Jeffrey Rouse served New Orleans well as coroner. During his single term in office, the psychiatrist modernized the office, improved transparency in cases involving deaths in police custody, secured more funding from the city and worked to bring family members of homicide victims more closely into the process.
If only he'd continued serving his constituents until the end.
Rouse dropped a bombshell late last week when he essentially ended his campaign for reelection, less than two months before the Oct. 14 primary. He didn't officially drop out, because he made the decision too late to have his name removed from the ballot.
But he did basically preclude a competitive election, and all but hand the office over to his lone, problematic challenger. Dwight McKenna, a surgeon, perennial candidate for the job and onetime Orleans Parish School Board member, had to leave that post when he was convicted of tax evasion.
Rouse could still collect more votes, in which case he'd likely resign and force a special election. But he's not asking his supporters to rally on his behalf.
In fact, in a strange written statement issued Thursday, he basically endorsed McKenna and congratulated him on his "persistence" and on "becoming the first African-American coroner for our great city."
In the statement, Rouse explained that he wanted to refocus his energies on tackling the city's mental health challenges. Others close to him said that he detested the politicking that goes with campaigning for office.
"I'm not necessarily the guy who's going to be at every ribbon cutting and fundraiser and bouncing around town to shake hands," Rouse once told Gambit. "That's some of the stuff you have to do to get elected. I'm operating out of the assumption, somewhat naively, that if you apply yourself to your job, you do good work, you put in good policies that make people believe in the office ... you connect with the families and bring your integrity to the game, that goes a long way in the politics of it."
Associates also say he struggled to deal with the sobering aspects of the job, in which he regularly dealt with end results of violence, drug abuse and tragic accidents.
But Rouse did not explain the stunning timing of his decision, nor why he went ahead and "reluctantly" signed up for reelection in July.
In a move that stunned the city's political community, Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Ro…
If he knew then that he didn't want another term, he could have said so, given other potential candidates who might have backed him the chance to run for an unexpectedly open seat, and given his supporters the opportunity to get behind a like-minded replacement.
In his statement, Rouse insisted that McKenna, whom he defeated four years ago and who previously ran against Rouse's onetime boss, longtime coroner Frank Minyard, is that guy. He said he's comfortable that McKenna will stay the course and suggested a smooth transition is already underway.
"I have sat with Dr. McKenna for an extended time, and I am convinced that his plan for a more public role for the Coroner’s office in health education and violence prevention is the logical next step for the evolution of this office, now that a strong team is in place and internal processes here have been updated," Rouse wrote. "In the remaining months of my term, I shall share with Dr. McKenna the many facets of this complicated job, as one physician transferring the care of a patient to a colleague."
Whether to back his opponent, of course, is his decision to make. The problem here is that he essentially made it for everyone else.
I'm pretty sure that's not how elections are supposed to work.