She’s a native in a city suspicious of outsiders. Her last name is one that’s been associated with local politics for a generation. She served as a judge for a decade, and her fundraising prowess was obvious immediately.
So after she left her seat in Orleans Parish Municipal Court to run for mayor — even without much of a public profile — Desiree Charbonnet quickly achieved something close to front-runner status.
She has found out that being the candidate to beat is not always pleasant. In an otherwise largely tame election season, Charbonnet is the only one among the leading candidates to draw much negative attention, targeted by flyers suggesting that she has shady connections and should not be trusted to handle the city’s purse strings.
It means that while she drives home her deep roots in the city and promises to tackle crime and lift wages, she is also trying to fend off a concerted campaign to derail her candidacy, paid for by a political action committee whose backers haven’t been revealed.
Charbonnet argues the flyers are both racist and sexist. And she said it was telling that they mostly criticize people she is associated with, rather than going after her own career.
“The use of the individuals around me, in my opinion, shows that they can’t particularly criticize me individually,” she said. “And I think that’s what the public should be aware of.”
The former judge’s emphasis on her lineage — which can be traced back to late 18th century New Orleans — comes as she and rival candidate LaToya Cantrell, a California native, vie to capture the votes of residents who feel it’s time New Orleans had a woman mayor.
A third top candidate, Michael Bagneris, is also able to leverage his status as a native son, if not his gender, to seek votes.
But neither Bagneris nor Cantrell has anything close to Charbonnet’s more than $1.2 million war chest, which — coupled with wide support from the city’s political establishment — has positioned Charbonnet as the candidate to beat in the race.
Record of public service
The cousin of a former state legislator and the sister of a political operative, Charbonnet has been involved in politics for decades.
She entered her first local race, for recorder of mortgages, in 1998 at age 29 — four years after graduating from Loyola University’s law school and a year after being hired at a law firm run by her brother, longtime political insider Bernard “Bunny” Charbonnet Jr.
She won in an upset, defeating an incumbent backed by then-Mayor Marc Morial. Charbonnet’s campaign, led by her brother, benefited from the support of a coalition of black political organizations.
Once elected, Charbonnet launched an initiative to educate renters about homeownership opportunities. When Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters forced some government offices to temporarily relocate outside New Orleans, her office stayed put so people wouldn’t have to drive hours to update their mortgage records with the city.
After the storm, she supported legislation to fold her office into the Civil District Court clerk’s office, “basically merging herself out of a job,” Bunny Charbonnet said.
Moving on to the Municipal Court bench, Charbonnet oversaw the second merger of her career, that of the city's municipal and traffic courts. She also created a diversion program for nonviolent offenders such as the homeless, mentally ill and drug-addicted. It was designed to keep them out of jail and get them much-needed treatment.
“When a person feels like they are not being judged because of whatever they are suffering with when they show up in a court, it really changes their feeling about coming back,” Charbonnet said.
It’s that track record of public service that led Cynthia Charbonnet Bernard, Desiree’s older sister and campaign treasurer, to encourage her to think about the mayor’s race.
“I know how passionate she is, and I know how much she has to offer,” said Bernard, a former public school principal.
Bernard wasn’t the only one. Charbonnet, who was focused earlier this year on an open 4th Circuit Court of Appeal slot, in April decided to give the mayor’s race serious consideration after numerous supporters, including politicos such as former City Councilman Eddie Sapir, pressed her to take the leap.
What finally convinced Charbonnet to sign up, she said, was the possibility of having a broader impact, after having gotten a taste of how she could improve lives on the bench. Seeing former drug addicts come back to court and tell her they had found a job made her realize she could help people on a bigger scale, she said.
“I felt compelled to get off the bench and run for mayor,” she said.
'The fiber of politics'
As the two sisters, laughing over fried catfish, grits and eggs at Dunbar’s Restaurant on Earhart Boulevard recently, recalled the push to recruit Charbonnet, the former judge’s easy manner — arguably one of the best tools in a politician’s toolbox — was evident.
Some insiders, particularly in the black community, see her personality as a sharp contrast with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whom they criticize as often high-handed and unwilling to listen to other points of view.
Still, she is also drawing sharp criticism, if mostly so far from anonymous sources.
Glossy mailers that hit mailboxes earlier this month portrayed her as beholden to heavyweight political operatives Ike Spears and Blair Boutte and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, power brokers who have had a big influence on some local races.
They also recalled how she fired about two dozen employees after her election as recorder of mortgages and replaced them with new staff.
One attorney she hired was former state Sen. Paulette Irons, who had endorsed Charbonnet for the recorder's job. Another was Spears. A third was a niece of former U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson, who also endorsed Charbonnet and who is now serving a 13-year federal sentence for corruption charges. Still more were recommended by either Irons or Mose Jefferson, according to a 2000 lawsuit. The latter, Bill Jefferson’s brother, was later convicted on four felony counts of bribery.
Critics also point to a Times-Picayune report in 2000 suggesting Charbonnet might have received a $1,500-a-month contract with the New Orleans Aviation Board because of the support Bunny Charbonnet and the COUP political organization threw behind Marlin Gusman, then Morial's chief administrative officer, in a City Council race.
Pressed recently about the hires, Charbonnet said that Irons and Spears’ salaries — roughly $20,000 a year — were modest and that the office was efficient.
“Whenever anybody hires a lawyer, you hire somebody you can trust and somebody you have confidence in,” she said.
She said the flyers attacking her, which depicted entirely black figures and were sent to white neighborhoods, were racist and that suggestions that Richmond, Spears or Boutte is pulling her strings behind the scenes is sexist.
Bunny Charbonnet, who is not involved in his sister’s current campaign, said he actually advised her against running for mayor because of the possibility that she’d face such mudslinging. Their mother was against it for the same reason, he said.
He scoffed at claims that Desiree Charbonnet is the “queen of patronage.”
“Patronage is part of the fiber of politics,” he said, claiming that Landrieu, other former mayors and countless other politicians around the country have rewarded loyal, qualified supporters with key positions in government.
“What you don’t want is corruption. There’s a big difference. ... And Desiree’s career has never been tainted by corruption.”
Charbonnet said that if elected, she will largely preserve the reforms Landrieu put in place around city procurement, which he touted as hiring contractors based on “what they know, not who they know.” The reforms largely removed the mayor from professional services contracting and made the process more transparent.
“If the public’s used to that, we’re going to keep that going,” she said.
But she does want to tweak the process so that small and disadvantaged businesses would have a better sense of when they will be paid by the city, she said. She would institute an electronic tracking system so that businesses “can check the status of their contract like they would a UPS package.”
She said she would work toward a $15 minimum wage while enforcing the $10.55 minimum already on the books for employees of companies doing work for the city.
She would place a cap on short-term rentals in some neighborhoods and would require owners to have homestead exemptions for the properties they rent, eliminating absentee owners renting out multiple buildings.
She wants to add up to 100 officers a year to the depleted New Orleans Police Department, cut payments to the federal monitors who oversee the NOPD's consent decree and revamp the Office of Police Secondary Employment, which manages paid details for police officers.
In her first 180 days, she would examine what has and hasn’t worked under Landrieu, then release her findings and plans of action, she said. She’d launch national searches for a new chief administrative officer and police chief, yet would invite incumbents Jeff Hebert and Michael Harrison to apply.
And she’d ask for full reviews of the troubled Sewerage & Water Board, the Department of Public Works and the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, which she's also heard complaints about.
Her campaign has repeatedly noted that as the city's first female mayor, her election would make history. And speaking recently to a crowd of bingo regulars at the Arthur Monday Senior Center in Algiers, she seized on the chance to point up that fact to the elderly women in the room.
"I'm not asking you to vote for me because I am a woman," she said. "But I do want to make you proud as the first woman mayor of the city of New Orleans."