With the Dec. 11 runoff election just nine days away, the candidates and the political action committees behind them are wasting no time getting out their last-minute messages — mostly in the form of attacks. Though not officially on the ballot, the construction of an 89-bed special needs jail is at the heart of this year’s competition between Sheriff Marlin Gusman and former Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson. Gusman won 48% of the vote in the primary while Hutson ran second with 32%.
With the Sheriff’s Office still under the federal consent decree, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk’s posturing has made it clear: build a special needs jail from scratch and commit the resources to operate it or face the consequences. It’s hard to disagree in public with a federal judge. He or she has a lifetime appointment and little tolerance for the nuances of local politics. Federal judges don’t often change their minds midstream.
The city has appealed the judge’s decision. Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the current council tend to lean progressive. They are also considering the fiscal impact of the new facility. Along with city leaders, Hutson and many criminal justice reform advocates would prefer to retrofit special needs beds into the existing jail.
The proposed construction project has become the punching bag of the sheriff’s race, pitting those who are satisfied with the system that Gusman has operated — fewer inmates, new buildings, better educational and re-entry programs — versus those who are demanding a smaller, more progressive system with an emphasis on alternatives to incarceration.
Gusman’s team was probably confident that he would win in the primary. During that period, Gusman spent lots of money telling the story of his successes but failed to point out what could be considered Hutson’s liabilities. That changed in the runoff. The Nov. 3 campaign finance reports, filed before the primary election, showed Gusman with $178,292 cash on hand and Hutson with $6,869.
In the latest special report filed Nov. 29, Gusman listed donations from other local sheriffs, including Joe Lopinto of Jefferson Parish, Daniel Edwards of Tangipahoa and James Pohlman of St. Bernard. He also recently loaned his campaign $50,000. During the past few months, Hutson has loaned her campaign approximately $40,000 and most recently reported receiving $5,000 checks from two out-of-state donors.
Hutson’s strong showing on election day was guided in large part by a consistent two-pronged attack on Gusman’s record and the proposed special needs jail. A quartet of outside groups including Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, the Justice PAC, Voters Organized to Educate and the American Civil Liberties Union have taken a special interest in the election. The Prison Reform Coalition, a not-for-profit organization, has been leading the charge to retrofit existing jail space. It has been joined by a broad coalition of individuals and organizations, many of whom supported the coalition’s recent Help Not Handcuffs campaign. The group’s relationship with Mayor Cantrell and council members also grew during the Help Not Handcuffs process.
The Justice PAC shares leadership with Prison Reform Coalition: Sade Dumas, a New Orleans native from the Lower 9th Ward who has plenty of energy. The coalition touted Tuesday’s vote by the City Planning Commission to support a retrofit proposal. Last night they co-sponsored a forum in the sheriff’s race. A Gusman campaign spokesperson said they notified OPPRC more than a week out that he could not participate. Despite Gusman’s response, the group still continued to lead potential attendees to believe that both candidates would be present.
The Justice PAC has been extremely successful in raising money, reporting almost $250,000 available for the past three weeks of the campaign. Their recent big money donors include Washington, D.C.-based Sixteen Thirty Fund ($100,000), Stacy Schusterman of Tulsa, Oklahoma ($75,000), Chiu Chau of Moscow, Idaho ($35,000) and Regan Pritzker of San Francisco ($25,000). Progressive-leaning New Orleanians, including Susan Hess, Tina Freeman, Linda Usdin, Jane Johnson and Nancy Aronson, have also been lining the PAC’s coffers as of late. The Justice PAC has spent their funds on a wide variety of campaign initiatives, including television spots.
Another element in the race has been the activities conducted by Voters Organized to Educate (VOTE), the political arm of Voice of the Experienced. VOTE supported a full slate of candidates during the primary election and is still working with Hutson as well as District B Councilman Jay Banks and Council District D candidate Troy Glover, the latter two having been endorsed by Mayor Cantrell. Consultants peg VOTE expenditures in the $100,000 range; they include a television commercial that aired during the Saints-Buffalo game, radio spots on WWL, yard signs, direct mail, canvassing, door hangers and handbills, and MMS text messaging.
It’s hard to know exactly how much VOTE has raised because the group has not filed finance reports this campaign season. When the Advocate’s Matt Sledge inquired in November about their filing status, a VOTE spokesperson indicated the documents were being prepared. State ethics board administrator Kathleen Allen said Tuesday that the group had not reported any campaign activity this season.
VOTE’s lack of transparency about their own donors and expenditures hasn’t stopped a Voice of the Experienced official from circulating two analyses of Gusman’s donors and their links to Sheriff’s Office contracts.
The final and most critical piece of Hutson’s extraordinary support structure is the American Civil Liberties Union, another not-for-profit organization that claims they do not support or oppose candidates running for office. On Oct. 18, the ACLU announced the launch of a “six-figure” paid media campaign, including video ads and mailers, to “educate and mobilize” New Orleans voters in advance of the November primary.
ACLU officials said that their digital ads reached approximately 300,000 viewers. Mailers were sent to more than 50,000 voters and live calls and text messages were also part of the primary campaign package.
So far during the runoff, two carefully crafted mailers have reached voters’ mailboxes. The literature and text messages distributed during the primary included the ACLU’s national headquarters address and phone number in New York City. But the return address on the mail pieces matches that of the Louisiana ACLU. A Louisiana ACLU board member does not recall the local board voting to participate in such a campaign. It is also unknown who actually paid for the campaign. The ACLU did not respond to several requests for additional information.
Will Gusman be re-elected or will Hutson become New Orleans’ first female sheriff? Turnout will be lower than in November and could be affected by the weather on a December Saturday just two weeks before Christmas. Older and chronic voters usually make up the vast majority of participants in runoff elections.
Data analysts believe that Gusman must again win early voting by a wide margin to win. Hutson has been lifted up by groups that used to be on the fringe of politics but have moved to the mainstream. A victory or even near win by Hutson will signal the growing political strength of progressives in the New Orleans area. Whether she wins or loses, their rise to power is almost inevitable.
DO VOTERS REALLY CARE ABOUT THE OTHER RACES?
In case voters are actually interested, the Dec. 11 ballot also includes four City Council seats, the Clerk of Criminal District Court and two propositions. With the race for mayor and council at-large already completed, many voters might not be too concerned about who wins the other elections.
Clerk of First City Court Austin Badon and Clerk of Second City Court Darren Lombard are knee-deep in a slugfest to replace the retiring Arthur Morrell, Clerk of Criminal District Court and Orleans Parish Chief Elections Officer. With a paid staff of almost 90 unclassified employees and hundreds of part-time poll commissioners, more than a few jobs are on the line. The winner could easily hire dozens of inexperienced family and friends.
Although Lombard worked in the clerk’s office for eight years and touted his somewhat lengthy experience, Badon was the better known candidate and led in the primary. He has also secured the endorsement of third-place finisher Patricia Boyd-Robertson. Badon has been attacked in a series of ads tying Badon to former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and his policies. Younger women might have been turned off by Badon’s anti-abortion legislation. He has also been chastised for awarding a prestigious Tulane scholarship to a north Louisiana resident.
It is not yet know if any of those issues have resonated with voters. Badon would need a solid turnout in New Orleans East. Lombard could benefit from a big turnout in his Algiers base. He won early voting in the primary and could now have momentum. Another early voting victory could give Lombard the edge on an otherwise slow election day. Either way, honest and fair elections will continue while the clerk’s office will benefit from a fresh new perspective.
District B Councilman Jay H. Banks is still fighting in an uphill battle to keep his seat against challenger Lesli Harris. Banks’ team has criticized Harris, an entertainment lawyer who they say will approve more nightlife venues and therefore damage the district’s quality of life. The district’s demographic changes obviously benefit Harris. Many of the Black residents who were Banks’ base are gone, and she would be the first District B council member in years who does not have close ties to the BOLD political organization, a big plus for the many voters who want change. Banks is making one last push with ministers Friday morning at the historic New Zion Baptist Church. To win, Banks will need the ministers in District B singing his praises this Sunday and getting their congregants to the polls.
Freddie King III has been and is still the leading contender in the Council District C race. He has the endorsement of almost every elected official from Congressman Troy Carter to Mayor Cantrell and the funds necessary for a big GOTV push. Though candidate Stephanie Bridges is well-liked in some portions of the district and is a better vote getter than when she ran for judge last year, she lacks King’s firepower.
In Council District D, real estate broker and property manager Eugene Green is still leading the race. Green continues to promote his business skills and years of experience in government. His opponent, Troy Glover, is just the kind of fresh face younger voters can relate to. He has the endorsement of several of his previous competitors but has a lot of ground to make up. To upset Green, Glover will have to work twice as hard to turn out his vote. Glover is a comer. If he does not succeed in this election, he’s likely to win another.
Most political experts agree that Oliver Thomas, despite a 2007 bribery conviction, is likely to be the new face of Council District E. Try as she may, incumbent Cyndi Nguyen has just not been able to keep up with voters’ expectations in neighborhoods where new economic development is only a dream and Walmart is the best shopping option for food, clothing, electronics or household items. The donor community has once again embraced Thomas, which has enabled him to run a first-rate campaign. Thomas’ election would be the road map for other formerly incarcerated individuals to return to government service.
Regarding the two tax propositions, the city’s public library system has really suffered the past few years. What citizen wouldn’t want their neighborhood library to be properly funded? With the sales prices and even rents of residential properties continuing to skyrocket, the need for ongoing funding to handle housing issues is clear.
With three days of early voting still remaining, only 5,121 Orleans Parish citizens have cast their ballots either in person or by mail. To be in that number, geaux vote by 5 p.m. on Saturday (Dec. 4).
APPLICATIONS STILL AVAILABLE FOR 54TH BRYAN BELL LEADERSHIP FORUM
For more than 50 years, the Metropolitan Area Committee and the Committee for a Better New Orleans have hosted a popular leadership forum that gives participants a much broader knowledge of the people and institutions that make New Orleans a living, breathing city. Applications for the 2022 forum are being accepted for one more week. If you are ready to get involved and lead the change New Orleans needs, contact Nellie Catzen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 former 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 email@example.com.
Editor’s note: The original post of this column erroneously stated Ashley Shelton, executive director of the Power Coalition, is president of Voice of Experienced. She is a VOTE board member but not its president. In addition, the Power Coalition is based in New Orleans, not Baton Rouge. The information was removed on Dec. 4.