For those on a mission to oust Mike Yenni from his job as Jefferson Parish president, Phase 2 will be a bigger job than they had figured.
Volunteers thought they could gather most of the signatures necessary for the recall petition against Yenni on Nov. 8, when tens of thousands of parish residents headed to the polls to vote in the presidential race. They need a total of about 90,000 signatures to put a recall vote on a future ballot, but they picked up only a few thousand on election day, leaving them less than halfway toward their goal.
The Mike Yenni recall campaign hoped Tuesday's presidential election would help it gather th…
So for now, Yenni’s bid to ride out the storm — caused by the revelation this fall that he sent sexually explicit text messages to a teenage boy last year — is looking more tenable than it did a few weeks ago. And recall organizers are left with more work and less time to do it.
In the meantime, the parish government has settled into a pattern for conducting essential business and meeting the obligations of custom and tradition: Yenni reports to work daily and attends to the routine operations of the parish while his top aide, parish Chief Operating Officer Keith Conley, handles the higher-profile public appearances and makes sales pitches for three crucial tax renewals.
In conversations during the past several weeks, members of Yenni’s inner circle have all said the parish president has not scaled back on his duties within the confines of the government’s east and west bank headquarters buildings, despite calls for his resignation from the Parish Council, several city councils and almost all parishwide elected officials.
He and his aides have been coordinating the delivery of parish services, they said, as well as longer-term projects.
“As far as day to day inside these walls, nothing’s really changed,” Conley said in an interview last month. “Everything is humming along.”
Outside of his office, though, Yenni is not able to work or move as freely. The former Kenner mayor is banned from visiting any Jefferson public school or any New Orleans-area Catholic school campus or activities — venues where parish presidents typically appear, whether as a distinguished speaker or a ceremonial coin flipper at prep football games.
A legal challenge?
The Yenni administration has downplayed the significance of that reality.
For one thing, Yenni has not ruled out challenging the legality of a ban on his showing up at buildings and events funded by taxpayer money when he has admitted only to inappropriate text messages and hasn’t been officially accused of a crime.
Yenni has said it hardly makes a difference whether it is he or Conley speaking at public gatherings about the parish government’s plans and ambitions, given that he calls his top aide his “right hand” and asserts that Conley knows just as much about Jefferson’s direction as the president does.
“He is at my side for pretty much everything,” Yenni said recently. “What I know, he knows, and vice versa.”
Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng agreed that the day-to-day work of the parish is getting done. Administrators and department heads go about their jobs unaffected, and even though the entire council has called on Yenni to resign, she said, the working relationship between the council and administration continues to be one of putting the people's business first.
And even though Yenni broke tradition by not participating in it, the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce’s State of the Parish luncheon last week went off without a hitch. Aside from the questions of reporters who descended on the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kenner, Conley’s presence on the dais was the only outward sign anything was different.
But Lee-Sheng said there are less obvious, more long-term ways the scandal prevents Yenni from being as effective a leader as he needs to be.
“His ability to do the things he campaigned on is now severely hampered because the community as a whole is not receiving him the same way,” she said, noting Yenni appeared to be the kind of leader who engages with the public as a means of driving initiatives forward.
“He campaigned on doing a lot of things for this parish, and over the long term, that’s what’s going to be greatly affected,” she said.
Although the situation seems to have found a sense of equilibrium, it is obvious that Yenni faces major questions about his political future.
Political scholar Ron Faucheux said Yenni will have a hard time carrying on indefinitely as though it's business as usual after seeing such a dip in his popularity.
“People expect to see their leaders at events, being the face of the community,” Faucheux said of Yenni, who had a 70 percent approval rating in an April public opinion survey before another poll last month showed him with a disapproval rating of 70 percent. “If he can’t do that, that’s a significant handicap.”
Volunteers collected signatures at a brisk pace when emotions were most raw over the parish president’s admission in early October that he sent "improper texts to a young man" in 2015.
They were counting on the hotly contested presidential election to serve up another trove of signatures, but that didn’t happen. Organizers blamed rainy weather as well as a contested state law that kept them 600 feet away from polling places, but when all the signatures were tallied from that day and those immediately following, they ended up with only an additional 7,000 or so. The total now stands at about 40,000, less than halfway to their goal.
Courtroom sparring resumed Monday on the question of whether volunteers gathering signatures…
“In my experience, unless you get off to a good start, it’s going to be a lot tougher to get those remaining signatures,” Baton Rouge-based political consultant John Couvillion said. “I’m kind of wondering if they’ve gotten their low-hanging fruit already.”
Faucheux said the recall campaign is entering a decisive phase where it must evolve in its tactics to stand a chance of collecting the necessary 90,000 signatures — one third of the parish's 270,000 registered voters.
Though they were largely tight-lipped about specifics on future strategy, Recall Yenni leaders said they are prepared to do just that.
A spokeswoman said the campaign is poised to “heavily invest in direct mail” to recruit more petition signers. The campaign is also exploring the possibility of setting up drive-through windows at vacant fast-food restaurants, where commuters could sign the petition without having to get out of their cars.
Organizers said offers to donate money to the cause continue to pour in steadily, and the campaign is counting on those gifts to fund a larger advertising presence as well as canvassing efforts in rural parts of the parish.
Robert Evans III, the lawyer who is leading the effort, said more businesses in the parish have expressed interest in hosting recall volunteers, who now staff 10 locations across the parish.
Also, as many as 10 people a day sign up on RecallYenni.com to join the dozens of volunteers who have been knocking on doors in their neighborhoods and canvassing local events, Evans said.
“People still want him gone," he said of Yenni.
Couvillion said all of those are steps a serious recall effort must take. Such campaigns need precinct captains, weekly and monthly signature goals, people stationed at intersections and subdivision entrances, and volunteers canvassing neighborhoods, he said.
“You cannot just hope for people to come to your precinct table and sign up,” Couvillion said.
Despite the enthusiasm of Recall Yenni’s supporters, one state lawmaker is skeptical about their chances for success, though he hopes he is proven wrong.
State Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Mandeville, said he saw an equally sophisticated recall effort mobilize in St. Tammany Parish against former Coroner Peter Galvan in the wake of 2013 media reports that he used taxpayer money for questionable purchases.
However, despite a large number of dedicated volunteers and widespread public anger at Galvan, Hollis said that effort was struggling to get the nearly 53,000 required signatures before Galvan resigned and pleaded guilty to federal charges, rendering the recall moot.
That isn’t surprising to Hollis, given how high Louisiana sets the threshold for forcing recall elections: signatures of one third of registered voters in areas with an electorate of more than 1,000 people and 40 percent in spots with an electorate smaller than that.
Of the 12 elected officials from the New Orleans area who have been recalled over many decades, only one was a chief executive: Rob Rosiere, the mayor of tiny Grand Isle, which had 1,500 registered voters when he was ousted in 1997. Rosiere was booted from office despite denying accusations that he thwarted the local police department’s fight against illegal drugs.
Hollis said he plans to introduce a bill in the Legislature next year that would make recall elections a more “reasonable and attainable” prospect, regardless of the result of the ongoing effort in Jefferson Parish.
Ideally, Hollis would like the signature threshold to be one third of the voter turnout for the election that put the targeted official in office, though the percentage could be as high as 40 percent in elections where turnout was less than 1,000 people, he said.
In Yenni’s case, the election that vaulted him to the parish presidency drew fewer than 88,000 voters, so the passage of Hollis' bill would require fewer than 30,000 signatures to call an election. That is a mark Recall Yenni surpassed weeks ago.
Another standard used by some other states that the Recall Yenni campaign finds more reasonable is a percentage of the number of votes an elected official received. Yenni became parish president with fewer than 46,000 votes.
Hollis acknowledged that passing such a bill in the Legislature could be tough. After all, lawmakers would be voting to make their own jobs less secure. But he said the status quo makes the recall threat all but toothless.
“I don’t find that people really work at a recall unless it is because of something they consider to be outrageous,” Hollis said. “I don’t want (recalls) to be easy by any means, but why even have them if they are impossible?”