It was no coincidence that Dr. C.S. Gordon Jr. gave the invocation at mayoral candidate Desiree Charbonnet’s announcement Monday evening. As one of the state’s most powerful African-American ministers and pastor of Central City’s 96-year-old New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Gordon and his fellow pastors throughout New Orleans are primed to play a pivotal role in this year’s race for mayor.
African-Americans spirituality and religious tradition plays a pivotal role in New Orleans’ culture and history. The Sunday worship gatherings in Congo Square led to the establishment of powerful African-American churches including the First African Baptist Church which opened in 1842 at 2216 La Salle Street as the city’s first house of worship for African-Americans. Other early African-American churches include St. Augustine Catholic Church (1210 Governor Nicholls), First Emmanuel Baptist Church (1829 Carondelet) and Mount Zion United Methodist Church (2700 Louisiana Avenue) which will celebrate its 142nd anniversary on July 15th.
Located at 2319 3rd Street, Dr. Gordon’s New Zion Missionary Baptist Church was the home base for Rev. A. L. Davis, New Orleans first African-American City Council member and an original member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC was founded in 1957 at New Zion by Davis, Dr. Martin Luther King and others. New Zion is also the headquarters of the Louisiana Missionary Baptist State Convention – the state’s largest network of African-American ministers – of which Gordon is a long-time leader.
Since African-American churches have always been at the center of black life for spiritual and community orientation, ministers have the unique ability to serve as a communication channel and to effectively mobilize their congregations for political action is legendary. Though ministerial political power waned in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, their leadership has re-emerged as a force to be reckoned with.
Ministers like Gordon played an all-important role in the recent election of Civil District Court Judge Rachel Johnson whose investiture is set for this evening at McDonogh #35 High School. According to one political operative, more than 25 ministers including Algiers-based Bishop J.D. Wiley of Life Center Cathedral have already endorsed Charbonnet in an effort to get in on the campaign’s ground floor and maximize their effectiveness.
As Algiers’ most prominent religious leader, Wiley’s support is crucial. City-wide races in New Orleans cannot be won these days without broad support in Algiers. State Sen. Troy Carter, the dean of Algiers elected officials who previously served as Councilmember and state representative, gave Charbonnet a glowing introduction. Carter’s nephew Gary also serves in the legislature. Other Algiers elected officials are expected to fall in line behind Charbonnet including Constable Ed Shorty and Second City Court Clerk Darren Lombard, both of whom attended Monday night’s event.
Charbonnet has also garnered the early support of the 7th Ward organization COUP, and its representative Constable Lambert Bossiere Jr. who was also present. Charbonnet’s family has traditionally been associated with COUP whose leadership includes former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, “first brother” Bunny Charbonnet, Darrel Saizan, and PSC member Lambert Boissiere III. Charbonnet is likely to pick up the historic Treme organization TIPS which her cousin former State Rep. Louis Charbonnet has been associated with for decades.
Powerful State Senator Wesley Bishop who represents parts of Gentilly and New Orleans East is already on board and will be assisted by civic activist and former candidate Eric Caufield. Political observers expect Charbonnet to do well in the Lower 9th Ward as well because Bishop’s support.
The Irish-Italian coalition which has traditionally dominated New Orleans’ white politics in Mid-City and Lakeview was also well-represented by retired judicial administrator Noel Cassanova, retired Judge John Shea, former Councilmember Scott Shea, Bill Schultz with son Zach, and numerous sitting judges. Another Lakeview player former Sheriff and Attorney General Charles Foti was present with his two law partners Lou Kahn and Mike Swick. Many other attorneys were present including Cynthia Samuel, Pamela Gibbs, David Halpern, Richard Perque, Suzy Montero, and Kiana and Craig Mitchell. Former WDSU anchor Norman Robinson will also be a key supporter.
The audience cheered Monday night when Charbonnet mentioned her grandfather was a union member and former baker at Leidenheimer Baking Company. The AFL-CIO will have a hard time not giving Charbonnet at least a dual endorsement. She has so far received their support in every election.
Charbonnet has successfully gained an early foothold across many of New Orleans neighborhoods. Sources say her online fundraising is strong. Charbonnet has scheduled a luncheon fundraiser Wednesday, May 31 at Dooky Chase. Court of Appeal Judge Regina Barthelemy Woods has a birthday fundraiser scheduled that same evening at Ruth Chris Steak House.
Though Charbonnet is the new kid on the block, the other candidates have embarked on their own paths. Cantrell announced her campaign team earlier this week which includes experienced strategist Bill Rouselle and respected pollster Silas Lee. Cantrell may have forgone a formal announcement and has moved on to a listening tour with “coffee and conversation” events across the city. Bagneris has a busy schedule of meetings with key constituents and opinion leaders.
Frank Scurlock has identified a campaign headquarters in the Lower Garden District and could move in next week. Scurlock has brought on former School Board president Thomas Robichaux, who recently returned from an extended stay in Sweden, to organize his legal affairs. Robichaux might find himself chiming in on public policy as well.
Scurlock has also been talking with Greg Buisson about handling his media. Expect Buisson to position Scurlock as a successful businessman with a pro-economic development message. Buisson frequently represents Jefferson Parish elected officials including Mike Yenni and handled Michael Bagneris’ previous mayoral bid. Qualifying will take place in mid-July.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and work for City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Foster Campbell, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. Her current clients include judicial candidates Suzanne Montero and Paula Brown.