A few months ago, it would have been hard to imagine how Leslie Jacobs, godmother of the local charter school movement, could make herself a more controversial figure in New Orleans.
But she managed it.
By all accounts, Jacobs and the other wealthy donors behind the political action committee Not for Sale NOLA played a major role in swinging this year’s mayor’s race for LaToya Cantrell, sinking rival Desiree Charbonnet under a barrage of negative advertising.
In doing so, they thwarted a powerful faction of the city’s political establishment, which had muscled Charbonnet to the front of a crowded field with major endorsements and impressive fundraising efforts.
Jacobs and her allies also may have changed the way local elections work; PACs like the one they used have never before played such a major role in a mayor’s race.
In an interview last week, Jacobs described for the first time publicly why she got involved in the race and why the PAC pursued the strategy it did, illuminating some of the broader divisions among the city’s political camps.
To Jacobs, it seemed that the political class "had determined who was going to be the mayor of New Orleans," she said. "The PAC was formed because it was important to highlight who had recruited Desiree to run, who was in her inner circle, who would shape the way she would govern as mayor. This was information that insiders knew, but the public didn’t.”
Those members of the inner circle, the ones targeted by the PAC's advertising, were lawyer Ike Spears and bail bondsman Blair Boutte, consultants on the Charbonnet campaign who also are close political allies of U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond.
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Among insiders, the phrase “Ike and Blair” has become shorthand for the congressman’s local power base; Jacobs and like-minded figures claim that both men are in politics to steer government work toward themselves and their friends. “Their view is that elective office is about power and money and contracts,” she said.
Not everyone agrees, of course. The opposite view is that some wealthy Uptowners — Jacobs moved recently, but she did used to live in a big house on St. Charles Avenue — think every black politician is the next Bill Jefferson, the formerly imprisoned former congressman.
That, or they are at least willing to portray black politicians that way during a campaign. One PAC mailer mentioned that Charbonnet had hired Jefferson’s niece years ago.
“There were clearly racial overtones to it,” said Ron Nabonne, another of Charbonnet’s campaign consultants. “Bringing up Congressman Jefferson — it was clearly racial. Guilt by association.”
Needless to say, Jacobs disputes that. She pointed out that every other major candidate in the race also was African-American. She also tossed the same charge back at the Charbonnet camp, which late in the race put out a flyer describing Cantrell as “Straight Outta Compton.”
Nabonne insisted the reference to a famed 1980s gangsta rap album was tongue-in-cheek, meant only to emphasize that Cantrell was from out of town.
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Either way, there is more to the conflict than race. Jacobs thinks New Orleans has turned a corner in the years since Hurricane Katrina: Mayor Mitch Landrieu has taken cronyism out of city contracting, the public school system has improved, and young people have flocked here to take part in the city’s upswing.
Jacobs herself has helped shape the post-storm city as much as anyone, advocating relentlessly for the city’s new charter school system. She started a nonprofit group called 504ward with a mission of keeping young talent here.
And she has attracted a good share of criticism in turn. Her detractors see her as part of a tendency among local power brokers to prioritize newcomers and tourists. She often catches blame for the firing of thousands of public school employees after Katrina and the arrival of so many young, inexperienced teachers from around the country.
Jacobs is unapologetic about her worldview.
In the Charbonnet campaign, she saw an old-school way of doing things and of regarding outsiders. She didn't think Charbonnet, a former Municipal Court judge, would have been a major candidate without her "political family" backing her. The same campaign team had helped Charbonnet win the job of recorder of mortgages and then the judgeship. Now it was aiming at City Hall.
Jacobs had worked alongside Spears and Boutte on Paulette Irons’ failed mayoral campaign in 2002, and she didn’t like what she had learned since then about their reputation for bullying tactics.
“I feel very strongly that New Orleans is at an inflection point,” she said. “Are we moving forward or backwards? And I think those who contributed to the PAC believe pretty firmly that we need to be a city that welcomes everyone, that operates in a fair and open manner, where what you know and what you’ve done is more important than who you know and where you went to high school.”
Nabonne regards all of this as “B.S.” He argues that the self-styled reformers, Jacobs included, are hypocrites, criticizing others for wanting power while grasping for the reins themselves.
Nabonne acknowledged that he can’t prove Jacobs has benefited personally from government contracts. But he pointed out that she and her allies went after Charbonnet through a shadowy political action committee, which he argued violated the spirit if not the letter of campaign finance regulations.
Jacobs and the PAC’s other contributors, with no limits on what they could spend, knew their names would show up on campaign finance reports eventually, but for most of the primary campaign, they remained anonymous.
The PAC's first disclosure form went online just about a week before the election, showing that Jacobs and Lane Grigsby, the owner of a Baton Rouge construction company and an ally of Jacobs on school reform, had each donated $40,000. Smaller contributions came from other leaders of the local business community, including Jay Lapeyre, Boysie Bollinger and the local bank run by Gary Solomon Sr.
What Jacobs and Nabonne agree on is this: Not for Sale NOLA worked.
Charbonnet began the race with the biggest war chest by far and most of the big endorsements. By the time the primary was over, she had been knocked off that perch. And even after landing a solid punch against Cantrell over the councilwoman's questionable use of a city-funded credit card, Charbonnet couldn’t narrow the gap during the runoff campaign.
Jacobs said the PAC was effective because its claims were true. She pointed out that Charbonnet spent some $1.5 million before the primary, compared with the PAC’s roughly $200,000. She said most of the PAC'S money was spent on mailers — sent to black and white households in rough proportion to their share of registered voters — with a smaller amount spent on social media and TV ads.
“The reason the attacks were effective is because they were never answered,” she said. Charbonnet’s “camp spent time, money and energy attacking the messenger and not … the substantive issues that the PAC raised.”
In a way, Boutte actually agrees with that. In an interview, he said he argued inside the Charbonnet campaign for hitting back harder against the PAC's claims but was overruled.
He wanted to release a full list of the clients that he and Spears have worked for in the past and highlight those with credentials as outsiders and reformers. He mentioned, for instance, working with Arnie Fielkow, the former city councilman from Wisconsin who left office with a reputation for good government.
He also pointed out that none of the PAC's mailers cited any specific evidence that either man had ever won a government contract for their work on a campaign. The PAC instead used innuendo, much of it racially charged, he argued. He doesn't think it was an accident that he and Spears, both black men, ended up the targets.
"These allegations of potential corruption, of possible corruption, are just unfounded," Boutte said, still sounding frustrated that Charbonnet's camp didn't do more to counter the charges.
"They used the black bogeyman approach," he said.
Many of the PAC's more specific claims were at least technically accurate. Boutte, for instance, did spend time in prison for manslaughter, and Charbonnet did receive many donations from city contractors.
As to whether the PAC's advertising used those details to paint a misleading or unfairly negative portrait of the Charbonnet campaign, Jacobs said, “That’s for the voters to decide.”
“They sent a mailer accusing my husband and I of benefiting from (government) contracts, for which there’s not a shred of evidence because it’s never happened,” she said. “They attacked LaToya for being ‘Straight Outta Compton.' Politics is not for the faint of heart.”