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The sun sets by the Confederate Robert E. Lee monument, erected in 1884 by ex-Confederates and white Southerners, in New Orleans, La. Thursday, May 18, 2017. 

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

New Orleanians may be divided over Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s successful push to remove four of the city’s Jim Crow-era monuments.

But most of the top candidates vying to replace him in this fall’s election are of one mind on the controversy. Their message is: Let’s drop the subject.

Their views offer a window into how the always-fraught role of race will play in this year’s mayoral election, especially for the front-running African-American candidates.

“The monuments are serving as a huge distraction to this entire campaign,” said Desiree Charbonnet, a former Municipal Court judge who has won attention by collecting the biggest campaign war chest.

“We have way bigger fish to fry,” added Charbonnet, who is African-American. “They’re down. They’re probably going to stay down. The next move is to discuss what everyone can agree on to replace them.”

So far, the only mayoral candidate who seems inclined to draw any attention to the issue is Frank Scurlock, a white businessman who has loaned his own campaign more than half a million dollars but is otherwise little known.

Gary Clark, the director of Dillard University’s Center for Law and Public Interest, said the African-American candidates don’t want to alienate voters by raising a divisive issue.

“It’s more about inclusiveness when you’re running citywide,” Clark said. “The monuments issue tends to have clear lines of demarcation. In the final analysis, no one wants to make it their issue. Other issues are more important, such as crime and how to expand the tax base.”

Oliver Thomas, who hosts a daily talk show on WBOK-AM aimed at African-American audiences, believes that the black candidates are pandering to white voters and donors.

“It’s disingenuous,” said Thomas, a former city councilman. “When (the candidates) talk to us privately in the black community, it’s a real issue. They’re down with the brothers and sisters. But when they talk to the white press, they say we should move on. There’s one speech to the black community, and there’s another speech to the white community letting them know they’re a safe candidate.”

The votes of white residents — who make up 36 percent of New Orleans’ registered voters — will be up for grabs for the top African-American candidates unless Scurlock can raise his profile. The former owner of a family business that sells and rents inflatable objects for house parties, he is promising to put the fun back into New Orleans as mayor.

Local African-American businessman Troy Henry, now making his second run for mayor, concurred with Charbonnet’s views on the monuments.

“At the end of the day, it’s a done deal,” Henry said in an interview. “I want to move forward in unifying the city. That’s my real message. They’re done. They’re gone. I want to see the city unified.”

Henry said he supported the removal of the Battle of Liberty Place monument, which commemorated a white supremacist militia that fought in the city’s streets against Louisiana’s biracial Reconstruction-era government in 1874.

“It was a tribute to something heinous,” he said. “The other ones, quite frankly, I don’t know enough about the details and backgrounds of those folks,” meaning Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard.

Charbonnet, offering her views only reluctantly, said that she was “emotionally supportive of them coming down. It seemed like that was the right thing. The way in which they came down could have been handled differently.”

Michael Bagneris, a former Civil District Court judge, lamented that the debate over whether to take down the monuments “divides the races.” He said Landrieu should have put the decision to the city’s voters.

“Everybody would have had a chance to express their view,” he said. “Whichever way it would have come down, people would have been satisfied.”

Bagneris declined to say how he would have voted.

Asked for a clarification of his views, he chose to have a spokesman issue a written statement. “At this time,” it said, “there is nothing further to say on the subject as it distracts from the real issue facing our city: solving the violent crime problem.”

The city removed the Liberty Place monument and the statues of Lee, Beauregard and Davis at the initiative of Landrieu and by a 6-1 vote by the City Council.

LaToya Cantrell, a member of the council whose district includes Broadmoor, the CBD, the Lower Garden District and Central City, cast one of the votes in favor of removal. Of the top candidates, she was the most adamant in criticizing the monuments, calling them symbols of “segregation and discrimination.”

But even Cantrell has criticized what she felt was a wrong-headed approach on the mayor’s part, saying that Landrieu should have consulted with council members before leading a public charge to remove the statues.

Asked whether Cantrell would make the monuments a major issue during the campaign, Karen Carvin Shachat, a consultant for her campaign, said: “She is focusing her attention on moving forward with her plans and continuing to bring all of the citizens together.”

Tommie Vassel, a certified public accountant who has served on numerous civic boards, said he found some of the monuments “egregious,” but added, “I don’t want to opine on something after it happened. While it was happening, I was focusing on doing my work. Taking down the monuments doesn’t impact me at all.”

The remarks by Vassel and other black candidates astound Thomas, who served on the City Council for 13 years before going to federal prison on bribery charges.

“The irony is that the person who cared most about the monuments was a white mayor named Mitch Landrieu,” Thomas said.

Scurlock was the most expansive of any of the candidates in discussing the monuments.

In an interview, he said he “would have kept Lee and added other statues and named it Statutory Circle. I would have it be other heroes. I would have kept Jefferson Davis as a statue but would have changed the name of the street (from Jefferson Davis Parkway) to Statuary Parkway.”

Scurlock said he didn’t know the history of the Liberty Place monument. “I would have looked to see whether there was a tie to the ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ saying,” he said. (There isn’t.)

Scurlock wore a Confederate uniform to the Capitol in May on the day when the state House approved a bill forbidding the removal, renaming or alteration of any "memorial, including any structure, plaque, statue or monument," on public property commemorating any of the nation's wars, including what was referred to in the bill as the “War Between the States,” unless a majority of local voters approved.

Passage of House Bill 71 prompted members of the Black Legislative Caucus to walk out in protest. The bill died in the state Senate.

“I wanted to represent history as the country was built, the sacrifices we went through,” Scurlock said. “I got the attention of legislators. I talked to a tremendous amount of people.”

Scurlock, who is highlighting his call to “preserve historical landmarks” on his campaign website, was arrested during a protest in May next to the Jefferson Davis monument. He was booked on a count of obstructing a public place.  City prosecutors later charged him with assault and crossing a police cordon.

He calls the charges “typical Louisiana politics at its finest.”

Editor's note: This story was changed July 30 to correct Karen Carvin Shachat's position with LaToya Cantrell's campaign.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.