Quiet for most of 2017, the New Orleans mayor’s race is about to get shaken up.
Desiree Charbonnet, a New Orleans Municipal Court judge who has been toying with a mayoral run, will officially resign from the court Friday (April 21). The resignation is a major signal that Charbonnet will jump into the mayor’s race because judges are barred from running for non-judicial public office while continuing to serve on the bench.
Charbonnet confirmed her resignation will take effect on Friday. Her resignation was first reported by Gambit’s Clancy DuBos.
If Charbonnet announces a mayoral candidacy in the days following her judicial resignation, it’s likely to kick the mayoral race into high gear. Charbonnet’s presence will immediately begin raising questions about the dynamics of the campaign, especially how she would fare against other black candidates such as City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who announced she’s running on her website, and state Sen. Troy Carter, who has said he’s not decided on whether to run but is viewed as the candidate most likely to be backed by U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans.
The other announced black candidate is former Judge Michael Bagneris, who ran for mayor against Mayor Mitch Landrieu four years ago but didn’t force a runoff.
In many ways, Charbonnet will enter the race as an urgent threat to Cantrell: Both women check two boxes for voters who are now thinking only broadly about the election. For those who think the next mayor should be black and are excited about the possibility of the first female mayor of New Orleans, Charbonnet’s candidacy means there’s suddenly a new choice.
Charbonnet was also seen in some political circles as a backup candidate for Richmond — someone he would get behind if Carter decided not to run. Jumping into the race ahead of Carter would sweep aside some of that speculation and give her a running start ahead of Carter and increase her visibility.
There is also something of a surprise element to Charbonnet’s possible entry that is either a product of her own uncertain deliberations, or a well-crafted strategy to inject some buzz into an otherwise sleepy race. Charbonnet initially told NOLA.com |The Times-Picayune she was definitely not running for mayor because she was seeking a seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Weeks later, her stance would soften as speculation about her mayoral candidacy continued to grow.
All that aside, Charbonnet still has significant work to do if she wants to become a major player in the mayor’s race. According to campaign finance reports, Cantrell has taken the fundraising lead among the candidates who filed Monday to meet the reporting deadline for 180 days before the primary.
State Rep. Walt Leger, who has not announced a run but filed a campaign report for a “future” unnamed candidacy, shows significant behind-the-scenes work on the race. The report shows he has hired a professional fundraiser and made a February payment of $40,400 for a poll that political watchers said included expensive-to-conduct telephone interviews about possible candidates. He also paid an opposition research firm in California about $21,000.
Cantrell leads Leger in fundraising, with about $181,000 raised. Leger has raised about $96,000. Reports filed Monday showed Bagneris trails Cantrell and Leger, having raised $35,000 and loaned himself $50,000.
Despite his strategic spending, Leger has not made a big show of his intentions to run for mayor, preferring instead to focus on the legislative session underway in Baton Rouge. Leger has long been seen as one of the most able Democratic legislators in the Capitol, but that work will keep him occupied as he tries to assist a key ally — Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards — with major bills.
There were indications on Wednesday that Leger might be managing a version of the state’s construction budget the governor supports, according to LaPolitics’ Jeremy Alford. That would have pitted Leger against state Rep. Neil Abramson, with whom he has a long-running rivalry because Abramson usually manages the construction budget bill.
Alford reported later in the day that Abramson filed a bill with the governor’s proposal, but that Leger will still carry his own version of the bill. The situation underscores how Leger will be balancing the politics of Baton Rouge with his own political future in New Orleans until the session ends in June.
Any conflict that could arise will be seen as Baton Rouge politics and will not likely catch the notice of most New Orleans voters. It could also consume Leger’s time as he’s plotting a run for mayor, giving ample time to Charbonnet as she seeks to re-introduce herself to voters.
Charbonnet has been a citywide candidate for more than two decades, starting in politics at age 28 by defeating a candidate for Orleans Parish Recorder of Mortgages backed by then-mayor Marc Morial in 1998. But the two political offices she has held have been fairly low profile.
All of this makes Charbonnet a candidate who is likely to get a lot of attention for the simple fact that she just wasn’t on many people’s radar. That, combined with her record of public service rivaling that of anyone thought to be running so far, could make her a headache for other more established candidates in the months to come.