What began as an attempt for the long serving assessor of Jefferson Parish to resign early--allowing his successor to take office prior to 2012's re-assessment process--has exploded into a political chain-reaction that could impact the statewide race for Lt. Governor and change the landscape of the hotly contested Jefferson Parish President's contest.
As intimate sources close to Lawrence Chehardy reveal to The Louisiana Weekly newspaper and Bayoubuzz.com, none of the rumors that took flight when the Assessor submitted his intent to resign on Jan. 1, 2011 had even a shred of truth. The Jefferson Assessor maintained that he was neither a target of the on-going Federal investigation into Parish Government nor dying of some virulent disease.
After 34 years in office, senior aides to Chehardy explained, that the Assessor was simply ready to retire, and he thought that by submitting his resignation on Tuesday, June 24, 2010, he could both allow the election for his replacement to go on the already scheduled October ballot--costing the taxpayers nothing--and allow that assessor to take office well before every home and commercial property in Jefferson Parish stood to be reassessed by state law in 2012.
One high ranking advisor put it to the Weekly and Bayoubuzz.com, "If Lawrence had stayed in office until the end of his term, whomever was elected at the next regular election would not have taken office--by state law--until January 1, 2013." In other words, that new assessor would take office in the wake of a confusing reassessment process, where property owners would be complaining about the new valuations on their houses and storefronts, and he or she could do nothing about it.
The reassessment process would have begun and ended prior to the newly elected official taking office, and all that person would inherit would be the grief.
Anxious to retire after 34 years in office, Chehardy had another idea. He would target his resignation early enough to give the new assessor almost two years to "establish his own policies" and prepare for the controversial reassessment process that could see Jefferson Parish homes jumping exponentially in their values. (By state law, Assessors have lost most of their one-time power to adjust home valuations. They must act within a specific and limiting set of guidelines and are subject to review by a state board.)
"Lawrence agreed to stick around," the source explained, "if the new assessor needed him. He wasn't jumping ship.. He just wanted to give that person a chance to establish his own procedures...He never had any other political motive."
The political reaction, however, was extreme. Chehardy submitted the resignation, by all accounts, firmly believing that the election for his replacement would come this fall. It would have, had he known that Friday was actually the legal deadline for Parish officials to resign--a technicality that Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, a candidate for Lt. Governor, is exploiting to the hilt.
By statute, the Secretary is quite correct. A strict reading of the law specifies that a resignation would have to have occurred by June 18th in order for parish or parochial candidates to appear on the October ballot. Otherwise a special election would not NEED to be called until the following April. However, the Secretary of State does have some leeway by law.
Most election law officials agree that Dardenne, in his constitutional role, could have waved the Friday deadline and allowed the two day extension without a significant legal problem. Of course, had the Secretary done so, he would have found himself on the ballot in Jefferson Parish in the midst of a competitive Parish Presidents race (already scheduled) and the first open Assessor's contest in almost fifty years. [Lawrence Chehardy, and his father of the same name, have held the office for half a century without significant opposition.]
The parish turnout in Jefferson would have out-stripped every other region of the state. With a population of 500,000 people, Jefferson is already the Louisiana's most populous region. A competitive election in not only those critical parochial offices, but in the primaries in South Kenner and West Bank Jefferson for the Second Congressional District would have benefited a Lieutenant Gubernatorial candidate from Jefferson Parish, namely State GOP Chairman Roger Villere.
Villere's support in the state's largest parish is ubiquitous. Nearly every local elected official backs his candidacy from Sheriff Newell Norman on down. His name recognition, which has little resonance in other parts of Louisiana, dominates the field in the New Orleans Metro Area. Every local schoolchild knows that Villere's ancestors were one of the five founding families of the Crescent City and produced the first native governor of Louisiana. And, the Battle of New Orleans was fought in part on what was once his family's plantation. (Not to mention the grocery stores which Villere's family never owned, but, regardless, nearly everyone locally over the age of 30 shopped at a Canal Villere at some time in the past.)
More recently, Villere's flower trucks are everywhere--emblazoned with his name. One cannot drive down a New Orleans thoroughfare and not see a Villere's Florist van or an advertisement for Roger Villere's own company.
[In fact, his qualifications for the Lt. Governor's office involve his company's long work with visiting conventions, both bringing them to New Orleans--in his civic roles as part of the chamber, GOP, and national florist groups and in his corporate work of serving as the principal florist and decorating service for most of the city's convention traffic. Not surprisingly, Villere has won the sweepstakes of support from many tourism officials that previously had backed Mitch Landrieu's bids.]
While Roger Villere's name is common knowledge in Jefferson and Orleans, few in the Crescent City's general electorate have heard of Jay Dardenne. The Secretary of State, a fixture of Baton Rouge politics, won his statewide office in a special election that garnered little widespread attention. He has never had a competitive election during a high turnout of the vote. Even most chronic voters have little direct familiarity with him outside of his Baton Rouge base--as polling data suggests.
And, East Baton Rouge will not enjoy a high turnout in October and November. The current Congressman Bill Cassidy expects little opposition and little else is on the ballot, a contrast with Jefferson's heavy fight for Parish President and both it and Orleans' battle between Joseph Cao, State Rep. Cedric Richmond, and former Sewerage & Water Board member Tommie Vassel for the 2nd Congressional District seat.
Without an Orleans area Democrat on the ballot for Lt. Governor (and currently no Democrat but North LA PSC member Foster Campbell even looking at a bid), Villere stands to pick up the lionshare of support in the inner metro area. That matched with his extensive network of party support, ward leaders, and LFRW members, backing his campaign across the state, would make Villere the frontrunner, despite polls that have suggested otherwise. (continued below)
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Continued...Under normal circumstances, the power of Dardenne's incumbency would trump all of those factors, but a low turnout across the state and a high turnout in the city would level the paying field. The typical factors of breath of support would not apply as strongly, and considering that the candidacy of St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis would limit Dardenne's appeal in the Florida Parishes, the most natural area of expansion for his campaign after Baton Rouge, this becomes doubly true.
Triply, if Democrat Foster Campbell should run, eating in to Dardenne's North Louisiana support.
That scenario remains true, of course, only if Jefferson Parish voter turnout is abnormally high or the Parish President's race remains competitive. By refusing to grant Lawrence Chehardy's request that the October election and its November runoff include candidates to succeed him, the election transforms from a nearly gubernatorial turnout to merely a strong special election.
However, that only remains true if both Councilmen At Large John Young and Thomas Capella remain engaged in their highly competitive contest against one another. Should one or the other jump into the Assessor's race, the interest in the Parish President's contest would transform over-night.
Young, a former Ass. District Attorney, is the front-runner. He has long been a critic of the nature of contracting and procedures in Parish government, and seemed somewhat prescient in the aftermath of the Federal investigation. He enters the race with a campaign bank account of over $850,000, outstripping all others.
Thomas Capella, though, has his own strengths. Heavily supported by popular Sheriff Newell Norman and the Jeff Parish establishment, he stands with strong institutional support, though not as much as popular or financial backing as John Young at this time.
What if either man should choose to jump into the Assessor's race--even if it ends up in April 2011 rather than in the fall as Chehardy desired. The Parish President's contest transforms instantly, as does the Lt. Governor's race and Joseph Cao's chances of re-election to Congress.
While some prominent outsiders have expressed a desire to run, like Larry Haas of Hass Flooring, a well-known local businessman with extensive grassroots support, few have the standing of either Capella or Young. Turnout would lessen, benefiting Dardenne.
Such a scenario would also hurt Second District Congressman Joseph Cao. The Vietnamese Republican is counting on heavy turnout in West Bank Jefferson Parish from the Parish President's race to help get White voters to the polls in this very Democratic and African-American Congressional district. That is his clearest need in order to construct a coalition to win. (That and several independent candidates in the race as well.)
Without a strong Parish Presidential runoff, this is less likely to happen. Nothing else will be on the ballot in Jefferson Parish of any significance, thanks, in part, to Jay Dardenne's choice.
Of course, neither Young nor Capella seems to have expressed much interest in jumping to the Assessor's race. In an interview on Thursday, John Young told the Weekly that he is "strongly committed to reforming Jefferson Parish government as its next Parish President" and at a Chamber event earlier in the week, Thomas Capella seemed focused on his campaign as well.
What further gives credence to the idea that both men will stay put in their current race is the growing rumor that District Councilwoman Cynthia Lee Sheng might run for Assessor herself.
The newly elected Councilwoman has said nothing about a potential bid, but friends have urged the daughter of legendary Sheriff Harry Lee to consider running. Short of being a board certified property assessor herself, she would outstrip all others as the most qualified candidate. A former Forensic Accountant, she spent years trying accurately qualify financial statements--and tracking fraud and obfuscation in the reporting of financial and property values.
Qualifying for both Jefferson Parish President and Lt. Governor is in late August. The Secretary of State's office has announced that the election to succeed Assessor Chehardy will be held on April 2, 2011, some four months after his resignation takes effect.
Christopher Tidmore is on the radio weekdays from 7-8 AM on WSLA 1560 AM Slidell/New Orleans & KKAY 1590 AM White Castle/Baton Rouge, streamed live on www.gtmorning.com