A debate snub Wednesday night has added a new dynamic to the New Orleans mayor’s race: Sidney Torres versus Desiree Charbonnet.
The wealthy trash mogul-turned-developer and reality-TV star said he plans to use his political action committee, Voice of the People, to spend $100,000 on TV ads before the Oct. 14 primary taking direct aim at Charbonnet.
The reason: The former Municipal Court judge dropped out of a Torres-arranged debate Wednesday night at the last minute.
If Charbonnet makes the runoff — and she is leading in the polls along with City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris — the ads will continue, Torres said.
“She doesn’t want to answer the tough questions,” he said.
The ads will be focused on the same issues raised in mailers sent out over the past few weeks by a different anti-Charbonnet PAC, Not For Sale NOLA. Those ads accuse Charbonnet of hiring friends and political allies years ago, question the background of some of her supporters and raise concerns about bundles of donations from city contractors.
His ads will feature “the facts from what happened and why she’s scared to answer questions” about her past jobs and associates, Torres said. “We’ve got all kinds of wonderful things we’re going to share with the voters.”
Torres suggested Charbonnet was looking for an excuse to back out of his debate for fear she would be asked about those accusations.
Charbonnet’s camp said it decided not to participate after two TV stations — WVUE and WDSU — that had been planning to send reporters to question the candidates pulled out, citing “ethical concerns.”
That was compounded by the fact the event was sponsored by a PAC rather than a neutral body, said Kevin Stuart, a spokesman for the campaign.
“We’re not talking about a venerable organization like the League of Women Voters. We’re talking about a PAC created by one person,” Stuart said. “So it’s perfectly reasonable to have a lot of questions about how this event was going to go.”
Torres toyed for months with the idea of running for mayor himself before eventually deciding to pour his effort into the PAC instead. The group was initially pitched as a way to keep all the candidates accountable while avoiding backing or opposing any one campaign, and Torres had made a commitment to stay neutral to all those who participated in Wednesday’s debate, Stuart said.
Torres said Charbonnet’s camp first starting raising concerns about the forum last week. He said it demanded promises that all candidates would be asked the same questions, candidates would not be allowed to question or rebut one another, and other conditions.
Stuart said those were not demands but rather getting everyone to agree to the same ground rules.
Despite those restrictions, Torres said he had planned to bring up the questions swirling around Charbonnet during the debate. Without that opportunity, he said, he will do so with the ads.
“When it smells funny, it usually is funny. You can’t ignore that,” Torres said. “If you’re OK with it, vote for her. But if you’re not OK with it, don’t put her in the runoff.”
Torres made repeated references to Charbonnet’s firing of former staff members when she was elected recorder of mortgages and the hiring of new staff, including political supporters and their relatives. Charbonnet has defended those hires.
Torres, who rose to prominence as the flashy owner of the company with the city’s French Quarter sanitation contract after Hurricane Katrina, also took issue with bundled donations in Charbonnet’s campaign finance reports from city contractors.
“I had a garbage contract. I never gave $30,000 to a candidate,” Torres said. “It makes me throw up to even see that.”
The Torres-funded PAC began promoting the debate earlier this month, saying it would feature a panel of local journalists. But in the end, WGNO-TV was the only local media outlet to send a reporter to participate. The rest of the panel was made up of retired or freelance journalists, plus Torres.
During some point in the discussions Wednesday, Torres let the Charbonnet campaign know that not participating in the debate would mean an ad campaign against her.
But Stuart said they felt the rules had been changed in midstream. “One has to say that, given his behavior subsequently, she is completely and totally vindicated" in deciding not to take part, he said.
He also noted that Charbonnet has participated in numerous forums, including one this week that allowed candidates to question each other and another that wrapped up just before Torres' event. She has, however, been absent at a handful of events that have drawn the other top-tier candidates.
At the debate itself, Torres seized on Charbonnet’s snub toward the end of the night, going off script to give her competitors the chance to sound off on her absence.
"One of the leading candidates decided at the 11th hour not to attend and to blame it on the panel change," Torres said. He then asked Michael Bagneris, LaToya Cantrell and Troy Henry to opine on Charbonnet's decision.
“A mayor should be a leader,” Bagneris said. “No matter who the panelists have been. A leader should have been able to respond to the questions, no matter what the questions should have been. That’s not leadership. That’s cowardly.”
Henry took a similar tack, calling Charbonnet’s decision “an insult” to voters.
Cantrell offered a less biting response. "I'm only in control of my own little schedule," she said. She said she had decided to attend the debate herself because it was "all about the people."
In an online ad released Thursday, Charbonnet — holding copies of the mailers sent out by the other PAC attacking her — referred to them as “fear and lies” by a group spending “thousands of dollars of dark money.”
“Typical, old dirty politics to distract us away from the truth,” Charbonnet said. “The truth is my record in public office has been one of innovation, reform and independence. Twenty years and not a hint of scandal or corruption.”
Editor's note: This story was updated on Oct. 2, 2017 to reflect that the panel included an anchor for WGNO-TV and retired and freelance journalists along with Sidney Torres.