Viewpoint: Early and mail-in voting draws record crowd

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Sample ballots line the hallway outside of the Registrar of Voters. (Danae Columbus)

Nearly half-way through this year’s extended early voting period, 7,669 New Orleanians, including 2,275 white voters and 5,047 black voters, have already cast their ballots for presidential nominees, First City Court judge and political party committees.  Almost half of those individuals voted by mail. Due to COVID-19, more citizens are meeting the early voting criteria — which, coupled with a longer voting period, will result in the largest early voting turnout in New Orleans history.    

In the race for judge in Division B First City Court, five candidates have been struggling to remain visible at a time when voters are focused on staying healthy and earning a living. Marissa Hutabarat and Sara Lewis appear to be leading the pack in terms of endorsements, overall donors and money raised.  

Marissa Hutabarat

Hutabarat is the only candidate in this race who has begun airing a television commercial. She has raised the most funds, including from a personal loan, and has been endorsed by City Council members Joe Giarrusso, Cyndi Nguyen and Kristin Palmer as well as legislators Jimmy Harris, Royce Duplessis and Jason Hughes. Louisiana Human Rights Commissioner Richard Perque is also among her supporters.

Endorsed by the AFL-CIO, the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, and IWO, Hutabarat said she has spent the past few months connecting with voters and listening to their concerns.

“I have the experience and compassion needed to serve the citizens of New Orleans at First City Court. People from all walks of life believe as I do that this is the people’s court and that I will be the people’s judge. Every person, without regard to race, wealth, gender or social status, deserves to be treated by our courts with fairness and dignity,” said Hutabarat.

Sara Lewis

Lewis has been endorsed by the Alliance for Good Government, the Independent Women’s Organization, and the New Orleans Coalition among others and has received contributions from more than 325 individual donors, including Sandra and Russ Herman, state Rep. Mandie Landry and former Judge Miriam Waltzer. While working from home, Lewis has also been delivering lunches to local hospitals and seniors and volunteering at food pantries.

“As the daughter of immigrants and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I learned the importance of truly listening while translating for my relatives growing up.  Justice requires every litigant be treated with equal respect and due consideration. That is the kind of judge I will be,” Lewis said.    

Schalyece Harrison (right)

Schalyece Harrision said she is running as a self-financed independent candidate. Since the start of the pandemic, she has been volunteering at drive-thru food pantries and also delivering pre-packed meals to the elderly. A tax attorney, she has been able to advise individuals on issues related to stimulus payments and helping them navigate through the IRS’s complex website. 

“I am an administrative hearing officer for the city of New Orleans who has conducted over 3,500 fair, impartial and orderly hearings. I am the only candidate who already possesses the necessary skills and experience for the position of judge,” Harrison said.    

Serving as lead counsel in a trial this week, Aylin Acikalin was not available for an interview. According to her campaign website, Acikalin received her juris doctorate from Tulane Law School, where she specialized in environmental law and legislative advocacy.  She served as the legislative director for former Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, clerked for Judge Terri Love and worked as a legal analyst for the Bureau of Governmental Research.    

Robbins Graham did not respond to the Uptown Messenger’s request for updated information. Though Graham has campaign signs up throughout Gentilly, he received no endorsements.  Graham filed a statement of organization with the State Ethics Board but has not filed campaign finance reports as of Wednesday evening.      

PARISH COMMITTEE CAMPAIGNS MOVE TO NEW LEVEL

The sheer number of candidates running for the Democratic and Republican parish and state committees has generated an unprecedented surge of grassroots campaigning. Former Council President Stacy Head worked with media maven Cheron Brylski to create Democrats Align Today, or DAT, which mailed out a ballot to Council District B voters. Other recommended candidates on that ballot were individuals aligned with Mayor LaToya Cantrell and BOLD.  

Gentilly-based media consultant Maria Tio put together Friends of Gentilly, which selected candidates from all five City Council districts. Newcomers like Ronald Sholes Jr. and veteran politicians Cynthia Willard Lewis and Matt Willard hired Vincent Sylvain’s New Orleans Agenda to present their qualifications to voters. Former legislative candidates Kea Sherman and Carlos Zervigon are using their existing campaign databases to send email messages. 

Digital media specialist Kristine Breithaupt is relying on text messaging to reach potential voters. Republican Charles Marsala installed 30 yard signs promoting his candidacy around Lakeview. Consultants have said that philanthropist Leslie Jacobs, BOLD and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond will also issue ballots within the next week. 

Early voting continues through July 4 for the primary election on July 11. Voting takes places daily except Sundays between 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. In addition to City Hall, voters may cast their ballots at the Algiers Courthouse, the Lake Vista Community Center and the Voting Machine Warehouse on Chef Menteur Highway.          

“When we all vote, our voice is too strong to ignore,” said the organization Voice of the Experienced, or VOTE, to its members. “The more of us turn out to vote in this election, the more that candidates will be forced to listen to the community in New Orleans.  Vote early to keep you and your community safe.” 

PIERCE KELLY ANNOUNCES CANDIDACY FOR CRIMINAL DISTRICT COURT, DIVISION K

Diedre Pierce Kelly

Diedre Pierce Kelly is the first lawyer to announce her candidacy for one of the many judgeships that will be included on the Nov. 3 ballot. Pierce Kelly is seeking the open Criminal District Court Division K seat vacant due to the resignation of long-time Judge Arthur Hunter, who is expected to run for district attorney this fall.

Pierce Kelly has already amassed a campaign committee of more than 100 supporters, including a dozen-plus elected officials as well as fundraising powerhouses Rico Alvendia, Darleen Jacobs and Norma Jane Sabiston.

A graduate of Dillard University and Southern University Law Center, Pierce Kelly serves as vice chairwoman of the Alcohol Beverage Control Board and is a member of IWO, the NAACP and other organizations.  If elected, Pierce Kelly would join six other female judges already serving on the Criminal  Court bench, which could make the court majority female-run. Qualifying will take place July 22-24.

Danae Columbus

Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

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 former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman-at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at swampednola@gmail.com.

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