Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn was uncharacteristically silent.
Less than a week after Nike released an ad featuring NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sparked outrage from conservatives by kneeling during the national anthem, Zahn forbade booster clubs connected to the city’s playgrounds from purchasing gear from the apparel giant. For nearly two days, as his memo rocketed around America's social media networks, Zahn did not utter a public peep or issue a statement. Nor did he respond to multiple media requests for comment.
Other voices leapt to fill the vacuum. Zahn was called a racist, a bigot and other, less polite names. Criticisms came not just from the anonymous backstreets of social media, but from public officials and opinion leaders, notably U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, with whom Zahn has claimed a great relationship. Her blistering missive deigned to dignify Zahn's name, referring to him as "Kenner's mayor" and saying that New Orleans has different "values" than those of Zahn.
When Zahn did finally issue a response Monday, he declared support for Nike's message of inclusion but doubled down on the no-Nike purchase policy, insisting that all he was trying to do was protect Kenner taxpayers from being pawns in Nike's "political campaign." The statement spurred a fresh round of criticism and online memes, and further muddied the waters about what sort of corporate behavior would preclude a company from doing business with Kenner.
Zahn has maintained his low profile. He did not return requests for comment Tuesday, and Kenner's next council meeting isn't until Sept. 20. The silence is unusual for a politician who, during more than a decade in political office, has often relished mixing it up with opponents, especially when they offer what he considers unfair or incorrect criticism. In fact, it could be argued that a certain tenaciousness — some would call it combativeness — has been the primary characteristic of Zahn's tenure in three elected positions.
It wasn't always that way. Before entering elective politics, Zahn was known primarily as the third-generation proprietor of his family's flower shop, a Kenner mainstay that predates World War II. He got involved in the city's political scene while still in his 20s, serving on several boards and commissions, and forming the early political bonds that he would later use to vault into public office. He worked on the campaigns of former Kenner Police Chief Nick Congemi and former Mayor Ed Muniz.
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In 2006, Zahn made his own bid for elected office, winning the District 3 seat on the Kenner City Council. He was known as an aggressive campaigner, said longtime friend Jeff Zapata.
"He taught people how to out-hustle your opponent," Zapata said. "He had unlimited energy." He also had the support of then-Mayor Mike Yenni, who made clear whom he was backing, and urged others to do the same.
Five years later, Zahn took that energy to the Parish Council, winning the District 4 seat and jumping into choppy political waters with council lines clearly drawn. Zahn quickly allied himself one of those factions and began showing that he would not back down from a fight.
Notably, Zahn clashed repeatedly with Councilman Chris Roberts, a west bank-based veteran of the the parish's factional political scene who holds one of two at-large council seats. The two clashed over the lease of the parish's two public hospitals and over Roberts' move to pass a parish ordinance banning political consultants who worked for candidates in recent parish elections from holding contracts with the parish.
Zahn's political consultant, Greg Buisson, later sued the parish and Roberts over that ordinance. The suit was tossed, but not before Zahn, in his final days in office, tried to persuade the Parish Council to settle it for $120,000.
"Everything was a battle," Roberts said. "I think the parish became a lot more parochial during that period of time."
It was also during Zahn's tenure on the parish council that Zahn launched his first high-profile volley in the culture wars — one that presaged his spat with Nike — by renaming LaFreniere Park's holiday celebration "Christmas in the Park." When questioned, he allowed at the time that other religions would be permitted "within reason," noting that groups would not be allowed to display symbols of the Islamic State, for instance. His efforts prompted a stern letter from the ACLU, who noted that no matter the name, all religions had to be permitted, and that Islamic State was not a religion, but a state. Zahn didn't back down, though.
Zahn left the Jefferson Parish Council to run for Kenner mayor in late 2016, winning a race to fill the one year then remaining in Mike Yenni's term. At Kenner City Hall, he has worked to add art to Kenner's public streets and reduce blight in the city.
There have also been fights. Zahn feuded publicly with City Councilman Keith Reynaud and his wife, Dona. The two were often critical of what they called Zahn's imperious ways. The fight got ugly: Zahn accused Dona Reynaud of striking his college-aged son at Kenner's Festa Italiana in 2017, and Reynaud accused him of being behind a campaign to make her and her husband look bad.
Keith Reynaud opted not to run again in 2018, and Dona Reynaud lost her quixotic campaign for mayor, earning just 11 percent in a three-way race in which Zahn earned 80 percent of the vote.
Since that election, there had been relative peace on the council, though Zahn has occasionally shown a penchant for steering into politically charged waters -- such as when he told a crowd gathered at Kenner's Freedom Fest on Sept. 2 that "in the city of Kenner, we all stand" for the national anthem.
That remark might have passed harmlessly if it hadn't been followed by his shot at Nike that was soon heard around the world.
Nike's Kaepernick ad has drawn widespread derision from conservatives, but as yet, no other municipalities have tried to ban purchases from the apparel giant.
It's unclear whether Zahn was seeking — or even anticipated — the uproar his memo would create. He did not send it out to the news media. Instead, it materialized several days after its issuance on social media.
The gambit baffled some Jefferson Parish politicos, who privately wondered what possible political end the controversial and likely empty policy could serve. Others suggested that it was a miscalculation by Zahn, pointing to his long silence as evidence.
Regardless, it thrust the city -- perhaps Louisiana's most diverse, with the state's largest Latino population and nearly half of its residents nonwhite -- into the middle of a divisive national debate. The country's divisions, and Kenner's, were on full display at a rally held at Susan Park on Monday night. There, several hundred people — overwhelmingly African-American — gathered to protest Zahn's policy. But Zahn wasn't present, nor was any member of the City Council. The peaceful rally featured choruses of "We Shall Overcome," impassioned speeches from coaches at some of Kenner's parks and three Saints players.
Perhaps more importantly, however, a number of speakers hammered home a now-familiar message.
"Elections have consequences," Jefferson Parish Councilman Mark Spears said. "Register to vote."
While Spears is black, as were most of the protesters at the rally, Zahn still has allies in Kenner's black community. Among them is Councilman Gregory Carroll, who said a previous commitment kept him from Susan Park until after the rally had ended. A day later, he said he didn't think Zahn was a racist, and vowed that he would continue to work with him to improve the city. He said Zahn has made overtures to the black community, such as recently appointing two African-American women to high positions in the Citizens' Services Department.
Even so, Carroll is struggling to understand what could have prompted Zahn to issue such a policy, which Carroll has vowed to challenge.
"I think it divides our city and is on the cusp of being illegal," he said. "It's just mind-boggling where this came from."
Advocate staff writer Chad Calder contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect that Kenner Councilman Gregory Carroll arrived at the Monday's rally after it ended.