Da Winnas and Da Loozas of the 2017 election_lowres


The University of New Orleans’ new quality of life survey, released this week, offered good news for many area leaders.

In Jefferson Parish, new Sheriff Joe Lopinto got high marks from 76 percent of those questioned, and Parish President Mike Yenni’s performance in office won approval from 60 percent despite his sexting scandal. In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell earned a 57 percent approval rating. The poll didn’t ask about her predecessor Mitch Landrieu by name, but it did find that residents were more satisfied with the quality of life than previously.

Then there’s Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who would struggle to find much to like in the assessment of the 500 voters interviewed between Oct 17 and Nov. 5. And that’s a positive development for another New Orleans politician, City Councilman Jason Williams, who announced two years ahead of time that he’ll be a candidate for the office in 2020.

Cannizzaro, who is in his second six-year term, hasn’t said whether he’ll seek a third. But the poll suggests a reckoning may be coming for the tough-talking, controversial prosecutor.

His approval rating dropped to 42 percent this year, down 13 percentage points from two years ago. More dramatically, it fell 22 points, from 60 percent to 38 percent, among the white respondents who are a key part of his political base (Cannizzaro is white and Wiliams is African-American). Among black voters, Cannizzaro’s approval rating fell seven percent from 53 percent to 46 percent.

It’s not hard to guess why. In the past two years, Cannizzaro has faced blistering, well-deserved criticism for using fake subpoenas that threatened witnesses with fines or imprisonment despite the fact that they were not signed by a judge, and for arresting uncooperative witnesses, including one domestic violence victim who was jailed for five days.

While supporting mayoral candidate Desiree Charbonnet, he used his office to publicize opposition research against Cantrell for her spending habits as a City Council member when he referred an anonymous criminal complaint to the state attorney general. A subsequent legislative audit found little meat to the allegations, and the criminal investigation fizzled out.

He’s also publicly battled with Williams, a criminal defense lawyer by profession and, since the spring, chairman of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, over everything from money to philosophy.

In general, Cannizzaro is an adherent to the old-school, tough-on-crime approach, while Williams is a supporter of efforts to reduce mass incarceration, particularly for low-grade, nonviolent offenses.

Past matters of contention have included not only the office’s level of funding but a council-passed law to reduce penalties for marijuana possession, Cannizzaro’s support for trying juveniles accused of serious crimes as adults and his aggressive use of the state’s habitual offender laws to seek long sentences. And Williams has excoriated Cannizzaro’s office for its use of fake witness subpoenas, a practice that stopped only after the press started reporting on it.

“Increasingly, jurisdictions across the country are transitioning away from a heavy-handed, scorched-earth approach to crime and punishment to a more person-centered approach that focuses on removing barriers to compliance so we get people out of the system with guidance instead of setting traps for them to fall into,” Williams said at a committee meeting earlier this year.

If we do end up with a Cannizzaro-versus-Williams race, it would take on something of a national tone. Voters in some other big cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis and Boston, have recently elected prosecutors who are in tune with the broad, bipartisan criminal justice reform movement that has also made inroads at the state level and nationally.

So the full story behind the daunting polls numbers is that Cannizzaro’s facing two big challenges. One stems from his own actions, particularly his use of the subpoenas. The second is the broader shift in opinion on how the country should approach locking people up.

And if he runs, he’s got one challenger who’s eager to take him on over both.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.