By Danae Columbus, opinion columnist
Criminal justice reform is an idea whose time has come.
City Council President Jason Roger Williams won the election for Orleans Parish district attorney Saturday because the 71,889 voters — especially millennials — yearned for the kind of reform that Williams was offering. New Orleans now has the unique opportunity to become America’s foremost leader in developing a new model for criminal justice.
Williams was an excellent candidate who was able to bring his institutional knowledge to the race. His message was right on point. Surrounded by a solid campaign team, Williams meticulously executed a well-thought-out plan that branded former Judge Keva Landrum as a flawed prosecutor unable to enact additional reforms. Despite her well-funded efforts, Landrum was never able to shake that yoke.
Williams’ candidacy also drew enthusiastic support from criminal justice reform advocates around the country who hoped that if Williams’ proposed operational style was successful, it could be replicated in other cities.
Williams understood the minds of the voters. His victory was due in part to support from older Black voters as well as younger ones — each of whom voted for change for different reasons. Older Black voters have personally experienced a criminal justice system that clearly discriminated against them.
They remember President Bill Clinton signing the “three-strikes” legislation that kept thousands of Black men behind bars for far too long and destroyed families. Louisiana Congressman Cleo Fields was one of the few lawmakers who vocally opposed the legislation 24 years ago.
Younger Blacks voted for Williams because they dreamed of a future with different outcomes. They want to change the all-to-familiar trajectory of Black males (and females) being wrongly put in jail, wrongly left in jail and wrongly convicted.
Williams also targeted millennials much more effectively than Landrum and was able to attract many supporters of third-place finisher, Judge Arthur Hunter. Landrum only won at the Lakefront and in the French Quarter, CBD and Warehouse District neighborhoods. Williams enjoyed wide support in the rest of the city.
Williams won a clear mandate. But he has a lot on his shoulders. Williams will now be under a lot of pressure to change a system that has been so riddled by outdated policies and corruption. Williams’ choices to fill key positions will be extremely important. At the same time Williams will be dealing with the pressures of an 11-count federal indictment, which he wishes would just go away.
Williams also owes a debt of gratitude to Norris Henderson, founder of Voices of the Experienced, and other criminal justice reform organizations. Over the course of many years, Henderson framed the issue and values people voted for, while Landrum could not escape her well-documented record as a guardian of the status quo, according to one consultant. Some people will always shy away from the formerly incarcerated Henderson because of his past. Yet, with the help of millions in grant monies, Henderson has turned his life around and helped many move on with their lives, said another.
City Council Vice President Helena Moreno stood by Williams the entire campaign, while most of her fellow council members supported Landrum. Moreno might consider Williams’ victory as a clear sign that the congressional seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond is within her grasp.
Others who did not fare well on Saturday include state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, also a proposed candidate in the congressional race, and Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who lost all three ballot propositions. Voters could have approved the ballot propositions if the city had better defined how the money would be used and had a long-term solution for library funding.
Finally, I am among the many who wrongfully thought that Black women would vote for other Black women almost in a bloc. Instead multiple Black women, including Landrum, judicial contenders Stephanie Bridges and Nikki Roberts as well as a number of Black female School Board candidates lost their elections Saturday. Black women, like hopefully all voters, support the person they believe is best candidate.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at email@example.com.