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The B-List

Peter Athas is uninspired by the first-string candidates in New Orleans’ mayoral race.

I hadn’t planned to go so long between columns on the New Orleans Mayors race. The reason why I did should be obvious: the field of candidates is both weak and uninspiring. There are three kinda, sorta frontrunners, LaToya Cantrell, Desiree Charbonnet, and Michael Bagneris, but they’re not making anyone’s heart skip a beat. As I pointed out last time, New Orleans politics is typically more entertaining than this, especially when there’s no incumbent Mayor on the ballot. The 2017 race appears to be flatlining under the weight of listless B-List candidates.

I’m approaching this column as a pundit who is also an Orleans parish voter. I’m a liberal Democrat, but most municipal issues have nothing to do with ideology. There’s no liberal or conservative way to fix potholes, collect trash, or rebuild the Sewerage and Water Board. What I look for in a Mayoral candidate is experience and temperament.  

Back to the 2017 candidates themselves. Unfortunately, Cantrell, Charbonnet, and Bagneris are B-Listers and the campaign is defined by those who did not run: Stacy Head, Walt Leger, Karen Carter Peterson, and Sidney (Trashanova) Torres among others. The first three belong on the A-list of local politics whereas the current field ranges from the B-to the Z-list. Z is for zany and includes perennial candidate Manny (A Troubled Man for Troubled Times) Chevrolet as well as political newcomer Frank Scurlock. The latter at least has a pulse, even if his ideas are flakier than a dried-out Zulu coconut. The so-called Big Three are trying and failing to make waves; flailing is more like it.

Love her or hate her (I’m somewhere in between) Stacy Head is never boring. If she had run, we’d be talking about her latest exaggeration or overstatement. As a satirist at heart, I’m also sorry that Torres declined to throw his man bun into the ring. Without these vivid personalities, I’m not hearing much chatter about the race even though the primary is not far off. Oddly enough, LaToya Cantrell has been a quotable council member but she’s playing it safe thus far. I guess she’s counting on her potentially potent ground game and the presence of Karen Carvin Shachat on her team. Her father, the late Jim Carvin,was the king of New Orleans political consulting and his candidates never lost a Mayoral race. Of course, he gave us C. Ray Nagin, so that’s a mixed blessing at best.

Desiree Charbonnet is running as an “innovator,” whatever the hell that means. She is surrounded by old school New Orleans machine politicians and handlers including her brother Bernard, who is better known as Bunny. Bunny Charbonnet is a polarizing figure in local politics and there are many who do not want him to be the power behind the throne.  In my opinion, the Bunny Factor is the main reason for the anti-Charbonnet attack flyer and web site.

Another disturbing thing about the Charbonnet campaign is that most of its donors are people who do, or want to do, business with city government. It’s not illegal, but it makes it harder for her to pass the smell test when she claims to be a “reformer” and an “innovator.” Those are themes we heard from C. Ray, who ran as a “reformer” before ending up in jail on corruption charges. I am always mistrustful of Louisiana politicians who claim to be reformers. Remember “conservative reformer” David Vitter?

The third “major” candidate is former Judge Michael Bagneris, who seems to view the position of Mayor as a reward for years of public service. His television ads survey his résumé, which is superficially impressive. However, I know lawyers who have practiced before him and describe him as an unimpressive figure known for his good-natured demeanor, not his intelligence. One friend told me that he was “affable but dim.” That might be an improvement in temperament from the incumbent who was once called “a productive asshole” by one of his supporters. Nevertheless, it’s unclear how productive he’ll be if elected. I’m all in favor of giving him a gold watch and sending him to a well-deserved retirement.

Both Charbonnet and Bagneris are competing for what is best described as the Lakeview/Chamber of Commerce Republican vote. Charbonnet has a crime plan that appeals to that crowd but she’s vague as to how to pay for it. The most sinister part of her plan is the proposal to suspend the consent decree that was imposed by the Obama-Holder Justice Department to reign in our previously out of control police department. It’s an idea that should give anyone on the center-left pause about supporting her. It’s one reason that I shall not be voting for her. That and the Bunny factor. I’m not hopping mad about it, but I’m not a fan of family dynasties in New Orleans politics.

Bagneris was the winner of the so-called Frank Stewart primary. Stewart is the rich white dude who took out full-page print ads denouncing Mayor Landrieu for his position on the white supremacy monuments. Stewart wanted them to remain in place. Bagneris appears to have done a good job whispering in his ear and convincing him that he’s a “moderate” while simultaneously telling members of the black community that he’s with them on this divisive issue. This is a problem for the former jurist: there’s no pro-monument sentiment among African-Americans. Winning the Frank Stewart primary could turn out to be a loser for Bagneris. He lost my vote because the monuments issue is an exception to my rule about ideology and municipal politics. I’m glad that they’re gone, as are most liberal New Orleanians.

The candidate I wanted to vote for in the primary is LaToya Cantrell. I live in District B so she’s my council member. On balance, she’s been a good and responsive council person. Our paths have crossed over the years since we were both involved in the neighborhood association world after Katrina and the Federal Flood. I cannot say that I know her personally (I doubt that she remembers my name) but what I know, I’m inclined to like, including her blunt and often salty speaking style.

The problem I have with LaToya is her position on short-term rentals, hereinafter STRs. I’m not a fan and don’t want them spreading throughout the city. Cantrell takes a more expansive view on the issue. So expansive that her intervention on behalf of an Uptown STR owner alarmed even Stacy Head, who is pro-STR: 

City Councilwoman Stacy Head said the request on Laurel Street, particularly, takes two housing units off the long-term rental market and converts them into tourist housing. Head said she supported the legalization of short-term rentals in commercial areas, but did not intend to convert residential neighborhoods to commercial zoning to allow them to proliferate.

“This seems to be in conflict with your cry for more affordable housing,” Head said to Cantrell. She explained later, “I do not believe we should allow the creeping into neighborhoods that are otherwise residential by changing the zoning to commercial.”

The short-term rental issue should not be blamed for the city’s lack of affordable housing, Cantrell shot back. That, she said, was the result of intentional efforts by city leaders after Hurricane Katrina.”

For one thing, I dislike the City Council overruling the Planning Commission. For another, STRs are a pox on our city and should be either rare or non-existent. They’ve reduced affordable housing stock and accelerated the trend towards higher rents. Cantrell’s ardent support of them is why I won’t be voting for her in the primary.

I have never previously been a single-issue voter. I rarely vote for a candidate, especially for an executive office, whom I do not think can win. I am on the horns of a dilemma this election year, and it hurts like hell. I am dissatisfied with my choices in the primary. Of the two other candidates who are well-funded, Frank Scurlock is a nut and Troy Henry wants to run government like a business. We saw how that turned out when Nagin was Mayor. And neither Scurlock, a.k.a. The Top Hat guy, nor Henry can win.

I have decided to vote for my friend Edward Bruski in the primary. I know Ed from our Krewe du Vieux sub-krewe, Spank. He’s an honest, sincerely motivated man who brings a lot to the table in addition to his exuberant facial hair.

If she makes the run-off, I will affix a clothespin to my nose and vote for the candidate I initially wanted to vote for in the primary, LaToya Cantrell. Despite my serious difference with her on the STR issue, I think she’s less likely to turn City Hall over to big donors than either of her opponents. It’s not the most glowing endorsement, but it’s all I got. It’s what happens when all of your choices are on the B-List.

 

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