Saturday's runoff for a seat on the Orleans Parish Civil District Court bench will be decided along racial lines, if last month's primary results offer a clue.
The battle is sketched in black and white as attorneys Rachael Johnson, 40, and Suzanne "Suzy" Montero, 53, make their final push for votes, with a slender turnout expected for the only contest on the Orleans Parish ballot.
Montero, who is white, won nearly 88 percent of the white vote and just 2 percent of the black vote on her way to claiming a spot in the runoff, according to an analysis by University of New Orleans political science professor Ed Chervenak.
Johnson, who is black, came in 600 votes behind Montero while taking 80 percent of the black vote and 7 percent of the white vote.
Montero won 45 percent of the overall vote, to 43 percent for Johnson. Attorney Marie Williams, who is black, trailed with 11 percent, mostly from heavily black precincts.
"When you have a biracial election, a very low-stimulus election where we don't have a lot of information about the candidates and their qualifications, people tend to fall back on shortcuts like race," Chervenak said.
He predicts voter turnout will be similar to the 10 percent of registered voters who cast ballots in the primary. "These are your hard-core, chronic voters," he said.
Given what Chervenak described as a classic case of "racially polarized voting patterns" in the primary, Williams' exit from the race figures to favor Johnson, whose mother is Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson.
But Williams, soured by a nasty attack mailer from Johnson's campaign, didn't follow those racial patterns herself: She has endorsed Montero.
Johnson and Montero each are making their first run at public office, aiming to fill a seat left vacant last year when Judge Regina Bartholomew-Woods won a seat on the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
Johnson has touted her master's degree and early career in social work in Atlanta as a selling point, along with a 12-year legal career that has included work as an assistant city attorney in Riviera Beach, Florida.
Montero has made her case with voters based on an edge in courtroom experience, particularly at Civil District Court, where she boasts of some two dozen trials under her belt.
After leaving Tulane law school, Johnson worked for then-Civil Court Judge Nadine Ramsey, now a New Orleans city councilwoman. She was admitted to the Louisiana bar two months after Hurricane Katrina hit the city and said she opted to take a job in Florida.
Johnson returned to New Orleans in 2012 to work as an attorney for The Hartford insurance company.
Fur is flying in the race for a seat on the Civil District Court bench in Orleans Parish, wi…
Her background in social work, including work for a private agency in Florida, "is a perfect foundation for the legal work that I've done and want to do. To me it's one of the best qualifications I have," she said.
"You're not an advocate when you get to the bench, so (being) the best trial attorney is great, but that's not the best quality," she added. "The issue is: Are you competent to deal with whatever comes before you?"
Montero has underscored her experience as a civil attorney in New Orleans, where her parents — Wilson and Joan Montero — were prominent lawyers.
An LSU law school grad, Montero has worked mostly on the plaintiff's side, with the Martzell and Bickford firm and the law firm of Warren "Chip" Forstall.
"It's important to have judges who have had trial experience, to have judges who understand how important it is to be able to posture a case for either settlement or trial," Montero said.
An Orleans Parish judge was wrong when he forced judicial candidate Suzy Montero to pull TV …
Among her plans should she win, Montero said, is to improve access to the court for Spanish-speaking and Vietnamese residents.
Professionally speaking, Montero described the civil courthouse as "my home."
"I'm New Orleans-born, New Orleans-bred, and when I die, I'm gonna be New Orleans dead," she said. "I have dedicated every day of the 25 years of practice that I've had in Orleans Parish."
Thus far, the two candidates have toned down the vitriol that erupted before the primary in a flurry of negative ads and legal challenges to those ads. Both sides have stayed mum over their campaign strategies in the days leading up to Saturday's vote.
Chervenak said early voting for the runoff was 27 percent higher than for the primary. That could favor Johnson, who took 53 percent of the early votes in the primary.
Montero has the fundraising edge. She received $84,000 in contributions in the month leading up to the primary, while spending $190,000. She has loaned her campaign $115,000, state campaign finance reports show.
Johnson raised $53,000 in the most recent reporting period and lent her campaign $20,000. She spent $145,000 in that period.