Sheriff Marlin Gusman and his predecessor, Charles Foti, blame each other for conditions at the Orleans Parish Jail. School board president Ira Thomas blames them both, and gardener Quentin Brown blames them all.
That question — whether the incumbents are responsible for shortcomings in New Orleans’ public institutions, or took poor situations and tried to improve them — resonated through the Alliance For Good Government forums in citywide races Tuesday night.
Marlin Gusman’s highest-profile challenger is certainly his predecessor, former Sheriff Charles Foti, who spent 30 years in the office before being elected the state Attorney General.
“We have a jail that has been declared by a federal court not only dysfunctional but also unconstitutional,” Foti opened. “I fixed the problems once before, and I can come back and fix them again.”
Gusman, however, did not take Foti’s criticisms lying down. Instead, he described his problems as inherited from Foti — particularly an oversized facility with 6,000 inmates (a “prison-industrial complex,” Gusman said more than once) that he has reduced to 2,100 — and exacerbated by the chaos following Hurricane Katrina. The jail is safe, he said, and it has steadily improved under his watch, touting raises for deputies, new re-entry programs and the construction of a “world-class 21st Century facility.”
“Now we’re rebuilding. Has is been easy? No it hasn’t. It’s been tough. We’re on the right track. We’re coming back, and we’re going to be far better than it ever was. … This is tough, no doubt about it. Can we get better? That’s really what the litigation was all about, is can we get better. Yes, we can get better. We are getting better, and we’re going to get even better.”
School board president Ira Thomas, meanwhile, positioned himself as the candidate untarred by the problems at the jail, and sought to convince the audience that he has the qualifications based on his 28 years at the New Orleans Police Department.
“The federal court in its consent judgement did not talk about a world-class state-of-the-art facility for inmates,” Thomas said. “What they talked about was violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. That’s why this jail has been classified as the worst in the country, and the most dangerous, because of the violence, because of the rapes, because of the treatment of inmates.”
And Quentin Brown, a gardener who has run for an entire civics-course worth of offices, said all three of the other men were part of the problem.
“All these guys up here, they had their chance,” Brown said, ridiculing Thomas’ binder of notes and Gusman’s computer. “The city streets are telling me what’s going on. The news is telling me what’s going on, and this citizen is sick and tired of it.”
The Alliance, however, chose individual questions to challenge the core of each hopeful’s candidacy. To Gusman, they asked why the public would re-elect him after scandals and a widely viewed video of inmates with guns, beer and other contraband that have tarred the reputation of the office.
“We have a zero tolerance for contraband. Contraband unfortunately is a part of every single jail,” Gusman said. “The videos are unfortunate. Contraband has been around for a long time. The videos, with everybody having videos now, is just something that’s going to be out there.”
To Foti, the Alliance said that his administration had its own troubles, including a consent decree, followed by a controversial term as Attorney General, and asked why voters would want another term from him. Foti replied that the federal intervention during his term was to help the jail secure the funding it needed, and that the problems from Gusman have been far deeper and more troubling.
“At no time has my office when I was in office been accused of unconstitutional conditions, of excessive brutality of inmates on inmates, of gang rapes, of excessive sexual attacks on inmates, of no classifications, of putting young innocent inmates in with hardened criminals and sexual predators, not treating the juveniles right,” Foti said. “There is a great difference.”
The Alliance asked Thomas how his controversial leadership of the School Board — which has also been characterized by division over the superintendent and over school rebuilding contracts — would inspire voters to give him the reins at the jail. Thomas said the school board was united in its drive to improve the curriculum and student performance, and only divided on issues of operations. On those issues, he wanted to make sure that minority-owned companies were given a fair chance at $2 billion in rebuilding money, but said the superintendent search is now moving forward. Thomas likened the state of the jail to the city’s formerly broken school system.
“Our jail system is in a crisis,” Thomas said. “What we need to do is reform the jail system.”
To Brown, the Alliance simply asked what qualified him to be sheriff. Brown replied that his qualifying fee, and the fact that he’s a concerned citizen.
“I want to show the public what’s going on. I want to be the tattletale. I want to be the rat,” Brown said. “You don’t need no newspaper company coming for me, or no Channel 6, Channel 4, Channel 8, Channel 26 news coming looking at my budget, because I’m going to show it to you.”
At the end of the evening, the Alliance endorsed Gusman.
Similar themes were sounded in the other two forums held by the Alliance on Tuesday.
In the coroner’s race, Dwight McKenna tried to link Jeffrey Rouse with problems in Coroner Frank Minyard’s office, while Rouse tried to both stand by his record and distance himself from Minyard, and Vincent Culotta tried to position himself as an alternative to either.
Likewise, Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell defended his own work, while challenger Robbie Keen said Morrell should have brought the office further.
In those two races, the Alliance endorsed Culotta and Morrell.
No video recording was allowed during Tuesday’s forum, the Alliance announced.