In an announcement that was more surprising for its timing than its content, City Council President Jason Williams made an early entry into the 2020 race for Orleans Parish district attorney this week, telling a packed New Orleans Film Festival audience that he’s going to try to become the city’s next top prosecutor.
Williams, 45, made plain what many political observers had long expected: that he’ll take another run at a position he sought a decade ago, when as a neophyte politician he ran a distant third to Leon Cannizzaro.
Since that loss, Williams has twice been elected to a citywide seat on the council, racking up 73 percent of the vote in last year’s election.
But whether he will face off against Cannizzaro, who will be 67 in 2020, is unclear. The district attorney, who is nearing the end of his second six-year term, has not said publicly whether he will seek re-election. On Wednesday, he declined to answer questions on the matter directly, instead referring an Advocate reporter to his spokesman.
The spokesman later issued a statement that did little to clarify Cannizzaro's plans. The statement said that "the job aspirations of others are immaterial," and that Cannizzaro and his staff "remain focused on doing our jobs of prosecuting criminals, enforcing our laws and advocating for the many crime victims of New Orleans."
Williams made his surprise announcement in response to a question at the end of a panel discussion Tuesday following a screening of a documentary on the Orleans Parish criminal justice system titled “Guilty Until Proven Guilty.”
Williams, a criminal defense attorney, features prominently in the film in his familiar role as one of Cannizzaro’s leading critics.
The documentary traces the course of an armed-robbery suspect’s troubled route through the court system, while casting a critical eye on Cannizzaro for, among other things, his prolific use of the state’s habitual-offender law to ratchet up sentences for repeat offenders.
That practice and others — such as a tough stance toward juvenile offenders, moving many of their cases to "adult court," and the practice of jailing recalcitrant witnesses to force them to show up at trials — have come under repeated fire from Williams and several council colleagues. The council trimmed the DA’s budget in 2016 and 2017, in part over its displeasure with those practices, an action Cannizzaro criticized in his statement.
He called Williams’ aspirations “immaterial, as long as they do not manifest themselves for the third year in a row in politically motivated budget cuts intended only to degrade this office and impede our ability to serve.”
Cannizzaro will likely appear before the council next month to explain and defend his budget allocation for 2019. He may be seeking more money than Mayor LaToya Cantrell is prepared to recommend; she has not yet released her proposed budget.
During a panel discussion after the documentary viewing, an audience member asked Williams about running for DA again, to which he responded, “2020.” Afterward, another audience member asked Williams if he was serious.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m on it.”
Reached later, Williams acknowledged he was throwing his hat in the ring.
“I think we need real change. It’s costing us money, and it's costing us lives, and I’m committed to bringing that reform,” he said.
Williams is the first candidate to announce for the district attorney’s race, still roughly two years away.
Other names bandied about the Criminal District Courthouse at Tulane Avenue and South Broad Street in recent months as possible candidates include Judges Keva Landrum-Johnson, a former interim DA, and Arthur Hunter.
Cannizzaro won his first two elections easily, but there have been signs of slipping popularity in recent years. A poll conducted by the Clarus Research Group for The Advocate and WWL-TV in October 2017 found the DA had an approval rating of 46 percent and a disapproval rate of 31 percent.
Those numbers were down substantially from the level of support that Ed Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans, had found a year earlier. Chervenak reported an approval rating of 55 percent, versus 25 percent disapproval.
At the time, Chervenak attributed Cannizzaro’s slide in popularity to a series of recent negative headlines for the DA.
Chervenak said Wednesday that Williams would make a formidable opponent for Cannizzaro.
“He has a very strong coalition in the city,” Chervenak said. “He’s got support all across the city, both in the white neighborhoods and the African-American neighborhoods, so he has very strong crossover appeal.”
But Chervenak cautioned that it’s very early to begin taking stock of a race that won’t occur until late 2020.
“Two years is a long time, and anything can happen between now and by the time we have the campaign,” he said.
Staff writers Gordon Russell and Matt Sledge contributed to this report.