By KEVIN McGILL, The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Crime and punishment loomed large as issues in New Orleans' elections Saturday — a test of the popularity of incumbent Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who won big four years ago, and the survivability of the city's sheriff, Marlin Gusman, who was heavily criticized after a video surfaced last year showing blatant drug use and the waving of a loaded gun in the jail he runs.
Landrieu won 66 percent of the vote over 10 opponents in 2010, becoming the first white mayor of majority black New Orleans since his father, Moon Landrieu, left office in the '70s. He faces two opponents Saturday who say he has not done enough to cut crime or create jobs.
Gusman has three challengers, including his predecessor, Charles Foti, who was sheriff for three decades before serving a term as state attorney general. Their campaigns have exchanged accusations over which of them was the worse jail administrator.
Landrieu's opponents, both African-Americans, are attorney and local NAACP leader Danatus King, and Michael Bagneris, who retired from a state civil court judgeship in December to enter the mayor's race. Bagneris has a long history of political experience in the city, having worked in the administration of former Mayor Dutch Morial and held elective office, the judgeship, since 1993.
Bagneris' entry into the race was a bit of a surprise and posed a stronger challenge to Landrieu. Still, the late entry made it hard for Bagneris to earn stronger name recognition and raise money to fight a mayor who has remained popular despite a stubborn violent crime problem, steep budget cuts and other persistent problems afflicting the recovering city, noted University of New Orleans political science professor Ed Chervenak.
"It's hard not to see the mayor winning in the primary," Chervenak said of Saturday's election.
Bagneris has hit hard at the depletion of the city's police force — which numbered more than 1,500 when Landrieu took office and has shrunk to around 1,200 now. He blames Landrieu and police chief Ronal Serpas for driving some officers away and failing to budget enough money to make up for the attrition.
King has hit at lingering inequality in the city, where some areas are still slow to redevelop more than eight years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
On the crime issue, Landrieu supporters note that Serpas, and the federal courts, have imposed tough reforms on police, including strong regulations on officers' off-duty private security details, which a Justice Department report said was a leading factor in police corruption. Moreover, Serpas and Landrieu say, improved policing techniques, joint anti-gang efforts with federal authorities and a host of social programs led to a 20 percent drop in the homicide rate from 2012 to 2013 — a drop they insist can be sustained despite Bagneris' assertions to the contrary.
Landrieu also says he has taken unprecedented steps to bring a diverse city together, including hundreds of meetings in every City Council district. Those have included public hearings that helped lead to consensus on how to cut a budget deficit once estimated at $80 million.
Landrieu and Gusman aren't facing each other on Saturday's ballot, but until their legal and political battles over the jail cooled in recent months, they looked like rivals.
At issue was an agreement Gusman reached with inmates' lawyers and the U.S. Justice Department for reforms at a city jail plagued by violence, sexual assault, poor health care and drug use. The city was faced with paying for the reforms, estimated to cost as much as $22 million, and Landrieu was highly critical of Gusman's stewardship.
The fighting between the two men has subsided in recent months as the city and sheriff's office have discussed ways of financing the reforms.