Dwight McKenna, Facebook Live interview

Dr. Dwight McKenna in a Facebook Live interview on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017

Dr. Dwight McKenna, the only candidate campaigning to be New Orleans' next coroner, said this week that U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond helped broker a meeting between McKenna and incumbent Dr. Jeffrey Rouse that preceded Rouse's sudden announcement that he wouldn't seek a second term.

Rouse's surprise exit came more than a month after the election's qualifying period ended, leaving no opportunity for other challengers to jump into the race.

Rouse, 43, went so far as to endorse his sole rival and congratulate him in a statement on becoming the city's first African-American coroner.

In some of his first public comments since Rouse said he was dropping out — made in a Facebook Live interview conducted Tuesday by the New Orleans Tribune newspaper, which his family owns — McKenna thrust Richmond for the first time into the center of the events leading up to Rouse's withdrawal.

Without elaborating, McKenna, 75, indicated that he met with Rouse at Richmond's request to discuss Rouse's intention "to get out of the race." They met over breakfast at Le Pavillon Hotel.

In what he called "a very pleasant conversation," McKenna said Rouse explained his duties as coroner were taking away from his psychiatry practice; that he had research he wanted to do at Tulane University, where he teaches; and that he loathed politics.

"I said, 'You're saying I don't have to campaign?' And he says, 'Exactly. I'm getting out of the race.' "

McKenna continued, "The only thing I said is, 'That's your choice. It would certainly save me a lot of energy if you get out. I don't have to work as hard.' "

McKenna said he and Rouse spoke at least once more over the phone before the latter's Aug. 24 announcement.

McKenna hasn't answered messages seeking further comment, and Richmond's office on Wednesday didn't respond to a request for comment on McKenna's remarks.

Rouse, meanwhile, issued a statement Wednesday saying he regretted not making the "difficult decision" to withdraw from the coroner's race ahead of qualifying. His statement didn't mention Richmond, one of the most influential figures in New Orleans politics.

Much of McKenna's campaign since late last month has focused on reminding supporters that they must still help him get more than half of the votes cast Oct. 14 if they want him to succeed Rouse.

If not, Rouse would be elected and would need to resign to avoid serving a second term starting in May, leaving his chief deputy as interim coroner and necessitating a special election for the post later on.

Both in the Facebook interview and a separate online advertisement, McKenna has suggested that some people in New Orleans want to deny a black man the chance to be coroner.

It is not clear if McKenna anticipates an organized effort to re-elect Rouse — who is white — against his wishes. So far, McKenna's candidacy has drawn some questions in the media, but there's been no overt campaign to deny him office.

He would be the first local politician in recent memory to be elected after serving time in prison for a felony, having been forced off the Orleans Parish School Board in 1992 when he was convicted in federal court of tax evasion.

"McKenna ... will always be best known as a tax cheat," The Advocate's James Gill wrote earlier this month.

The Times-Picayune's Tim Morris wrote a column titled, "Vote for the quitter. It's important."

That was a nod to the legendary campaign slogan "Vote for the crook. It's important," used by some supporters of Edwin Edwards during his 1991 gubernatorial race against former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, years before Edwards himself — though long the target of allegations of wrongdoing — was convicted of federal corruption charges.

McKenna's interview with the Tribune, a monthly newspaper primarily focused on the African-American community, didn't touch on his conviction. But he told his interviewer that his experience as a surgeon and his familiarity with trauma qualify him to be coroner, whose best-known function is to diagnose how people died, especially in accidents or cases of violence. 

Rouse took office in May 2014 after edging out McKenna in a runoff election. Many credit him since then with repairing an agency that lagged technologically and was in financial straits after four decades under Coroner Dr. Frank Minyard, whom McKenna had twice challenged unsuccessfully.

Rouse had been Minyard's second-in-command before both signed up to run against each other, McKenna and one other candidate in 2013. In events echoing the recent developments, Minyard later pulled out of the race and endorsed Rouse to succeed him. 

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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