Michael Bagneris has won the Frank Stewart primary, and that could pay dividends for a New Orleans mayoral candidate who has lagged in the polls and in raising money.
Stewart, who built a nationwide funeral home and cemetery business that was sold in 2013, is not only supporting Bagneris but also organized a breakfast for the former judge last week with some three dozen friends and associates capable of writing big campaign checks.
“My candidate knocked the socks off all 38 people,” Stewart said Wednesday. “They all said he was so impressive that they would support him. I was overwhelmed.”
Stewart's profile in New Orleans politics got a lift earlier this year after he published full-page newspaper ads denouncing Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his decision to push for the removal of four Jim Crow-era monuments, including the statue of Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle.
Stewart’s ads generated major attention in part because he has been a longtime friend and supporter of the Landrieu family. He said he received 500 favorable comments and said many of those people could become Bagneris supporters.
“I’m supporting Michael for only one reason,” said Stewart, 81. “I want to leave to my children and grandchildren a city that they can be proud of, a city where we can have future economic success.”
Bagneris said everyone he has contacted after the breakfast — held at Heritage Plaza in Metairie — has contributed to his campaign.
“You obviously need money to promote your message,” he said. “The adage that money is the mother’s milk of politics is so true. I can be the best candidate, but the best candidate needs to get the message out so the public realizes he or she is the best candidate. You can’t get print media, billboards and TV ads for free. It all costs money, big money.”
Bagneris said he has used the recent contributions to begin rebroadcasting a 30-second biographical ad and will begin airing a second ad Friday.
Bagneris was badly trailing two other mayoral candidates — Desiree Charbonnet and LaToya Cantrell — in the amount of money raised through mid-July, when the latest campaign finance reports were filed. He also has trailed them in polls.
Desiree Charbonnet hasn't done much public campaigning in the weeks since she announced her …
Bagneris, 67, grew up in the Desire public housing project before graduating from St. Augustine High School, Yale and Tulane law school. After serving as an executive counsel to Mayor Dutch Morial, he spent 20 years as a Civil District Court judge. He resigned his position four years ago to challenge Mitch Landrieu but lost. He has worked as an attorney since then.
Besides Stewart, Jay Lapeyre, another prominent New Orleans businessman, hosted a meet-and-greet with Bagneris at his Uptown home on Aug. 3 with about 20 friends. Lapeyre said that afterward he decided to support Bagneris and contributed the maximum $5,000.
“Michael has the personal accomplishments needed to understand how important it is to create opportunities that are aspirational for other people,” said Lapeyre, who runs a major manufacturing company and has headed powerful business associations such as the Business Council of New Orleans. “You can’t think it’s just about what do we need to do to make it more comfortable. It’s about how to challenge people, especially young people.”
Neither Stewart nor Lapeyre nor Bagneris identified the other business leaders supporting him. So it’s not possible to independently verify whether the mostly white business community — which has been mostly sitting out the mayor’s race — has begun to swing behind him.
Whether business leaders would unite behind a single candidate has been a key question in the race. Unexpected support from the business community in 2002 played a key role in pushing Ray Nagin, a little-known businessman, past his rivals and into the mayor’s office.
Three businessmen — Troy Henry, who operates a variety of businesses; Frank Scurlock, who has investments; and Tommie Vassel, a certified public accountant — have been vying to win business leaders' support this year.
Stewart said Cantrell asked him for his support, and he said a major supporter of Charbonnet’s whom he would not identify asked for his endorsement on her behalf.
Cantrell, speaking through a spokeswoman, said she lost Stewart’s support because she was one of six members of the City Council who voted to remove the four monuments.
Her campaign shrugged off Stewart’s decision to rally business leaders behind Bagneris. “Her campaign has always been a campaign that reaches out to a broad base of support of diverse groups across the city. ... It’s not focused on any one group in particular,” spokeswoman Karen Carvin Shachat said.
Victoria Coulon, Charbonnet’s campaign manager, said, “We’re not concerned about donors for the other candidates. We’re just focused on getting Desiree elected as the next mayor of New Orleans.”
Stewart is passionate in his defense of the Confederate monuments removed by Landrieu and the City Council, but he and Bagneris said the candidate has made no pledges to return them. Bagneris said that would happen only if the public approved it through a citywide vote.
Asked if he made any promises to the businessmen at Stewart’s gathering, Bagneris said, “What promise would you give to any of the individuals? They are already independently wealthy. These are not contractors who need a city contract.”
Charbonnet, who had $645,000 in hand through mid-July, compared to Bagneris’ $180,000, has been criticized for taking numerous $5,000 contributions from city contractors.