It’s just a few weeks until the field for the 2017 New Orleans mayor’s race will be set, and many of those watching the race develop still seem to be holding their breath.
Political observers, pundits, donors and the general public are looking at a field with three major candidates and a handful of less well-known names, waiting for it to expand.
It’s an unusual situation for a city where mayor’s races — particularly those without an incumbent — typically draw a crowd and especially so in a year when a dozen high-profile names have been bandied about and no one appears to have opened up a commanding lead.
There’s no clear reason why an open seat in the city’s top job isn’t grabbing more interest from big-name candidates, though a lack of money or commitment from potential supporters looking for a wider field may play a role. And while late entries who go on to victory have become a New Orleans tradition recently, there are few indications of who such a candidate might be this year.
As it stands, only three well-known figures have begun campaigning to replace Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who cannot run again because of term limits. They are former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet. There also are lesser-known candidates such as businessman Frank Scurlock and registered nurse Ed Bruski.
That’s a sharp departure from recent cycles that have seen candidates pile on for a chance to run for mayor without facing an incumbent.
Landrieu bested a field of 11 in 2010, and that was after his late entry caused a few other players to drop out. Before him, former Mayor Ray Nagin faced off against 14 candidates when he first ran in 2002, including Police Superintendent Richard Pennington, City Council members and judges.
(A change in the election schedule has advanced the date of the voting this time to late 2017 rather than early 2018.)
The relative lack of interest has many scratching their heads.
“It’s too early too tell, but it also demonstrates it’s a difficult job and it’s expensive to run,” said former Mayor Marc Morial, whose first mayoral win in 1994 came over a field of nine other candidates. “But I’m surprised more people wouldn’t take a shot and try to run because it’s a wide open race.”
What started as a potentially crowded field at the beginning of the year has been whittled down, as various candidates who have toyed with the idea or been seen as likely contenders have chosen to take a pass. With the qualifying period, which runs from July 12 to 14, rapidly approaching, it remains to be seen whether anyone else decides to run.
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“I assume there are other candidates out there waiting and seeing how this develops,” said Ed Chervenak, head of the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center. “The last couple of cycles latecomers did fairly well. You shake up the race, you get in and all of a sudden you get all this attention and hopefully you carry that momentum into the election.”
Late entrant possible
In recent years, New Orleans has rewarded late entrants. The last three times the seat was open, a candidate who jumped in shortly before qualifying blew past already-established major candidates.
Three potential candidates in particular stand out as possible late entries: state Rep. Walt Leger III, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson and businessman and reality-TV host Sidney Torres IV.
“All three of them could be serious candidates. All three of them would have money,” pollster and political analyst Ron Faucheux said. “If one of these candidates feels like there’s an opportunity and a niche, they’ll jump in.”
Leger has long been seen as a likely candidate, and he began laying the groundwork earlier this year by putting together a campaign apparatus. That effort later was spun down, but Leger is seen as still weighing his options in the race.
Peterson would also likely be able to pull together a campaign quickly. While it had been speculated that her positions as chair of the state Democratic Party and vice chair of civic engagement and voter participation for the Democratic National Committee might keep her out of the race, her name is consistently mentioned when the election comes up.
Leger and Peterson did not respond to requests for comment in recent days.
Torres, who rose to fame running the garbage collection company that cleaned the French Quarter for a few years after Hurricane Katrina, said he’s still mulling a run. And a new poll suggests he could be a strong contender.
A survey by pollster Verne Kennedy, which was conducted for an unnamed businessman, found Torres would be statistically tied with Cantrell for first if he were the only additional entrant to the current field.
About 23 percent of the 600 people surveyed for the poll, which has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, said they would vote for Cantrell, 21 percent for Torres, 16 percent for Charbonnet, 6 percent for Bagneris and 2 percent for Scurlock, with 32 percent of the respondents undecided.
Torres said “my head and my heart” say he should get into the race, but he added that “my gut is not sure” and reiterated that he would likely not decide until an hour before qualifying closes.
“It’s a personal decision. The polls show that I have a great chance of winning,” Torres said. “Obviously, if I’m going to do it, I want to win it. But I’m not doing it to win it. I’m doing it to fix the city because the city is broken, and you need someone who can fix it.”
Whether or not any new candidates get in, it remains unclear why the field hasn’t grown.
In part, the answer may come down to money, or lack of it, at least for certain candidates.
There’s a general consensus that the big donors who can usually be relied on to help fund serious campaigns have been more tight-fisted this year than normal. Some of that may be fatigue after three solid years of expensive races for governor, both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and the presidency.
“I find a lot of people who are contributors seem to be holding back. They don’t seem to think that anyone’s a sure thing,” Faucheux said. That, combined with a renewed sense of the importance of the mayor’s office, may be making potential backers look more critically and skeptically at the candidates in the race, he said.
In some ways, that creates a chicken-and-egg problem. Candidates don’t want to get into the race if they won’t get the financial backing they need, but donors are hesitant to give without knowing who else would be in the race.
But the money problem does not appear to be universal.
Charbonnet’s campaign announced Friday that it has raised $650,000 since she jumped into the race last month and aims to add another $100,000 to that haul by early July, the next deadline for filing campaign finance reports.
There’s no indication any of the other campaigns have come close to those totals. When the last finance reports were filed in the spring, Cantrell, who was sitting on the largest war chest, had just $254,000.
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But the really big money may not have started to flow.
Many members of the business community, who usually can be counted on to provide significant funds and rally behind their preferred candidates, are being told not to take out their wallets yet. Instead, groups like the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region are urging their members to wait until the release of a new document by Forward New Orleans, a coalition of civic groups and business leaders, that weighs in on city policy.
The coalition normally asks candidates to commit to implementing a long list of goals it sets forth.
“We’re encouraging business community members to hold back to see how this develops and who is committed to the set of issues we put forward,” said businessman Gregory Rusovich, who leads the group.
“From our perspective, we are really laser-focused on the issues. We believe if the candidate is elected and they’re a competent candidate and they follow the mandates put forward by the community, they’ll have success,” Rusovich said.
That would push back a lot of the major contributions until after the race is set during qualifying.
The dearth of candidates may also be a reflection of a political environment that has become less factional. Efforts have been underway to unify various African-American political groups in the city behind a single candidate, a process that appears to be benefiting Charbonnet and, at the same time, providing fewer bases of support for other contenders.
Some political players and business owners with city contracts, usually another reliable source of donations and support, are looking to back the winner, which again serves to shrink the field, former City Councilman Oliver Thomas said.
With a small field and no overwhelming front-runner, Thomas said there could be a chance for someone with a strong platform to get in and catch fire with a grass-roots base.
On the other side of the coin, Landrieu’s dominance of city politics over the past seven years has kept others from raising their profiles, as “other voices have been pushed behind his,” Thomas said.
“You don’t have enough voices out there to match the mayor in terms of tone, in terms of vision,” Thomas said.
Landrieu himself does not appear to have been actively grooming a favored successor or to be backing a particular candidate at this point, though Leger’s campaign team was largely made up of consultants connected to the mayor and his family.
Whatever the size of the field, Morial said the stakes in the election are so high that candidates need to be pressed on their vision for the city for the next 10 to 15 years and their plans for rebuilding the Police Department and dealing with inequality and poverty.
“You have to want to do the job,” Morial said. “Its not a ceremonial job. It requires a tremendous amount of time, effort and sacrifice. If you can’t overcome that gut check, you shouldn’t do it.”