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Peter Athas: An Uncanny Mess

I’ve spent most of the fall saying that the 2017 mayoral campaign is a snooze fest. What a difference a week makes. Team Charbonnet has given the proceedings a jolt equivalent to a double espresso without any froth, foam, or icky sweeteners. Who needs sugar when you’ve drawn blood? I should apologize for the mixed metaphor, but I like it, so I won’t.

Due to technical issues, this commentary was not published until a few days after it had been scheduled. 

I’ve spent most of the fall saying that the 2017 mayoral campaign is a snooze fest. What a difference a week makes. Team Charbonnet has given the proceedings a jolt equivalent to a double espresso without any froth, foam, or icky sweeteners. Who needs sugar when you’ve drawn blood? I should apologize for the mixed metaphor, but I like it, so I won’t.

I wish I could say the jolt of energy is due to policy or endorsements but it’s down to good old-fashioned mudslinging, which is a staple of New Orleans politics. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Desiree Charbonnet’s minions did some digging and came up with oppo gold. City Councilmembers receive city credit cards and are not required to document their spending. A bad idea made worse by the fact that LaToya Cantrell is fond of using hers, racking up a total of $40,000 in charges during her tenure on the council. She has reimbursed some $8950 to the city including $4400 before the 2017 filing deadline for the mayoral contest.

Cantrell, of course, maintains that her card usage is proper but Charbonnet loudly hints at illegality. Thus far, Cantrell’s defense is murky, full of talk of gray areas and lawyerly technicalities. The reason this attack has struck gold is that Cantrell has been sloppy with her own money in the past and people are worried that she’ll treat public money as cavalierly. It is also disturbing because the median income in New Orleans is $36, 952 and council members make $90,461. Some undecided voters of my acquaintance have asked why she doesn’t use her own money instead of borrowing from taxpayers. It’s a valid point that might swing some votes Charbonnet’s way.

The controversy exploded when Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro (hereinafter Canny) got involved. Canny is a staunch Charbonnet supporter who employs the candidate’s brother Bernard aka Bunny as a civil contact lawyer. A spokesman for the DA made the uncanny claim that the office received “an anonymous complaint” about Cantrell’s spendthrift ways. Canny’s office then tossed this political hot potato into the lap of state Attorney General and ardent teabagger, Jeff Landry.

Canny’s support is one reason that Charbonnet has been dubbed the establishment candidate. His endorsement is of dubious value in many quarters. He’s a notoriously hardline, tough on crime District Attorney with the demeanor of an irritable undertaker and the strange uncharm of a grim Dickensian authority figure such as Mr. Murdstone. I had dealings with Canny when he was a criminal court judge and I was lawyering. He was arrogant, biased, rude, and dismissive. His success in electoral politics has always been a mystery to me but some people confuse assholery with strength. The Current Occupant of the White House is the best example I can think of. At least Canny has better hair.

Canny’s office has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. They stand accused of coercing witnesses to testify and issuing fake subpoenas to enforce their will. Canny has an authoritarian personality and is absolutely convinced of his own rectitude. In some ways, he reminds me of former FBI Director James Comey who intervened decisively in the 2016 Presidential election. But Canny lacks Comey’s folksy charm and any semblance of a personality. He would have made a helluva hangman. He was a hanging judge back in the day, after all.

While Canny’s referral of the Cantrell matter was encouraged by Team Charbonnet, he’s not their errand boy. Canny issues orders, he doesn’t take them. He’s convinced himself that, as in all other things, that he’s not only right but morally superior to his adversaries. He even hired legal ethics maven, Gray Sexton, to support his referral but cannily did not ask Sexton to comment on the propriety of the public revelation thereof. Canny can be crafty too.

It’s unclear how this uncanny mess will play out in the court of public opinion. Team Cantrell is firing back with accusations of improper spending by Charbonnet when she was a minor judge on a minor court. It strikes me as blowing smoke since Charbonnet had to completely refurnish an office that was flooded in 2005. There’s another, potentially more troublesome charge that Charbonnet misused her Homestead Exemption. This hot potato has also landed in Canny’s lap via “anonymous complaint.” It’s uncertain if this potato is fully baked.

I have some unsolicited advice for LaToya Cantrell. It would be better if she would show some humility and admit to making mistakes. She should resume her legislative role and propose changes to the way the council handles city credit cards. Documentation should always be required when spending public money. I would also like to know how other council members use their city credit cards, especially District E’s James Gray. Gray was Dollar Bill Jefferson’s law partner back in the day, and more importantly, was suspended by the Louisiana Bar Association for misusing client funds. I hope Cyndi Nguyen’s people do some oppo of their own. They could strike gray gold.

The response of supporters of both candidates to this uncanny mess is depressing. It replicates the polarized nature of our national politics. There are some Charbonnet people on my social media feeds who compare Cantrell supporters to Trumpers who turn a blind eye to his malefactions. It’s specious and repulsive BUT both sides believe they’re morally superior to the other. Canny’s heavy-handed intervention has confirmed Cantrell supporters’ opinion that Charbonnet is a terrible person who is guilty, if of nothing else, of being a machine politician. I think that Charbonnet’s attempt to woo white conservative voters is doomed to fail. The Charbonnet brand means “corruption” to people in Lakeview and the Garden District. They didn’t support her in the primary and they’re unlikely to do so in the run-off. The key is the response of younger voters and transplants. They don’t care that the Charbonnets are linked to Sidney Bathelemy and other bete noirs of Lakeview voters.

My hunch is that the uncanny mess caused by Canny’s enhanced profile in the campaign is going to be a push, unless, that is, Jeff Landry’s office acts on the Cantrell referral. I don’t think there’s enough time for that and Landry might like having a New Orleans mayor who owes him a favor. There’s a price for everything in Louisiana politics.  More importantly, Cantrell’s free-spending ways may be sleazy but do not appear to be illegal, which means charges are unlikely. Cantrell’s counterattack on Canny was an ethics complaint but that’s also unlikely to turn into anything major. Canny knows how to cover his ass. Besides, he looks in the mirror and sees the most ethical man in New Orleans politics. Admittedly, the competition isn’t stiff.

The most likely result of the LaToya-Desiree mud bath is an apathetic electorate that dislikes both candidates. That’s a minor triumph for Charbonnet since she finished 9 points behind Cantrell in the primary. Anything that slows Cantrell’s momentum is good for Charbonnet. I’m just not sure if it will be enough absent further developments.

As to myself, I’m supporting neither candidate. I have issues with both. I’m not a fan of the baggage Charbonnet would bring to the Mayor’s office: a friend of mine calls her “Sidney in a skirt” because of her ties to former Mayor Barthelemy. Cantrell is more like a less polished Marc Morial, which is meant as a compliment. She is one tough cookie. One might even call her a cookie laced with Tabasco. I plan to affix a close-pin to my nose and vote for Cantrell. I suspect the turn-out will be dismal, which benefits the candidate with the best GOTV operation. My money is on Team Cantrell and its digitally based Obama-style operation.

I suppose I should thank Canny for making the race more interesting. I hope his campaign for a third term in 2020 is equally interesting and features a rematch with one of his 2008 primary foes, Councilman-at-large Jason Williams. Jason was a bit wet behind the ears in ’08 but is now a proven vote-getter.  Run, Jason, run.

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