The past two Orleans Parish coroner contests, having turned into dog and pony shows, illustrate why Louisianans should rethink having a plethora of parish elected executives.
Current Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rouse last month declared he would not seek reelection. But having done so about 40 days after qualifying closed, he cannot withdraw formally, so his name will appear on ballots. Rouse said he didn’t like the political aspects of the job.
The third time may be the charm to replace a state hospital operator, in a political drama B…
Interestingly, Rouse received a boost in 2013 when his former boss, Dr. Frank Minyard, withdrew shortly after qualification, early enough to remove his name from balloting. Minyard then said he ran reluctantly because another candidate qualified on the final day, apparently unaware that Rouse subsequently would jump in. Learning of Rouse's entry, Minyard exited, magnanimously praising his subordinate when others might have interpreted such a cheeky move as backstabbing.
Minyard denied coordination with Rouse, although another candidate found Minyard’s ignorance about his chief deputy’s intentions hard to swallow. Dr. Dwight McKenna, who ran against Minyard twice and would lose narrowly to Rouse, back then called the tango “a scam.”
Four years later, McKenna has refrained from such blunt commentary on Rouse’s similar maneuver, for good reason. It turns out that McKenna, who once accused Minyard’s office of abuse that “protected the guilty and disadvantaged the poor,” was the only person who signed up to run against Rouse, who endorsed McKenna after dropping out. As long as McKenna captures more votes than Rouse this fall, he will take over next year.
Maybe this will be the bullet that finally kills the zombie.
Why it took Rouse well past the withdrawal deadline to figure out that McKenna — convicted of income tax evasion in 1992 that led to suspension of his medical license —could serve the parish ably he didn’t say. Even more mysteriously, Rouse admitted that he went through a third party, McKenna ally U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, to set up a meeting with McKenna that led to Rouse's exit.
Belying the widely held belief that those with medical degrees know how to use a phone directory, Rouse explained he solicited Richmond’s intervention in part because “I didn’t even have Dwight’s number.” McKenna said Rouse told him that he wanted to spend more time on research at Tulane where he teaches.
Yet consider that this bad soap opera never would have transpired if the Louisiana Constitution did not require that each parish have an elected coroner. It also mandates that each parish elect a sheriff, assessor, and a clerk for district court (with the law giving Orleans Parish an additional clerk).
With sheriffs having considerable law enforcement duties plus acting as tax collectors, for accountability purposes electing them makes sense. But does the electorate really need to weigh in on who makes determinations of death? Or on who becomes clerk, whose only legal political function entails serving on the local elections board? And subjecting assessors to elections lets politics interfere with professionally judging property values, as keeping assessments artificially low helps them stay popular among voters. That hurts local governments depending on property tax revenues.
While advertisers and consultants who reap campaigning dollars might complain, amending the Constitution to cease electing parish assessors, clerks, and coroners would be a big step toward better government.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.