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Echoes of 1994: Mintz, Marc, Mitch, and the epic fight to be mayor of New Orleans

Race-baiting, fraudulent mailers, manufactured outrage, and a controversial District Attorney were the hallmarks of another historic mayoral election in New Orleans.

With the race to succeed Mitch Landrieu coming to an end, voters are about to choose who will run the Crescent City for the next four years. The campaign between Desiree Charbonnet and LaToya Cantrell has become engulfed in allegations over credit card use, forged documents, and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. Looming large over the race is the ongoing debates over the Sewage and Water Board and the removal of confederate monuments.

But this is not, by any means, the first mayoral race in the city’s history to get bogged down in personal attacks, and it pales in comparison to the nasty contest that played out on the city’s streets in 23 years ago.

In 1994, New Orleans was struggling. Crime was at some of the highest levels in history, while the Police Department was mired in reports of corruption and abuse. At the time, the U.S. Department of Justice had an active investigation into the NOPD for civil rights violations. The Orleans Parish School System was experiencing their most significant decline ever. Meanwhile, city government was facing a $380 million dollar deficit amid an economic downturn in the oil and tourism industries. Also, the city was embroiled in a fight with Gov. Edwin Edwards and the state legislature over the establishment of a land based casino in New Orleans. Corporations were departing the Crescent City in droves, while an increasing number of citizens were leaving for suburban Jefferson and St. Tammany Parishes.

Mayor Sidney Barthelemy was term-limited after two terms in office, and the race to succeed him was the most wide open contest in years. Given the city’s problems, the Mayor’s popularity was an all-time low. Complicating matters, Barthelemy was also embroiled in a personal scandal involving the awarding of a Tulane University Legislative scholarship to his son.

The first candidate into the race was actually a hold-over from the 1990 campaign.

Donald Mintz was a successful attorney who was a leading figure in the city’s Jewish community. Mintz had served as Chairman of the Dock Board, in addition to being a prominent member of numerous civic organizations. As the only major white candidate in the 1990 race, Mintz polled well, while Barthelemy was plagued by rumors that popular former Mayor Dutch Morial would enter the race. By December of 1989, Morial would announce that he would, in fact, stay out of the race before dying suddenly of a asthma attack on Christmas Eve. With no other major challengers, Barthelemy cruised to re-election with 55% of the vote. Undeterred, Mintz spent the next three years building support and fundraising for 1994.

The second major candidate in the contest was the heir to one of the city’s most storied political families. State Sen. Marc Morial, 35, was looking to win the office his late father had held just eight years prior. In addition to wide name recognition and his father’s popularity, Marc Morial had the support of the family’s political organization, LIFE.

Originally, Dutch’s widow, Sybil Haydel Morial, a prominent figure and activist in her own right, had talked about running. Polling showed that she had a high approval rating and could even win several potential matchups. However, she ultimately decided against making the race.

Marc Morial’s first run for elected office had been in 1990, when he entered the race to succeed Lindy Boggs in the U.S. House of Representatives. Morial made it to the runoff against Bill Jefferson, a bitter contest he lost by less than 5,000 votes. Jefferson had been a onetime adversary of the Morials, having unsuccessfully challenged Dutch Morial in his bid for re-election in 1982.

Dutch, with his trademark biting humor, gave Jefferson the lasting nickname of “Dollar Bill.”

Sidney Barthelemy and Bill Jefferson.

In 1991, Marc turned around ran for the State Senate, winning the seat perviously held by Republican Ben Bagert. In the Senate, he was a prominent advocate for the city’s causes. Ignoring pundits, consultants and friends who said he was too young and inexperienced, Morial jumped into the race for Mayor.

From L-R: Rep. John Lewis, New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.

Marc Morial, however, was not the only son of a former Chief Executive looking to fill his father’s chair in 1994.

State Rep. Mitch Landrieu, the son of former Mayor “Moon” Landrieu, got into the race. It’s worth noting that at the same time, his sister Mary, then the State Treasurer, was making moves to enter the 1995 governor’s race. Mitch Landrieu had been a state legislator since 1988, winning his first race at age 27. By 1994, however, Landrieu was coming off of a failed state Constitutional Convention he had helped lead and recent fights with Gov. Edwin Edwards and his legislative leaders.

State Representative and Speaker Pro Tempore Sherman Copelin was the next candidiate in. Copelin, the son of a funeral director, had been a successful businessman in addition to running his own political organization, SOUL. He was known for his flashy suits accented with incredibly expensive jewelry and shoes. Copelin even campaigned in the improvised Lower 9th Ward from his Mercedes-Benz. However, he had seen his fair share of controversy as well.

In 1974, Copelin admitted to accepting a $50,000 bribe while working in Moon Landrieu’s administration. In 1977, his company lost their contract to provide security and janitorial services at the Superdome following numerous complaints for poor performance. In the 1990’s, Copelin and his business partner attempted to get a riverboat casino license before a State Police investigation thwarted their efforts. In 1993, Copelin’s latest venture, the Reality Drug Treatment Center was found guilty of numerous violations of Medicaid rules. He was forced to pay a $1 million fine to the Federal Government. Despite his legal troubles and a ongoing congressional investigation, Copelin still entered the race for Mayor.

Ken Carter, a parish assessor, was also a candidate (his daughter, Karen Carter Peterson, is currently a State Senator and Chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party.) As an undergraduate, Carter, a New Orleans Native, had helped integrate Loyola University. After working as a mechanic, he became a lawyer and the first African American assessor in Louisiana’s history. Prominent in Democratic politics, he was supported by the BOLD, another of the city’s numerous “Alphabet Soup” political organizations. Carter had released details position papers and plans to confront the city’s problems, but received little traction.

Rounding out the field of major candidates was City Councilman Lambert Boissiere. Boissiere had been a member of the council since 1981. In 1986, he had to fight off a challenge from Dutch Morial, looking to unseat the incumbent and join the council at the conclusion of his mayoral term. On the council, Boissiere had been an ally of Mayor Barthelemy, and in the 1994 race he was supported by the Mayor and his political organization, COUP. Many pundits believed the support of the unpopular Barthelemy, hurt, not helped Boissiere.

The 1994 Mayoral race was dominated by the issues of crime and corruption. While the city was highly polarized among racial lines, both Landrieu and Mintz enjoyed some crossover support. By virtue of being of the son of the Mayor that had integrated city government, Mitch Landrieu had some inroads in the black community. Mintz, meanwhile took painstaking efforts to brand his candidacy as a unifying force. For example, his campaign prominently featured photographs of Mintz and African-American constituents on all of their literature. In addition, Mintz gave numerous speeches calling New Orleans’ “cultural diversity” the city’s greatest asset. He pushed a platform of sweeping government reform, coupled with a commitment to economic development. Polls showed Mintz with a healthy lead, particularly among older voters, both black and white, who were skeptical of Morial and Landrieu’s youth and inexperience.

The candidates differed little on their platforms, all promising to add more police officers, streamline government services, and properly invest the annual $10 million the city was set to receive off of the newly constructed casino. Candidates blitzed the airwaves with radio and TV ads, while the various political organizations papered the city with signs and literature. Campaign expenditures reached their highest levels in history of municipal elections. Pollsters said the race most came down to personality and name recognition while commentators laughed about the prospect of the sons of two former mayors in the race.

The campaign however, was drastically changed by the events of January 31, 1994. Around 3:00 p.m. Napoleon Moses, an African American activist and a close advisor to Donald Mintz, was discovered by police with 20,000 anonymous campaign flyers. These papers, illegal under state law, launched scathing attacks against Mintz, particularly focusing on his Jewish heritage and faith. For example, one said Mintz was a “Jewish elitist,” while yet another called Judaism a “gutter-ditch religion.” Moses was attempting to spread the leaflets, allowing the Mintz campaign to launch charges of Anti-Semitism against their opponents. Further implicating the campaign, Moses, in fact, was living the candidate’s home at the time, and even driving Mintz’s car when he was apprehended. The campaign fired Moses, apologized for the incident, and the candidate claimed that he had no personal knowledge of the events.

With less than a week until the election, the rest of the field pounced on the flyers. Mitch Landrieu said the flyers were “hateful and mean-spirited,” and called on Mintz to drop out. The other major candidates were furious, and relentlessly attacked the frontrunner. Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr. vowed to launch an investigation and prosecute those responsible. The other major candidates all publicly supported Connick’s efforts. Many of Mintz’s black supporters, angered the campaign’s tactics, flocked to his opponents. On February 4th, with two days until the primary, Connick’s prosecutors indicted Moses on misdemeanor charges, calling Mintz off the campaign trail to testify before a Grand Jury.

Donald Mintz shakes hands with New Orleans Mayor Dutch Morial, father of his opponent Marc Morial.

On Election Day, February 6th, Mintz finished first with 37%, capturing 56,305 votes. He performed the strongest in the French Quarter, Uptown, the Garden District, City Park neighborhoods and parts of New Orleans East. Morial came in second with 32% of the vote, with his strongest support concentrated in the Treme, Desire, Broadmoor and Mid City neighborhoods. Landrieu came in a distant third with 10%. Copelin, Carter, and Boissiere all finished within single digits.

With a month until the runoff, and the field set between Morial and Mintz, the race became consumed with the issue of the flyers. Mintz fired back at Connick, calling him “biased” for his support of Morial, and said the prosecution of Moses was a political ploy. Meanwhile, the City Human Rights Commission launched their own investigation into the matter. Their investigators quickly found that the flyers, mailed to Jewish groups all over the country, had netted $250,000 for Mintz, nearly 1/3 of the campaign’s war chest. In addition, more anonymous literature appeared, alleging that Morial had a history of drug abuse, and had fathered illegitimate children. Disgusted by this, more locals flocked to Morial’s campaign.

To quell fears about his youth and inexperience, Morial invoked the memories of his late father as the campaign carried into the final stretch. His mother, Sybil Haydel Morial, cut an acclaimed TV spot advocating for her son’s candidacy and directly addressing the fears of older New Orleanians. Reminding voters of his father’s work and legacy in the city was central to Morial’s message, as he also continued to attack Mintz over the flyers. The dialogue got so heated that during a televised debate between the two candidates, the moderator was forced to threaten to shut off the microphones in order to prevent Mintz and Morial from interrupting each other.

Days before the election, the Human Rights Commission reported that while the flyers were produced by the Mintz campaign, they could find no evidence that the candidate himself knew about them personally, or approved of their use. However, the report could not help Mintz’s falling candidacy, and he lost to Morial on March 6th, 54-45%.

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