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Wednesday, 31 August 2011 19:19

Fielkow’s Resignation And The Politics Of Scheduling Louisiana Elections

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TidmoreWhen Arnie Fielkow was first running for the City Council, he did something usual for a candidate.  He told an uncomfortable truth.

       When asked if he were to lose the race, could the former Saints Exec. promise to stay in New Orleans, Fielkow broke with other, past, expatriate candidates and said, "Honestly, I would love to say that I would, but I can't.   The truth is if a job offer came that provided for my family, I would have to consider it."

         The future Councilman noted that even the $45,000 City Council salary was a massive cut from his previous six figure income, and not even winning that job would mean that "I probably would have to leave."

        Fielkow did win election, and for the next six and a half years, and through a re-election campaign, he stayed put in the Crescent City.  When others said that the Councilman should consider running for Congress or some other office, he would reply that he just wanted to serve on the Council and return to the private sector. 

        Fielkow turned Cincinnatus far sooner than anyone expected.   With two and a half years remaining on his term, the Councilman At-Large took the job as head of the National Basketball Retired Players Association.  

        Some accused Fielkow of abandoning the city for a mid-six figure income.  However, Fielkow himself observed some months ago to The Louisiana Weekly that many of his major legislative objectives had become law.   The City now employs an Inspector General.   The Councilman's hard fought campaign to create a public/private partnership to reform and better fund the city's playgrounds was ratified by the voters.   And, national attention--as well as private funds--are creating world class athletic training facilities in areas as unlikely as Pontchartrian Park. 

       (Even five years ago, some still argued that the landmark middle class neighborhood should not even be rebuilt.  Now, in large part due to Fielkow's efforts, it is on the cutting edge of sports training.)

         Fielkow himself wrote upon announcing his intent to resign, "I have worked as hard as possible to help improve the lives of all New Orleanians and am proud of our joint accomplishments. Be it helping ensure that the Saints remained in New Orleans for the long term, the reform of NORD, the recent ground breaking of the new Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy, the creation of the new public-private partnership for economic development, creation of the Office of Inspector General, authorship of laws to strengthen local and minority contracting, strong advocacy to combat discrimination and inequity, ensuring social justice for the gay, lesbian and immigrant communities, supporting a broadening of adoption laws, passage of laws to ensure a more transparent and open government, or even our annual youth civil rights trip to Birmingham, I can honestly state that I have given everything I had, and have finished much of the agenda I set out to accomplish to make New Orleans a better city and help it realize its yet untapped potential. Of special importance, the Saints continued presence here in New Orleans means everything to our citizens and I am tremendously gratified they have remained here and will be here for years to come."

       "As my close friends know," Fielkow continued, "I have dearly missed the sports field, an industry in which I have spent over 20 years. Today, I am announcing that I am returning to this career to accept the position as the new Chief Executive Officer of the National Basketball Retired Players Association."

      "The NBRPA, the official association of the NBA, ABA and Harlem Globetrotters, is comprised of all former players from these organizations. This Association was founded in 1992 by basketball legends Oscar Robertson, Dave Bing, Dave DeBusschere, Dave Cowens and Archie Clark, and works in direct partnership with both the NBA and National Basketball Players Association. This new leadership opportunity presents an incredible upside for growth, including initiatives around the globe, national television and marketing, and events/programming designed to enhance the quality of life for all former players. I am extremely honored that the NBRPA Board of Directors, after an exhaustive national search, has entrusted me with the leadership of this prestigious organization."

        "I tendered a formal letter of resignation, effective October 1, to City Council President Clarkson and look forward to working with the entire Council in concluding my city work over the next six weeks. I am confident the Council will identify an able and qualified interim replacement on October 1, pending a special election this fall."

          The question is, will there be a special election timed for the currently scheduled November runoff date, with a second primary, if needed, in December, as Fielkow hoped, to fill the At-Large post?   When last year, Jefferson Parish Assessor Lawrence Chehardy announced a resignation, hoping to have a special election shortly thereafter in the Fall, then-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne said that the resignation letter arrived six days too late to legally schedule the election.  Dardenne scheduled it for the Spring.

        This caused a howl of protest from Chehardy saying that he had announced his intention to resign the previous Friday, well before the deadline, in the hope that the public treasury would not have to pay for an additional special election.  Chehardy wanted an election when the voters were already scheduled to go to the polls--in October and November.   Dardenne replied that his hands were tied.  It had to be the Spring.  The Sec. State claimed to bound by the law, but critics, including Chehardy, wondered if a political motive might have been behind the Secretary's timing of the election.  

       One of Dardenne's main challengers for Lt. Governor last October, LAGOP Chairman Roger Villere would have been helped by another strong turnout race in his home base of Jefferson Parish.  At least that was the theory.  In practice, as Dardenne argued, an extra Autumn election probably would not have impacted the result of the Lt. Governor's race at all.

       As it turns out, Dardenne did quite well in Villere's home parish, as did Kevin Davis, the Northshore candidate.   The results would have likely been similar even with the higher turnout of another parochial race.   And, besides, neither Villere nor Davis ended up in the runoff.  Democrat Caroline Fayard did after besting third place finisher Republican Sammy Kershaw.

      That specter of political favoritism, though, hangs over any decision that Dardenne's replacement, interim Secretary of State Tom Schedler makes in scheduling a special election for New Orleans City Council At-Large.  

      Should Schedler follow the letter of the law, and schedule from the date of resignation in October, forcing a Spring election, then critics will claim that Schedler is trying to affect turnout in New Orleans, benefiting his bid for a full term.  That is a damaging claim since his principal opponent in the Secretary of State's race is fellow Republican and House Speaker Jim Tucker, an Orleanian from Algiers.

      And, his only possible Democratic opponent, Caroline Fayard, would also benefit from the higher Black turnout that an At-Large race would generate.  Despite the public view that she is as a Livingston Parish candidate--the parish of her birth--Fayard is actually an Orleans resident.  (That is, of course, if Fayard runs.  Recent rumors have speculated that she might not enter the contest.)

      Schedler opting for a November primary--by dating the resignation for this week, the moment that Fielkow announced that he would leave office--will eliminate claims of the interim Secretary is aiding his own re-election, but at what cost to his candidacy?

      A Spring election might draw more candidates for At-Large.  Currently, Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge Morrell is the favorite for a November election.  Her son JP Morrell is on the ballot for the State Senate against Cynthia Willard Lewis in October, aiding name recognition, and the higher Black turnout for a regularly scheduled November election would probably benefit an African-American and sitting incumbent.

     A Spring contest could draw a slew of challengers, including Willard Lewis should she not be successful in her bid to unseat the younger Morrell.   Willard Lewis has twice attempted to be elected At-Large, failing in both bids to defeat Jackie Clarkson.  

       The advantage for an African-American in a special election, is unlike the regularly scheduled Orleans Council elections, a candidate wins with 50% of the vote, not the 25% needed in the primary.   In a crowded field, the ability of the Caucasian community to unite behind a White candidate has resulted in the election of several White At-Large members in a Black majority city.  Even one Republican, Peggy Wilson, pulled it off in this very Democratic parish.  

       At a 50% majority to win, a head to head contest could benefit an African-American contender, but not necessarily guarantee his or her election.  Special elections, like a potential Spring contest, are famous for their higher White than Black turnout.  That's a large part of the reason Clarkson first beat Willard Lewis.

       African-American chances are better in November.  A Spring contest, on the other hand, would be perfect for a candidate like Stacy Head, who has won twice in a Black Majority district, and like Hedge Morrell is term limited. Her upscale, affluent Caucasian and African-American supporters would have a disproportionate influence with nothing else on the ballot.  Head, so far, has expressed little interest in the post, but she could change her mind in the coming months.

      Regardless, a bid for Council At-Large, now or later, is expensive and time consuming.   As political consultant Sid Arroyo put it, "[T]here’s the sleep deprivation, the long thankless hours of meeting after meeting, committee after committee, droning report after droning report…It ain’t all glamour, dawlin’. The only place you can really expect to catch a few winks is at those interminable, endless, mind-numbing council meetings."

      "And naturally, always lurking are those pesky things called issues. crime. potholes. crime. abandoned houses. crime. taxes. crime. hurricane protection. crime. lack of hospital beds. crime. et cetera. And you’re expected to solve these problems that have plagued us since Bienville got off the boat, stuck his foot in the mud and said, 'Hey! A city in a swamp! What a great idea!'”

        "Of course, there is some upside to the gig. you get to have your life dissected and investigated. by the press, by the feds, by other people who want your job. there are no secrets that won’t come out. There is no privacy. and that’s actually kind of liberating, right? Unless of course, such liberation ends in an indictment or lawsuit….Do I really need to cite examples?

          "Yup, it takes a certain mindset to want this job and to do this job right. you need thick skin. you need to love a challenge. you need to care about those around you enough to put their needs first. you need to have a hunger for public service that supersedes all the obstacles. you need to love this city with all your heart and be prepared to sacrifice your time, your talent, and possibly your own personal economic wellbeing. you need to like people. and you need the courage of your convictions and the willingness to do what’s right instead of what’s popular or easy.  Come to think of it, for the right person, maybe the job isn’t so bad after all." 

        In the end, though, it may all be up to the New Orleans City Council.   Council President Jackie Clarkson said Tuesday that a legal opinion backs the Mar. 24 special election, with a runoff April 11. If that timetable is approved at the council meeting this Thursday, qualifying for the race would be Dec. 7-9.

      District B council member Stacy Head disagreed however, maintaining that her reading of the city charter indicated the election would have to be held between Oct. 23 and next February. That would put an election on the currently scheduled Nov. 19 date, with a Dec. 17 runoff special election.

        Clarkson's plan, revealed Tuesday, called for a resolution to be considered at this Thursday’s council meeting, which would ask the Secretary of State to schedule a Mar. 24 election. That coincides with Louisiana’s presidential primary election.

         Also the process to name an interim Councilmember in the Tuesday press release. Interested applicants have until 5 p.m. Sept. 12 to submit an application and resume. District A council member Susan Guidry, Chairperson of the Governmental Affairs Committee, will consider the applicants at its Sept. 15 meeting. Then the full council will vote on their nominee at its Sept. 22 meeting. The interim member is barred from running for the office in the election.

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