On the Ballot

Stephanie Grace: Criminal justice issues drive election, but results show a bigger malaise in Orleans

By Stephanie Grace

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

December 15, 2021

When Marlin Gusman was elected to the New Orleans City Council more than two decades ago, Oliver Thomas was already there. Their paths would diverge, with Gusman moving up to run the city’s jail for 17 years as sheriff and Thomas, once considered a likely future mayor, resigning in 2007 when he pleaded guilty to accepting some $18,000 in kickbacks.

In 2021, the fates of both men told us much about New Orleanians’ views on criminal justice, and perhaps even more about their satisfaction with how things are going in general.

Gusman lost his bid for re-election over the weekend, when voters citywide chose first time candidate Susan Hutson in a contest tightly focused on conditions at the Orleans Justice Center, and the fight over whether to build an additional facility for mental and physical health care functions or retrofit an existing building.

That decision is actually in the hands of the federal judge overseeing the office’s civil rights consent decree, but in the campaign it became a proxy for the ongoing, much broader conversation over the culture of incarceration. That debate hovered over the district attorney contest last year as well, and Hutson, the city’s independent police monitor, drew support from the same progressive criminal justice movement — both local and very much nationwide — that elected Jason Williams as top prosecutor.

Thomas’s comeback campaign for District E didn’t focus on criminal justice, but his easy win over incumbent Cyndi Nguyen signaled a certain public acceptance of one of the underpinnings of the cause, that people’s lives and worth aren’t defined by the worst thing they did.

So widespread support for the reform point of view is one message that came out of Saturday’s New Orleans runoff.

A stronger factor, though, was likely malaise, a distinct discontent with how things — roads, crime, the economy, what have you — are going.

If anyone represented the status quo, it was Gusman, who had many years to get things right.

So did the City Council, which is in for a pretty big shake-up. In the November primary for Williams’ former at-large seat, voters rejected District C council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer’s argument that someone with district experience should serve in at least one of the citywide posts. Instead they chose JP Morrell, a veteran of the Legislature but a council newcomer who argued for a new direction.

Two incumbent district members were forced into runoffs, and on Saturday, both went down to defeat after a single term. Jay Banks lost his District B seat to Lesli Harris, another newcomer. Nguyen lost in District E to Thomas, who actually ran on his long experience representing District B and serving as an at-large member, which made him a somewhat unusual change agent. The general rub against both incumbents was that they’ve had their chance to improve conditions and haven’t made enough progress.

So jaded was the public mood that City Council President Helena Moreno, re-elected easily in November, felt comfortable backing challengers against her endangered colleagues. That could have made for some tense moments had either or both pulled it out, but instead Moreno, who is also close to Morrell, wound up with a council stocked with allies.

That likely signals a more combative mood when it comes to the council’s interactions with Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

Cantrell was re-elected easily in November after she didn’t draw a major challenger, but voters on Saturday also gave her some indirect pushback.

Cantrell put her name behind Banks, her closest ally on the council, and Troy Glover, a newcomer who lost an incredibly tight District D contest to Eugene Green. The close rejection of a housing tax renewal is likely linked to criticism, from the Bureau of Governmental Research and even some housing advocates who backed the measure, that the administration didn’t have a clear enough plan for the money. And the easy passage of a library millage renewal stands in contrast to Cantrell’s failed push a year ago to divert some of that millage revenue to other public goals.

The mayor had much to celebrate when she took 65% of the vote last month, but there were already signs that day that all was not fine in the minds of many voters.

If anyone missed that message in November, they can’t help but get it now.

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