NOLA politics disrupted!
New Orleans politics is being disrupted. You know what disruption is right? By definition, it is an interruption to the regular flow or sequence of something. Think Uber vs. cabs. In New Orleans political circles, political insiders are bristling at a sudden shift. New power brokers are taking space. They are getting candidates elected. They are running aggressive and new style campaigns. But most of all, they got money! In particular, the African American political class is up in arms. This is war. And it is happening right before our very eyes. Not exactly sure what I’m talking about. Don’t worry. After you read this, you’ll be able to get your popcorn and watch too. It’s juicy and thrilling.
The bad new dudes in town really aren’t new. They are just shifting into new territory. With lots of cash, brash ideas about change and a couple of big wins under their belts, these guys are emboldened. Just in this current cycle they are creating havoc. And this is a relatively minor political season. But they have stopped one candidate from even campaigning. And they are changing the polling in a judgeship that once seemed all but won.
NOLA Politics Disrupted
And the people behind all this turmoil are ex-cons. But gulp, they are actual murderers. You read that right. Norris Henderson and Bruce Reilly are the leaders of VOTE. They started and worked for years in New Orleans as advocates for formerly incarcerated men and women. And they also worked early on helping candidates for office who worked with them. They registered formerly incarcerated men and women to vote and encouraged them to vote for candidates whom they viewed as political allies. Politicians didn’t really take them seriously but occasionally supported their organization in hopes that they could deliver a few votes.
But the whole time, the strategic Henderson made better contacts and learned the ropes. He advocated for prisoners rights and railed constantly against former sheriff, Marlon Gusman. He became a Soros Justice Fellow. But his earliest attempts to elect judges failed miserably. He spent hundreds of thousands with a flip the bench group of candidates, but almost all lost by wide margins. But steadfast and well financed, Henderson pushed forward. And suddenly victory was his. His greatest triumph so far has been the ouster of Gusman. Henderson bankrolled current sheriff Susan Hutson’s campaign. Also, Henderson helped current Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis get elected. Now Henderson and Reilly seem to see themselves as kingmakers.
In the District A Criminal Court Race, Diedre Pierce Kelly took the early lead over her two opponents – Simone Levine and Leon Roche. Besides my own endorsement, Ms. Kelly has the endorsement of nearly every elected official in town. Early polling showed her winning going away. But you have probably seen Leon Roche commercials on TV lately. You guessed it. Henderson formed a second VOTE nonprofit. Not only can his 501c4 endorse candidates, but it also transforms campaigns. Mr. Roche is a fine and upstanding young man. After all he graduated from the nationally acclaimed St. Augustine High School. But his candidacy catapulted from grassroots to serious contender status suddenly. And Simone Levine is likely to earn a runoff spot if Roche peels off enough votes from Kelly. The race is now a tossup. Disruption.
District 93 House Seat
The disruption is greatest in this race, however. This is one of the most historic and influential House seats in the city. (Will Sutton wrote a great piece about it.) Sibil “Fox” Richardson is in the runoff against Alonzo Knox. But in an unprecedented and befuddling move, Fox Rich suspended her campaign against Knox and fiercely attacked Henderson and Reilly. In a merciless article posted by Big Easy Magazine, Richardson says :
“VOTE is led by two convicted murderers- Bruce Reilly who beat and stabbed a famed college professor 24 times to his death and fled with his vehicle and credit card – And, Norris Henderson, who along with his brother gunned down a teenager riding her bike to school. I challenge each of them to look in the mirror and reflect on the severity of their crimes before misrepresenting my past in an effort to forward their own political agenda. If an uncheckered past is the litmus test for leadership, then surely these two men and their organization should be the least in authority to offer political recommendations.”Fox Rich Candidate for House District 93
Additionally, Richardson says she will not participate in any more campaign debates. The voters must decide if this is the best thing to do this late in the campaign. More disruption.
NOLA Politics Disrupted
Politics is not for the faint at heart. Henderson and Reilly are playing hard ball. But the political establishment is on notice now. While Henderson and Reilly have money and a couple of big wins under their belts, the powers that be are coalescing. Uptown and downtown. East bank and Westbank. Black and white power brokers have not only taken notice but are now working together to beat back the VOTE political brokers. It’s easy when you can launch sneak attacks. Heretofore Henderson and Reilly have worked behind the scenes. But the curtain has been pulled back.
Related: The Politics of Race
Still the verdict is not in yet on Henderson and Reilly. Once the spotlight is on them, several key factors become evident. Their big money donors are liberal. And after the donors realize their money is not buying ads to attack people like Jeff Landry or John Kennedy, but liberal qualified African American women the cash might stop. Every time Henderson misses his options become fewer. Will he be able to attract candidates to run for office? The problem for candidates like Knox and Roche and others in the future is voter sensitivity. Remember when Sherman Copelin was the favorite boogeyman in New Orleans politics? Cynthia Willard Lewis lost a closely contested race for city council at large when Jackie Clarkson accused her of being supported by Copelin. Say what you want about Sherman, but he ain’t got nothing on Henderson and Reilly. So far, Henderson and Reilly have been able to hide behind the scenes. But if they want to be true prime time political players, they are going to have to come out of the back rooms. What happens then?
When this short election cycle is over, the political establishment will put them on front street. Will future candidates be comfortable saying I’m proudly endorsed by VOTE?
Can a couple of ex-con murderers really become the new face of politics in New Orleans? Or even major players? They entered the fray quickly and fiercely. And they represent and lead a loyal block of formerly incarcerated people whom they help and guide. And they have the experience and money to continue to push candidates they like. Is this a sustainable movement? Or will Fox Rich’s stinging words resonate with the voters of New Orleans. Our first test will be the two races we examined. We will see on March 25th. Get your popcorn ready.
NOLA Politics Disrupted