunctional criminal justice system” that he dropped on District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and Chief Criminal Court Judge Camille Buras who sat only a few feet from his podium.
Cannizzaro and Judge Buras had been seated on the front row by mayoral aides prior to the speech, presumably so they could be fully embarrassed.
Later in the day, Mayor Landrieu joined Cannizzaro at a press conference where the DA announced a historic indictment against 15 gang members. The DA also took a few well-placed digs at the mayor. The mayor didn’t say so but a lot of folks who were there were thinking that maybe the criminal justice system isn’t as dysfunctional as Landrieu imagines it to be.
In fact, Cannizzaro and Judge Buras, had they been asked, could have argued that while the criminal justice system has a long way to go, it is clearly a lot less dysfunctional than it was three years ago when Mayor Landrieu took office and that is to Landrieu’s credit, along with Police Chief Ronal Serpas, Cannizzaro, Judge Buras and many others who have worked to turn around what was surely previously one of the nation’s most screwed up criminal justice systems..
Cannizzaro may very well turn out to be New Orleans’ best DA of the last 50 years or perhaps forever. He has worked tirelessly to turn his office around and has developed the best relationship between the DA’s Office and the NOPD in decades. The “blame game” of days gone by is a thing of the past, at least for now. The DA and the cops and the feds all worked hand in hand on bringing the indictment against the murderous gang members.
Judge Buras, meanwhile, is a great role model for the Criminal Court judges. Her docket is always up to date and she is respected for her work ethic. Certainly, the Criminal Court judges now work a lot harder than they did three years ago when the current Mayor took office. In any event, the State of the City speech is the Mayor’s moment to hand out bouquets or butt-kicks. The DA and the judge certainly know that no matter what they have accomplished, they still have a long way to go to earn a Landrieu bouquet.
Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City Councilwoman Stacy Head, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and council candidate Dana Kaplan.