The last time New Orleans held a mayoral election that featured neither an incumbent nor an overwhelming favorite, the field was big and brawling.
The year was 2002, and Marc Morial was preparing to leave office after losing a referendum that would have allowed him to seek a third term. The candidates to replace him included some of the city’s best-known politicians and officials at the time — veteran city councilmen Jim Singleton and Troy Carter, popular police superintendent Richard Pennington, state Sen. Paulette Irons — all of whom fell to a little-known businessman named Ray Nagin.
Nearly 16 years later, another politically dominant mayor, Mitch Landrieu, is reaching his two-term limit. But unlike 2002, when all sorts of ambitious politicians were waiting in the wings, the field that’s taking shape is looking to be relatively small and pretty low profile.
Two experienced politicians have announced, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and retired Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris. Another, former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet, is expected to make her run official Monday. Businessman Frank Scurlock, best known for seeking to redevelop the Jazzland theme park and getting arrested at the site of the now-removed Jefferson Davis monument, also says he’s running.
And while several well-known figures haven’t officially taken themselves out of contention, none appear to be actively building campaigns at this point, and political insiders are starting to wonder whether this is it.
Let’s say, theoretically, that it is. What sort of race would be looking at?
For one thing, the candidates will be spending more time than usual simply introducing themselves.
Bagneris ran against Landrieu for re-election, although his campaign focused far more on Landrieu than on himself. And as former judges, both he and Charbonnet have been elected citywide. But face it, most voters don’t see judges in action or have any idea what they think of the major issues facing City Hall.
Cantrell, meanwhile, has represented District B, which includes the Central Business District, Warehouse District, Garden District and part of Uptown, since 2012, but she’s never gone before voters citywide. So while she has a voting record and a history of outspokenness, many voters have only watched her from a distance too.
Another potentially intriguing dynamic is the prominence of women in the field. Louisiana has several female mayors, including in Baton Rouge and Shreveport, and has elected a woman governor. But New Orleans hasn’t seen a major female candidate since Irons ran, and now it could be looking at two.
Then, there’s the fact that Landrieu still towers over the landscape, and given both his political dominance and a quirk in the electoral calendar, he will for months to come.
Landrieu was re-elected in early 2014 to a second four-year term, but in the interim, state lawmakers changed the schedule for municipal elections from spring to fall. So even though Landrieu’s successor will be elected in November if there’s a runoff, and October in the unlikely chance that there’s not, Landrieu will still be mayor until next May. And he’s not exactly the type to step into the background, particularly since he’ll be serving during that period as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Another shoe or two could still drop before qualifying closes in mid-July. Other possible candidates include state Rep. Walt Leger, who has spent a nice chunk of change on research but has been quiet about his plans lately, state Sen. J.P. Morrell and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson. Businessman and reality TV star Sidney Torres has talked about getting in too, but he, doesn’t appear to be actively building a campaign at this point.
That doesn’t mean a delayed entry couldn’t still shake things up. New Orleans races have a history of that; Morial, Nagin and Landrieu all won their first terms after having jumped in late in the game. As Nagin’s election back in 2002 proved, you really never know until the campaign kicks off.