Runoff elections have a way of making candidates focus on their opponent, and the race for the Division O seat on the 24th Judicial District Court in Jefferson Parish is no exception.
After voters whittled the field of four down to two in the Nov. 4 primary, Westwego family lawyer Danyelle Taylor and Thomas Anzelmo Jr., an appointed magistrate judge in Harahan, quickly began drawing finer distinctions between themselves and their opponent, primarily when it comes to their experience and their ties to the West Bank district they hope to represent.
The two are running Dec. 6 to fill the spot on the bench vacated by Judge Ross LaDart, who was one of two judges on the 24th JDC bench forced to retire this year after reaching the mandatory age limit for judges.
Taylor got 34 percent of the roughly 33,000 ballots cast in the primary to Anzelmo’s 28 percent. Both are Republicans.
Taylor, 46, ran for the Division C seat in 2012 and has the support of the political establishment in Westwego, notably Police Chief Dwayne “Pancho” Munch, who is chairman of her campaign committee. She was the only candidate in the primary to win more than 50 percent of the votes in any precinct, and she showed strong support in the western portion of the district.
She led the field despite being outspent by Anzelmo, $107,643 to $68,341, according to state campaign finance reports.
Taylor attributed her success to her roots in the district. She was born and raised in Westwego and has practiced law there since 1996. She said she’s built relationships not only with her clients and colleagues, but through her community involvement.
“Unlike the other candidates, I had a lot of ties with this community,” she said. “It’s important to me.”
Anzelmo, 43, has served as a magistrate on the East Bank since 2009 but has lived in Marrero for a dozen years, or “long enough that my East Bank friends call me a West Banker and my West Bank friends call me a West Banker.”
Anzelmo, a third-generation attorney who clerked for 24th JDC Judge Henry Sullivan in 1999 and 2000, ran on that experience, and he said voters’ decision to put him in the runoff shows him that his message resonated.
“It energized me and my campaign,” he said. “There is a lot more to do, but we know the way that we (campaigned) was good.”
Neither candidate has experience in criminal law, though they said they are quick studies who can learn to apply the criminal code, and each candidate’s take on the other’s civil experience finds it lacking.
Anzelmo has said that with a practice primarily focused on family law, Taylor doesn’t have enough experience before district judges because the 24th JDC has a commissioners’ court to handle family matters.
“I just think that I have a vastly broader knowledge of the cases typically heard in a district court than my opponent, who has just handled domestic (cases),” he said.
Taylor, however, called that claim inaccurate on several levels. She said it ignores the fact that she’s practiced law in eight other districts that don’t use the commissioners’ court, and that even in Jefferson Parish, the commissioners’ court hears only certain aspects of family law cases and much of the work does, in fact, go before the regular judges.
She said that experience, along with the cases she’s argued at the appellate level and one before the Louisiana Supreme Court, easily outstrips the record of her opponent, who has no jury trial experience.
“At the end of the day, it’s a matter of who has the skill set (for the job),” she said. “I have tried cases in District Court. I don’t know if my opponent can say that.”
Voter turnout in the primary was 36 percent of eligible voters. West Bank trial attorney Frank Buck and John Sudderth, a lawyer with the state Attorney General’s Office, finished third and fourth, with 22 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.