Bagneris has been eyeing city’s top job for many years

Judge Michael Bagneris
Judge Michael Bagneris

Michael Bagneris finally decided to run for mayor against Mitch Landrieu at the last possible moment, less than two months before the vote. But he first set his thoughts on the top job at City Hall more than 30 years ago.

In 1983, Bagneris was still a young man, just a few years over 30 but with impressive academic credentials and already a key member of Mayor Dutch Morial’s inner circle, one of his two top advisers and someone who served as the mayor’s ear on the street, his go-between with a hostile City Council majority and the leader of a crusade to rewrite the City Charter so his boss could run for a third term in office.

He wasn’t thinking only about Morial. A third term would mean that Bagneris would be 40 by the time Morial was leaving office — or, as he confided at the time to Iris Kelso, a political columnist for The Times-Picayune, “just the right age to throw my hat in the ring” as Morial’s heir apparent.

It didn’t play out that way. Morial failed to persuade voters to allow him a third term. Bagneris instead ran for an at-large seat on the City Council in 1986 but lost to Dorothy Mae Taylor, who made history that year as the council’s first black woman. He went back into private law practice and briefly ran into financial problems that he says stemmed from his daughter’s medical bills.

In 1993, he won a judgeship in Civil District Court and has been there ever since, doing a job he says he loves but remaining more or less out of the political fray that once defined his career and ambitions.

On the face of it, it’s not obvious why Bagneris would pick this moment to put the gloves on and step back into the ring. At 63, having served 20 years on the bench, he was looking forward to a comfortable retirement. Raised poor in the Desire housing project, he lives today in a big house on Bayou St. John with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a grand piano.

He faces an incumbent with apparently strong poll numbers, millions of dollars to spend on his re-election campaign and history on his side: No New Orleans mayor in memory has been ousted without a second term.

Just as with Morial’s bid for a third term and his own run for the City Council, it appears to some that Bagneris may be misreading the electorate again, setting himself up for a fall.

He doesn’t think so. “The discontent is ripe,” Bagneris said in an interview. “I am absolutely amazed at how many people have come to me quietly — quietly — and indicated, ‘I can’t be with you publicly, but believe me when I tell you, me and my family and all of my friends are going to cast the ballot for you.’ ”

Anger at the mayor

Bagneris takes this furtive support both as an indication of discontent with the sitting mayor’s allegedly vindictive style of politics and as a sign voters share his opinion that Landrieu gets too much credit on problems like unemployment and crime. He’s been frustrated to see so many headlines about a drop in the city’s murder rate when data on other violent crimes — even shootings — show far more uneven progress.

In a way, Bagneris is representative of a broader resentment among his generation of black political leaders against Landrieu’s style of governing.

Bagneris insists that his decision to run had nothing to do with a fight he had with Landrieu over where to build a new civil courthouse, in which the mayor initially signed on to the idea of a new building on Duncan Plaza, only to later swing unyieldingly behind his own vision for a new civic complex in the old Charity Hospital.

Yet Bagneris has made a point of emphasizing at every opportunity his own ability — honed as a judge, he argues — to listen instead of talk, an obvious dig at an incumbent who has made plenty of enemies by sometimes seeming to do the opposite.

“It’s a lack of respect for black organizations, black elected officials,” said Lambert Boissiere Jr., head of the venerable black political organization COUP.

That COUP would throw its weight behind Bagneris would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. COUP then was the organization behind Sidney Barthelemy, the man who served as Morial’s main foil on the council, opposed his bid for a third term and ultimately replaced him as mayor.

And it’s not just COUP. The whole galaxy of acronyms that shaped black politics in New Orleans over four decades — COUP, BOLD, LIFE, SOUL — is hoping Bagneris can unseat the incumbent.

The question for Bagneris is whether these groups still hold much sway and whether the discontent with Landrieu in the black political class and elsewhere will filter into the voting booths next month.

Bagneris has been cagey about giving out internal polls, but he pointed to the fact that Landrieu’s campaign is still trumpeting numbers from October. And “those October numbers are wrong,” he said.

Others are less sure that voters at large feel the same antipathy toward the mayor as some of those who have had to work directly with his administration.

“Most people don’t come in contact with the mayor, and all they see is what he does,” said former Councilman Jim Singleton, a longtime BOLD leader, pointing to the new Walmart stores opening in New Orleans East and Gentilly and the major thoroughfares being repaved. “People don’t see the other stuff.”

Here comes ‘Little Dutch’

In debates and forums, Bagneris returns again and again to his time in the Morial administration, where he says he “learned how an effective government should operate.” In those days, Bagneris was a young, hard-charging political operative, hired at just 30 to be one of Morial’s top aides after a swift ascent from the 9th Ward housing projects.

He recalls realizing only belatedly that his family didn’t have much money.

“It’s only when you get older and you’re interacting with others who are obviously better off,” he said, remembering how he noticed that some of his friends could eat as much as they wanted at the dinner table and even ask for seconds. “We never starved, but our meals were always portioned. You had this and two pieces of chicken and that was it.”

He got a good education nevertheless. At St. Peter Claver School in Treme, he and his brother cleaned the building in the afternoons to pay tuition for themselves and their other siblings. He won a scholarship to St. Augustine High School, attended summer programs at Yale University and Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and attended Yale as an undergraduate before coming back to New Orleans for law school at Tulane University and a job at the Fine, Waltzer law firm.

Hired by Morial during the mayor’s first term, Bagneris became part of a close circle of advisers, second in influence perhaps only to Reynard Rochon, Morial’s chief administrative officer. The three men ran Morial’s successful re-election bid in 1982 as more or less a “triumvirate,” Bagneris recalled.

He played the role of liaison to anyone who needed the mayor’s attention, anyone who needed a problem fixed.

“If you had two people you could get out to vote, you interacted with me,” Bagneris said.

It was also his job to be the go-between with an intransigent City Council and its famous “gang of five” that often thwarted Morial’s agenda. He walked around with an index card in his front pocket, his schedule on one side and room for notes on the other when council members had questions or requests. Bagneris acknowledged that he gave council members nothing but the Morial line, but he said he could always stand behind it.

“They’d see me coming and say, ‘Here comes “Little Dutch,’ ” he said.

Bagneris threw himself into Morial’s doomed bid for a third term. He marshaled an army of unclassifed City Hall workers to collect signatures for the necessary petition drive to change the city’s charter. He battled in court — successfully — when the registrar of voters tried to invalidate many of the names.

Sometimes he went too far. When Barthelemy held a press conference to explain his opposition to the charter change, Bagneris interrupted it by leading a noisy walkout of the City Hall workers in attendance, a stunt for which Morial ultimately apologized.

When voters rejected the charter change at the ballot box, Bagneris acknowledged it was a “double blow,” a disappointment overall and more specifically, he said, because Morial had shunned his advice. Concerned about a Saints game in Atlanta the day of the ballot measure, Bagneris had wanted to be more aggressive in getting people to the polls for early voting, but Morial was concerned they were skating too close to newly passed election laws.

It was a disappointment that coincided with financial problems. At around the same time, Bagneris said, one of his daughters was born with a hole in her heart. As medical bills mounted and he returned to private practice after Morial’s second term, Bagneris stopped paying his taxes, and in 1990 the federal government placed a lien against him and his wife.

He paid the tax bill a few years later, after becoming a judge, but said he would make the same decision again.

“I had to make a choice, and Uncle Sam lost,” he said.

A ‘persuasive individual’

Now back on the campaign trail, Bagneris is a dispenser of pithy one-liners and plainspoken skepticism about Landrieu’s record over the past four years.

Having jumped into the race so late, he is racing to catch up with an incumbent who is outspending him by a mile and — at least according to those October poll numbers — was looking all but invincible before Bagneris challenged him.

Bagneris has had just a few weeks to get his biography and positions in front of voters, all while trying to dispel notions that he is running because of a grudge against Landrieu or his sister Mary, the U.S. senator who once nominated Bagneris for a federal judgeship, only to have the Obama White House turn him down without providing a public explanation. (Bagneris says the White House would tell him only that it was not the background check that scuttled his nomination.)

With a limited period to prep for the campaign, he has sometimes come off as unprepared or lacking details in presenting alternatives to Landrieu’s approach on one issue or another. Asked recently how he would pay for the extra 400 officers he wants on the 1,200-member police force, Bagneris said the city’s budget already calls for 1,540, so he would need money only for another 60 or so. While the city has often budgeted for more officers than it actually has, either to allow for new recruits or to pay overtime, this year’s budget would pay for only 1,260.

Still, Bagneris argues he can do better than the mayor in confronting problems like crime, unemployment and blight, and he says he has concrete ideas for how to do it.

He says he would fire police Superintendent Ronal Serpas and take more time than the mayor has to listen to complaints from rank-and-file officers, steps he would count on to lift morale and halt the attrition of officers that is shrinking the force each month.

In the case of police, he would suspend the city ordinance requiring that new municipal employees live in Orleans Parish rather than the suburbs. And he would offer them derelict properties at no cost if they would agree to rehab them within a certain period.

Teachers and firefighters would get the same deal, an initiative that Bagneris argues would help alleviate the blight problem. To help pay for the program, he would let developers take blighted properties for free also, with the proviso that they share with the city whatever profits they later reap from them.

And to lift the New Orleans economy, he would look to bring back some of the roughly $1.9 billion that New Orleanians are estimated to spend in Jefferson Parish each year by luring more big-box retailers to the city proper.

Here, Bagneris again points to the mayor’s prickly reputation and argues simply that he would be a better pitchman for the city.

“I’m a persuasive individual,” Bagneris said, cracking a wry smile.

Voters will have the last say on that Feb. 1.