New Orleans city hall

Advocate staff file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans City Hall on Thursday, October 1, 2015.

N.O. City Council races starting to shape up

Months ahead of qualifying for the October municipal primary elections, the New Orleans City Council races are beginning to shape up.

Thus far, a handful of political newcomers are making their intentions known early, while sitting council members are largely being coy about their plans.

The new faces include lawyer Joseph Giarrusso III and writer-editor Drew Ward in District A and urban redevelopment specialist Eric Johnson in District B.

A few others — BOLD standard bearer Jay Banks, former Orleans Parish School Board President Seth Bloom and attorney Mark Vicknair — would say only that they are considering runs in either District A or District B, depending on where they live.

Those two seats are now held by Susan Guidry, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election in District A, and LaToya Cantrell, who has made it clear that her eyes are on the top prize of New Orleans mayor.

Qualifying begins July 12 and ends July 14.

Throwing his hat in the ring a second time is Ward, who ran against Guidry in 2014. If elected, Ward, who last ran as a Republican but has since become a Democrat, hopes to sell his council colleagues on a complex overhaul of city government.

Among other changes, he envisions a municipal assembly of 50 or more citizens that would have the final say on major decisions, rather than the mayor or the City Council. The council would still exist but only to draft proposals that the municipal group would approve or reject. Such a change could help eliminate corruption, he said.

Going up against Ward would be Giarrusso, a lawyer and the grandson of the former at-large city councilman and police chief of the same name. Giarrusso, a Democrat who has the backing of state Sen. J.P. Morrell, said he plans to reveal more about his campaign later.

“Making the city safe, fixing the streets and growing the local economy are my priorities,” he said in an email.

Vicknair, another lawyer and a member of the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, is also eyeing the District A seat. He said he will decide one way or the other after Mardi Gras.

A spokeswoman for Guidry confirmed that she is considering running for one of the two at-large seats, which represent the entire city. Those slots are now held by Jason Williams and Stacy Head.

Williams has been rumored to be a contender in the upcoming mayor’s race, while Head, after serving on the council since 2006, is term-limited and is expected to walk away from the front lines of city politics.

Guidry could face competition for one of those at-large seats from state Rep. Helena Moreno, who is weighing a run with Morrell’s support.

District D Councilman Jared Brossett said in a statement last week that he’s “not ruling anything out” come this fall. “Whether I’m an at-large or district council member, I'll continue to do everything in my power to build a stronger city,” he said.

James Gray is widely expected to run again for his District E seat.

It's not yet clear what path District C Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, who launched a long-shot bid for mayor in 2010, will take.

Another newcomer planning to sign up in July is Eric Johnson, who is eyeing the District B seat Cantrell could vacate. Johnson is a former aide to Jim Singleton, a longtime leader of the BOLD organization.

Though Johnson previously said that he would run only if Cantrell decides to qualify in the mayor’s race, he said in a recent interview that he will run regardless.

“I will take issues like crime, historic preservation, ongoing development, infrastructure … into a comprehensive strategy, working with citizens to figure out how we move the needle forward in New Orleans,” he said.

Banks, director of the Dryades YMCA’s School of Commerce who reigned as King Zulu last year, would say only that he is considering running in District B and is being encouraged by people who want him to do so.

Bloom, who decided against defending his School Board seat last year, was similarly cautious. He plans to announce his final decision on a District B race sometime this spring.

“We had a very long presidential campaign,” Bloom said. “There’s still a judicial election. I think the citizens in New Orleans are a little bit campaign fatigued.”

Montgomery to use Reed's event venue

Throughout his campaign and first two years in office, north shore District Attorney Warren Montgomery has persistently sought to distance himself from his predecessor, Walter Reed, who held the job for three decades but is scheduled to be sentenced on federal corruption charges next month.

But in at least one respect, Montgomery is returning to the scene of one of Reed's crimes. It's the Castine Center in Mandeville, where Reed threw fundraisers that drew the attention of federal investigators.

Montgomery, who was swept into office in late 2014 on a crest of "throw the bums out" sentiment, is planning an event there for November. His campaign volunteers — including DA's Office Civil Division Chief Tony Lemon — have already begun soliciting donations, including asking donors to give $4,000 to reserve a table at the event.

That amount has raised some eyebrows.

"That's more than twice as much as what Walter asked," said one attorney who didn't want to be named for fear it would affect his pending cases in the 22nd Judicial District Court.

Montgomery said the Castine Center is the only venue in western St. Tammany Parish that can host such an event, and that he was holding the fundraiser because "campaigns cost money." The proceeds will be put in his war chest for 2020 and also used to retire campaign debt, he said. 

Reed threw at least two fundraisers in the popular event hall, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz had a rally there last year during his failed quest for the Republican nomination for president. 

Montgomery said that, unlike Reed, he has prohibited his employees from contributing to his campaign and that he won't have staff members working the event as bartenders, as Reed did. 

Compiled by Jessica Williams and Faimon A. Roberts III 

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.