The race for the New Orleans City Council’s District B seat — already a scrappy contest before last month's primary — has turned into a bare-fisted brawl ahead of Saturday’s runoff.
In one corner is Jay Banks, a former King Zulu and a stalwart of the political group BOLD, short for the Black Organization for Leadership Development. He has centered his campaign on a pledge to help residents burdened by the rising cost of living, claiming his opponent is ignoring the problem.
In the other corner is Seth Bloom, a criminal defense attorney and former Orleans Parish School Board president. He disputes the idea that he is inattentive to the city's economic problems and fashions himself as the more independent candidate, running to wrest District B from BOLD’s grasp.
The district encompasses a diverse collection of neighborhoods, including Central City, the Garden District and Lower Garden District, Broadmoor and parts of Uptown, Mid-City and Bayou St. John. The seat is now held by LaToya Cantrell, who is running for mayor.
Bloom led the six-candidate field in the Oct. 14 primary with 40 percent to Banks' 27 percent.
Banks is black and Bloom is white in a district whose voters are equally divided between the two races.
Bloom, 40, insists that he is running a high-road campaign, but he doesn't hesitate to slam his opponent, calling him “all tied up in the BOLD network” during a recent interview.
“I’m an independent voice, and I’m not beholden to any sort of political machine,” he said. “BOLD is an organization that is cutting deals all over the place with different candidates.”
Banks, 57, scoffs at the accusation and points to Bloom’s nearly $500,000 fundraising haul and the donors who contributed to it.
“He is trying to paint me as part of a political machine, yet he is bought and paid for by strip clubs, Airbnb and the people who want to remove the height restrictions on buildings,” Banks said. “He is far more of a pay-to-play candidate than I ever will be.”
Bloom, who raised more than four times the amount Banks has this year, can thank many donors for his war chest, campaign finance reports show. They do include strip club operators and possibly people who operate or support Airbnb rentals, he conceded.
Others, however, are hotel owners, who are often at odds with short-term rental advocates, and none of his contributors has demanded anything from him, Bloom said.
Banks also has accused Bloom of being apathetic about the impact that short-term rentals are having on the cost of living.
He said Bloom has waffled on the topic to please deep-pocketed donors. Bloom disputed the allegation, while acknowledging that “there’s been some ambivalence on my stance.”
“Let me very clear: I don’t like short-term rentals," he said. "I think short-term rentals ruin the fabric of our neighborhoods.”
He said he would work to reduce the density of such rentals and would “consider” requiring rental owners to have homestead exemptions for their properties, though perhaps not in all neighborhoods.
Tying the rentals to homestead exemptions, meaning owners must live in the buildings, is an idea that Banks and mayoral candidates Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet have floated.
Bloom dismisses the cornerstone of Banks’ campaign platform: a proposal to freeze property taxes for cost-burdened residents at something close to a property’s pre-Hurricane Katrina value, with only cost-of-living adjustments added, no matter how much the property is worth now.
“From what I’ve researched, it’s illegal,” Bloom said. “And why does Katrina become the artificial date? Yes, I’d like to pay property taxes (at levels) that are 15 years old, too.”
In response, Banks said he would work with the Legislature to change the law. He said Bloom doesn't like the idea “because the people supporting him are the very people who are pushing the local residents out.”
Banks also has said Bloom can’t be counted as a reliable council member because he often missed meetings while on the School Board. He alluded to a Twitter post Bloom wrote earlier in the campaign, in which Bloom said he missed only 9 “real” board meetings.
“What’s a ‘real’ meeting? When you are sitting there dealing with issues that impact our children’s education — what’s a real meeting?” Banks said.
Bloom admitted that he missed meetings early in his tenure, but also said he worked in more recent years to improve the board’s reputation and helped drive improvements at the Travis Hill School, which operates at the city's juvenile detention center.
"Certainly within my last two years, I was very active," he said.
Editor's note: This story was altered Nov. 18 to reflect the correct number of meetings Bloom admitted to missing and that he admitted to missing them on Twitter.