Marlin Gusman’s powers as Orleans Parish sheriff have been eviscerated by a federal judge. His former right-hand man is on probation after pleading guilty to fraud charges. A court-appointed monitor is still deeply unsatisfied with conditions at the city jail Gusman was elected to run.
And his chances of winning a fourth full term in office look excellent.
When qualifying for the October primary wrapped up this month, Gusman had drawn a single, largely unknown opponent who lacks both funding and endorsements.
Yet political analysts are hardly surprised by what appears to be certain re-election for Gusman. Despite years of damaging headlines, the sheriff still enjoys a solid base of loyal supporters, and few other politicians seem interested in taking on the big and thankless job of reforming a lock-up that's operating under a federal consent decree.
“It appears to be a job that nobody wants,” said Ed Chervenak, a polling expert at the University of New Orleans. “You saw lots of challengers in other races, but not this one.”
The only other candidate to qualify, a former sheriff's deputy named Fredrick Brooks, appears to be a long shot. He has not declared any campaign donations or announced the backing of any big-name allies. A legal challenge could knock him off the ballot on Monday.
The field is that thin despite another year of setbacks for the incumbent.
Fredrick “Freddy” Brooks, a former deputy running against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusm…
In March 2016, a group of pastors including Leonard Lucas, a former state representative, gathered outside the jail to demand Gusman’s resignation.
In June, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk said Gusman had failed so badly at running the jail that a court-appointed administrator would take over its operation.
In September, his former chief deputy, Jerry Ursin, pleaded guilty to a federal fraud charge connected to off-duty detail jobs for deputies.
In October, a 15-year-old inmate hanged himself on the jail’s youth tier after a guard left her post.
All of those episodes provided fuel for Gusman’s opponents, who have challenged his stewardship of the jail for years. But observers said that despite the jail’s woes, Gusman is a canny operator who remains well-liked, especially in parts of the city's black community.
Gusman served as the chief administrative officer for Mayor Marc Morial and as a city councilman before becoming sheriff in 2004.
“Marlin’s just very well-known. He’s been involved in almost every level of government,” Chervenak said. “He’s got a very long political pedigree in this city.”
Gusman can lay claim to some positive developments at the jail, at least in the past few months. In January he and Mayor Mitch Landrieu settled a longstanding feud over the jail’s budget. In June, the federal judge said he believed that the jail was now on the “right track” under the new compliance director.
Lucas, the former critic, has now switched back to supporting Gusman.
“Recently, it seems that (the controversy) has died down, and for the most part the community didn’t believe a lot of that, and they saw that as a battle between the mayor and the sheriff,” Lucas said.
Lucas and Chervenak said Gusman has a powerful base of support among black voters. In a poll conducted in March 2016, he had 50 percent approval among black New Orleanians compared with 42 percent disapproval. White New Orleanians disapproved of him by a 52 percent to 29 percent margin.
“The black community sees him as an effective leader and an effective man. … They’re not allowing any other culture to decide their future in that race, for sure,” Lucas said.
In 2014, Gusman trounced former Sheriff Charles Foti, who is white, winning 67 percent of the vote in a runoff.
Ronal Serpas is taking a pass on politics.
There were whispers about other possible opponents before the close of the recent qualifying period. One well-known figure to test the waters was former New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, but he decided against running.
Billy Schultz, a political consultant, said others who considered running decided they simply could not beat Gusman.
“Politically, he’s strong, he’s well-financed and he’s entrenched. And it’s hard to dislodge an incumbent like that,” Schultz said. “Anybody with any smarts took a look at it and said it wasn’t going to happen.”
Reform groups like the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, which loudly denounces Gusman at many of his public appearances, would seem like natural supporters for a candidate challenging the incumbent. But Yvette Thierry, a steering committee member for the group, said reformers could not find a suitable candidate to step into the race.
“We never had an ideal candidate,” Thierry said. “If they ran against Gusman, they would be inheriting all of his problems, and I guess nobody really wants to deal with it.”
Thierry said the only other candidate in the race, Brooks, has not reached out to her group.
She said she and many others are frustrated at the lack of options on the October ballot.
“People have to be held accountable when they don’t do the right thing,” she said.
For his part, Gusman is taking a low-profile approach to his re-election campaign. Reached by phone about the election on Wednesday, Gusman said he would call a reporter back. He did not.