Veronica Bagneris was evidently a tough customer.
Her two young sons, Michael and Dennis, came home one day explaining that a trio of older boys had stolen the money she had given them to buy groceries.
She handed them another $3 and told them, “You’re going to have to find a way to get around this,” Dennis recalled.
On the way back to the store, the older boys turned up again. Dennis said Michael, the younger of the two brothers, took one of the glass soda bottles they were carrying, broke it on the sidewalk and squared off against their assailants.
This time, they came home with the groceries. And the older boys, who took Michael and Dennis for twins, would always warn their friends after that, “Leave the twins alone; they’re crazy!”
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In running for mayor this year, Michael Bagneris is drawing heavily on his up-by-the-bootstraps biography, and this is where it starts, in the tough neighborhood surrounding the Desire housing complex in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The son of a janitor and a woman who cleaned other people's homes, Bagneris climbed from public housing to Yale University, law school and City Hall under New Orleans' first black mayor. He spent two decades on the Civil District Court bench before stepping down to contest Mayor Mitch Landrieu's re-election bid four years ago.
This time around, Bagneris is running on similar themes, emphasizing the need for more cops, but it looks like he has better odds. In 2014, he faced an incumbent with strong poll numbers who could point to a turnaround in the city's finances and a sharp drop in the murder rate from the year before.
Now, polls show Bagneris is among a group of three front-runners, along with City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet.
In a way, this comes as a surprise. Charbonnet has more of the city’s political establishment with her. Cantrell has been much more in the public eye as a councilwoman.
And early on, it didn’t look like Bagneris was going to be able to raise much cash, after having pulled only about a third of the vote last time, when he was running as Landrieu's only high-profile opponent.
That changed somewhat last month after he gained the backing of Frank Stewart, the local businessman who traded strongly worded public statements with Landrieu over the removal of Jim Crow-era monuments around the city this year.
The latest financial disclosure forms from Bagneris show his donations picked up after that. An early September poll put Bagneris and the other two front-runners in a statistical three-way tie.
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One clear obstacle, especially if he ends up in a runoff, is the hope of finally putting a woman in charge of City Hall. New Orleans got its first black mayor almost four decades ago, but the gender barrier has not fallen.
“I think unfortunately his gender is working against him,” said Ed Chervenak, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans. “There is this sentiment that it’s time for a female chief executive.”
Beginnings in Desire
Bagneris, 67, moved with his family from Treme to the Desire area when he was still in grade school. His brother Dennis, who would later serve in the Legislature and become a state appeals court judge, remembers the new neighborhood as not all bad. At least it had some green space. He said the two of them spent the whole first day jumping off their new front stoop, pretending the grass below was “a green ocean.”
Eager to emphasize his work ethic and his humble start, Bagneris often recounts how he swept the floors at St. Peter Claver Elementary School in order to defray the cost of tuition, which had just shot up from $1 a month to $3 a month.
He went on to St. Augustine High School, Yale and Tulane University Law School.
After a few years at the Fine and Waltzer law firm, he was hired at age 30 by Ernest "Dutch" Morial during the latter's first term as mayor, eventually rising to enter Morial’s inner circle.
“The whole atmosphere of the administration was one of young people coming in with lots of new ideas, and one of the stars was Michael," recalls Cheron Brylski, who was Morial’s press secretary and now serves as a consultant to the Bagneris campaign.
As Morial's executive counsel, Bagneris helped negotiate with members of the city’s legislative delegation and with the so-called “gang of five” on the City Council — a faction opposed to the mayor that was led by Sidney Barthelemy, who would succeed Morial in the mayor's second-floor office.
Bagneris' nickname was “Little Dutch,” and he was known for carrying around an index card in his front pocket, one side with his schedule, the other with space for notes.
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He and Morial’s top aide, Reynard Rochon, ran the mayor’s successful re-election campaign in 1982, and Bagneris would later throw himself into a doomed effort to win his boss a third consecutive term, which required gathering thousands of signatures for a ballot initiative.
He had hoped that by the time Morial wrapped up a third term, he would be ready to run for mayor himself. Instead he ran for an at-large seat on the council. In an echo of his situation today, Bagneris lost to a candidate who would become the council’s first black female member, Dorothy Mae Taylor.
In 1993, he won a seat on the Civil District Court bench, one he would occupy until he stepped down to challenge Landrieu two decades later.
Then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu proposed him for a federal judgeship early in President Barack Obama's administration, but the president declined to make the nomination for reasons that have never come out publicly. Bagneris says he never got a full explanation, being told only that it didn't have anything to do with his background check.
Putting safety first
The centerpiece of his current campaign is a promise to raise police salaries by $10,000 and hire 300 new officers. It may be a tough promise to keep: NOPD hiring under Landrieu has been sluggish, even though the mayor has budgeted money in each of the past few years to hire hundreds of new recruits.
On the other hand, higher salaries would presumably slow attrition and attract more applicants, if Bagneris can find the millions of dollars they would cost. And he insists that he can, saying that the proposed raises would account for less than 2 percent of the city's annual spending.
"If public safety is your top priority, any good executive ought to be able to find less than 2 percent of your budget," Bagneris said in an interview last week.
"It is absolutely the No. 1 issue," he continued. "Everything else pales. What business is going to come to a city where you don't have the simple security of being able to go into a restaurant without being held up?"
He has promised a national search for a new police chief, though he does not rule out keeping on Michael Harrison, who has held the job for three years now. The emphasis on policing mirrors his 2014 campaign, when he also called for hiring more officers, as well as replacing then-Superintendent Ronal Serpas, whom Landrieu eventually forced out.
Bagneris said his focus on the Police Department would not come at the expense of addressing crime's root causes, especially the lack of well-paid jobs.
He thinks the city is missing some big opportunities for economic growth. He said the city's new hospitals in Mid-City should strive to establish a national reputation in some field, the way Houston has for cancer treatment. "We ought to develop as a cure for something — diabetes, Alzheimer's, fill in the blank," he said.
Bagneris also wonders why more of the raw materials that flow through the city's port each year aren't processed here, instead of being sent on to manufacturing plants elsewhere. He took as an example imported rubber and said he would try to convince Goodyear or Michelin to shift some production to New Orleans.
On the topic of affordable housing, Bagneris said the city needs to strike a reasonable balance in addressing the explosion of short-term rentals through online booking sites like Airbnb. He thinks individual neighborhoods should be able to adopt tailored restrictions, anything from stopping the practice altogether to requiring that homeowners actually live at the address where they rent space out to visitors.
On the Sewerage & Water Board — a big topic in the mayor's race since the agency's pumps failed to prevent flooding during an Aug. 5 rainstorm — Bagneris cautioned against a knee-jerk reaction.
While some other candidates have promised immediate reforms, he calls for asking the National Regulatory Research Institute to study what went wrong and propose changes. "Whatever their recommendations might be," he said.
Bagneris promises to address New Orleans' other big infrastructure problem — crumbling streets — by dedicating all of the revenue collected through the city's unpopular traffic cameras to rebuilding roadways. That sum, about $15 million annually, would put a modest dent in a backlog totaling in the billions of dollars, but Bagneris argues it would add up to a notable improvement over a four-year term.
There is one issue Bagneris doesn't want to talk about at all. In fact, none of the front-runners do, likely mindful that whoever prevails will have to pick up a significant chunk of the city's white vote. That would be Landrieu's decision to remove four Jim Crow-era monuments from public view, something he finally accomplished this spring after a lengthy court battle.
Questions were raised when Bagneris picked up Frank Stewart's endorsement. Stewart was a vocal opponent of the mayor's decision, taking out newspaper ads that criticized how Landrieu went about removing the Robert E. Lee statue and three others.
Asked whether he had given Stewart any commitments — say, holding a referendum on whether to put the statues back up — Bagneris grew animated.
"Absolutely not," he said, insisting that he would initiate no such vote. "Absolutely not. I cannot be more emphatic about that. No one is getting any commitment from Mike Bagneris."