Courthouses throughout the seven-parish metro area opened their doors Wednesday to incumbents, political newcomers and perennial challengers alike as the three-day qualifying period for the area’s most far-reaching election day of 2014 got underway.
Prospective candidates have until 4:30 p.m. Friday to qualify for the Nov. 4 elections.
Although it’s not a presidential election year, a hotly contested U.S. Senate race and contests for U.S. House of Representatives seats will be on the ballot, along with several races for local offices in all area parishes.
Up for decision will be races for school boards, district attorneys, judges, council members and aldermen — and while there’s no big mayoral or City Council election in New Orleans, there will be more than enough races to fill local yards and medians with brightly colored signs.
As is often the case, Wednesday morning saw a slew of incumbents filing to make their re-election bids official.
“Most of the activity was before noon,” said Jon Gegenheimer, clerk of court in Jefferson Parish, where 14 of the 16 judges at 24th Judicial District Court filed their paperwork; none had drawn any challengers by the end of the day. None of the qualifying incumbent judges in St. Tammany Parish drew any opponents either.
The two open Jefferson Parish seats now held by Judges Robert Pitre and Ross LaDart drew seven hopefuls in the first day, and more challengers may appear after other hopefuls see how the fields develop.
The most watched race in Orleans Criminal District Court is in Section G, where two challengers stepped up to run against Judge Julian Parker, who is on a month’s sick leave for an undisclosed illness and who has rebuffed a reporter’s questions about his future plans.
Parker was the only sitting Criminal Court judge who did not file his papers Wednesday. Longtime Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens and Byron C. Williams, a former federal prosecutor and later special counsel to the state Judiciary Commission, qualified for his seat.
“I wouldn’t run against an incumbent,” Sens said. “It’s just my nature. I felt this was an open seat.”
There was no such reticence in the race for Orleans Parish district attorney.
Just hours after incumbent Leon Cannizzaro touted vast improvements in the DA’s Office under his watch in a speech Wednesday night, a challenger emerged in Lionel “Lon” Burns, a defense attorney and former Orleans Parish prosecutor.
Burns came out firing, dismissing the plaudits of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche and others who have hailed Cannizzaro for righting a long-dysfunctional office and mending fences with police.
Burns said crime victims have “lost faith in District Attorney Cannizzaro’s ability to get violent people off the streets.”
Not shying away from race, Burns, who is black, said he’s better suited than the white Cannizzaro to address black-on-black violence, and he suggested he’d be harder on violent criminals.
“We’re not going to throw nonviolent offenders away, but violent offenders we’re going to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” Burns said. He argued that Cannizzaro, 61, has selectively backed what he called “hug-a-thug” plea deals.
“I humbly ask the DA to pass the baton to me,” said Burns, who lost a 2008 campaign for judge and recently represented the family of police shooting victim Wendell Allen. “Jim Mora was a very good coach. Sean Payton’s a better coach,” he said.
“It’s hammer time.”
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro, dismissed Burns’ allegations as “meritless” and noted crime statistics show a record-high rate of felony arrests that end in convictions in the city, plus acceptance rates for felony cases that far exceed those under prior DAs.
“I don’t know where this allegation comes from that we’re soft on crime, but there’s absolutely no proof of it,” Bowman said.
On the north shore, four Republicans stepped forward in the race to succeed the embattled Walter Reed as district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington parishes: Alan Black, Roy Burns, Warren Montgomery and Brian Trainor.
Reed, who is under investigation by a federal grand jury, announced in July that he would not seek a sixth term.
Black is a Slidell lawyer, while Burns, from Covington, was an assistant district attorney under Reed’s predecessor. Trainor worked for eight years as an assistant district attorney for Reed before moving to St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain’s office, where he is now chief deputy. Montgomery, a late entry into the race, was a federal prosecutor in New Orleans in the 1980s and has a law practice in Covington.
School board races in St. Tammany, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes also saw their share of incumbents file.
In Jefferson, the head of the teachers union often has been at odds with the parish School Board in recent years, but this fall she will make an attempt to change things from within. Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Meladie Munch, a Democrat, qualified to run against incumbent Larry Dale, a Republican, for a School Board seat that represents Metairie.
Dale, who also qualified Wednesday, was one of five members elected in 2010 with the assistance of business groups that were seeking to take control of the board. Since then, that majority has been at odds with the teachers union over a variety of issues.
Munch, a former teacher who has been president of the teachers union since 2009, said she wanted to focus on making sure teachers have the resources and books they need to teach so they don’t have to find those materials on their own.
The Jefferson School Board race also will pit two current members of the board against one another. Etta Licciardi and Ray St. Pierre are both former educators and Republicans, and they typically have been on the same side of issues on the board. Both qualified to run in the district that St. Pierre has represented and where Licciardi, according to her qualifying documents, now lives.
In the race for the Louisiana Public Service Commission seat that represents much of the New Orleans area, three Republicans — Forest Bradley Wright, Allen “Al” Leone and Eric Skrmetta — qualified.
That race could get contentious, as Skrmetta, the incumbent, and Wright, a leader of the watchdog Alliance for Affordable Energy, did not acknowledge each other when they showed up to qualify.
Leone is known for almost unseating former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Brousssard, who is now in prison for corruption, shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
Advocate staff reporters John Simerman, Sara Pagones and Jeff Adelson contributed to this report.