One of the few identifiable storylines in an underwhelming New Orleans mayoral race has centered on candidate Desiree Charbonnet's friends.
A longtime citywide official but one without a particularly high public profile, the former municipal court judge was the last of the three major candidates to declare her intentions. Yet she put together a campaign stacked with veteran operatives, including some controversial ones. She amassed endorsements from a wide range of fellow politicians, political organizations and advocacy groups. And she raised big bucks, nearly as much as her two closest competitors combined at last count, including a whole lot from donors who do business with the city.
As the primary campaign draws to a close, though, the narrative is shifting away from Charbonnet's friends and toward her enemies.
That's not too strong a description, given how aggressively a couple of outside players have been going after her.
One has been upfront about it. Sidney Torres, the real estate developer, trash hauler and reality TV figure, decided not to run for the job, instead opting to play the king/queenmaker role. Torres didn't endorse a candidate, but he did form a political action group that staged a debate, which Charbonnet skipped at the last minute. Clearly piqued, Torres used one of his own questions at the debate to encourage her rivals to criticize her for not showing up, and he's been running ads attacking her courage and integrity ever since.
An anti-Desiree Charbonnet political action committee that has been running ads and sending …
He wasn't the first. Another PAC, this one calling itself Not For Sale NOLA, has been waging an anti-Charbonnet campaign for weeks now, all without revealing who was paying the bills. In a series of mailers and web ads, the group painted Charbonnet as a cartoonish old-school New Orleans pol. An early entry accused her of "cronyism, corruption and sweetheart deals" and quoted news stories citing what it called examples of patronage. A more recent chapter called her the "pay-for-play" candidate and quoted critics alleging that she and her campaign had cut deals.
This week's ethics board deadline forced the donors to show their faces. Now we know that the group attacking her includes some of the city and state's most prominent business leaders, who raised $190,000 for the effort, all in large chunks. There's education reformer Leslie Jacobs, who gave $40,000, and Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region mainstay Jay Lapeyre, who ponied up $25,000. Lapeyre supports one of Charbonnet's rivals, former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, although the campaign is barred by law from coordinating with an outside PAC.
Strangely, it includes shipbuilder and GOP bigwig Boysie Bollinger, who donated $15,000 but also gave to Charbonnet, as well as Bagneris. And it includes Lane Grigsby, a major Republican donor from Baton Rouge, who gave $40,000.
For a group that wants to be seen as taking the high road, secrecy hasn't helped the cause. Charbonnet has been calling on donors to come forward for a while now, and their refusal doesn't exactly suggest an open and transparent approach. She's also sought to link the group to Bagneris, although in a statement after the report was filed, a spokesman for the PAC said that “there are many fine choices for voters to consider among the 17 other candidates who are vying to be mayor — candidates who do not have this history of cronyism and patronage — including frontrunners LaToya Cantrell and Michael Bagneris.”
Businessman Sidney Torres has made good on his threat to go after mayoral candidate Desiree …
Charbonnet's campaign fired back with a forceful ad defending her reputation, although she probably shouldn't have said that there's no hint of scandal on her record. There are hints, including some times when she hired political allies; the question for voters is how strong those hints are, and how they stack up against her opponents' tactics.
The thing is, these types of attacks generally succeed only if the attackers don't overplay their hands and create sympathy for the accused.
After next week's primary, Charbonnet could be cursing her critics. There's also a chance she'll wind up thanking them.