He was criticized for changing his last name almost 20 years ago and attacked for having professional ties to former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, who is now in federal prison.
But in the end it didn’t matter.
Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni defeated Parish Councilman Elton Lagasse and three less prominent candidates Saturday to become the next parish president, an office that his grandfather, Joseph Yenni, and uncle, Michael Yenni, both held.
After carrying the election for Jefferson’s highest office with 52 percent of the vote, Yenni will succeed John Young, who decided to run for lieutenant governor.
Lagasse, for his part, captured 37 percent of the vote. Al Morella, Robin Daldegan Christiana and Vincent De Salvo — none of whom has held a major political office — combined for 11 percent.
During an occasionally acrimonious campaign, Yenni said he was the candidate who best understood how to attract and retain young families in Jefferson, which was once a booming first-ring suburb but is now grappling with aging housing stock, poverty and an outmigration of residents to New Orleans and beyond. Yenni and his wife are raising a 2-year-old daughter.
The 39-year-old also said that during his administration, Kenner was recognized for having one of the lowest violent crime rates in Louisiana and being the most ethnically diverse city in the state.
Yenni repeatedly said that aggressive code enforcement was part of the reason Kenner is safe and attractive to people of all walks of life, and he argued that he would continue that parishwide if elected. He promised to create an economic development task force that would dedicate itself to retaining and recruiting new businesses to the parish.
He also said he plans to work closely with parish School Board members, administrators and the mayors of Jefferson’s municipalities to give families top education options. He said the performance of Kenner’s Discovery Health Sciences Academy shows he has the chops to help pull that off parishwide.
Lagasse, who has served on the Parish Council since 2004, accused Yenni throughout the campaign of changing his last name from Maunoir almost 20 years ago for political gain. Yenni’s grandfather, Joseph Yenni, was a popular parish president from 1980 until his death in 1987. He was succeeded by his son, Michael J. Yenni, who served from 1987 until his death in 1995.
Another of the accusations from Lagasse, 76, an at-large councilman, was that Yenni’s mentor was Broussard, who pleaded guilty in federal court in 2012 to conspiracy, wire fraud and theft after resigning from office. Yenni was head of the parish’s Citizens Affairs Department under Broussard during the middle of the last decade, and Broussard — an attorney — represented Yenni when he changed his name in 1998, Lagasse noted.
Yenni countered that he changed his name as a tribute to his mother, Peggy Jo Yenni, and grandmother, Lucille Yenni, who helped him get through his parents’ painful divorce. He also has maintained that his grandfather was his mentor, not Broussard or anyone else.
Yenni, Kenner’s mayor since 2010, was considered the frontrunner for most, if not all, of the race. At the start of the month, a poll commissioned by five local businessmen concluded that Yenni had a double-digit lead over the rest of the field. While the poll also found almost half of the respondents had not decided whom to support, many indicated they were leaning toward Yenni.
It was about that time that the attacks against Yenni intensified. Aside from his name change, Lagasse and his supporters said that numerous businesses had left both Kenner and its most important shopping center, the Esplanade Mall, while Yenni was in office.
Yenni released a statement listing 27 of the new establishments that had opened in the city under his watch, among them Target, the decor store At Home, the Grand Theatre Esplanade, a car dealership and a number of restaurants.
Lagasse also filed a lawsuit claiming that Yenni was lying in campaign materials that asserted Lagasse — as former Jefferson Parish public schools superintendent and a School Board member — had a penchant for tax increases. The materials were in response to ones from Lagasse’s campaign that referred to Yenni as the “Tax Man” and claimed he had raised city sewer fees and tried to increase property taxes in Kenner.
Yenni supplied a judge with copies of numerous newspaper articles dating to 1994 that his lawyers said supported the ads’ claims. Yenni and Lagasse ultimately settled the suit by agreeing to stop running ads accusing the other of liking tax hikes.
With Yenni’s victory, Kenner must now hold a special election for mayor after he is sworn in as parish president in January. Whoever the Kenner City Council president is at that time will serve as acting mayor until the special election is held, most likely in the spring.