elections opinion

Viewpoint: Judicial and legislative elections really do matter

By Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

How many readers can name the candidates who are running for the two judgeships and the state House race on the March 25 ballot? Probably very few. Wedged between Mardi Gras and the St. Joseph and St. Patrick festivities, these races have gotten lost in spring fever. But they are still vitally important to the future of New Orleans and our judicial system. 

Sibil Fox Richardson, qualifies in January accompanied by her husband, Rob Richardson.

In the House District 93 race, Sibil Fox Richardson enjoys almost every major endorsement and nearly won outright in the primary. Formerly incarcerated, Richardson refers to herself a minister, entrepreneur and business owner who has worked for 20 years to make the criminal justice system better for her family and many others’ families. She speaks of state legislation she has spearheaded and about the documentary “Time” and new book that chronicle her life’s work. 

Richardson’s opponent, Tremé business owner and resident Alonzo Knox, continually pounds on Richardson about her credentials. A former Marine and Veterans Affairs staffer, Knox won’t give up this race without a good fight. He highlights his decades of work in the community, including with the Police and Justice Foundation, and his experience as a congressional staffer.

Alonzo Knox with his wife, Jessica Knox

Knox has been running as an outsider with only support from V.O.T.E., the prison reform organization. Tuesday evening he picked up the endorsement of the New Orleans Coalition.  Richardson will probably be endorsed by Independent Women’s Organization in the coming days. Knox has a meet and greet tonight (Thursday) at 930 Poydras from 6 until 8 p.m. This race has tightened considerably but the outcome is still uncertain. Neither Knox nor Richardson have filed campaign reports during the runoff election. 

First City Court Judge Marissa Hutabarat, nonprofit organization leader and former assistant city attorney Stephanie Bridges, and environmental scientist and cyclist David Jefferson “Jeff” Dye all want to be the next judge in Civil District Court Division B. Before the new judge gets promoted to the regular docket, he or she would preside over family court.

This is a low money race. In the 30 days-prior-to-the-election report, Hutabarat only had about $18,000 remaining, which she lent herself.  Bridges was down to $8,500 having raised much more with the help of supporter Darleen Jacobs. Dye lent himself $510 and has spent very little.  

Husband xMark El-Amm and other family members join First City Court Judge Marissa Hutabarat as she qualifies for Civil District Court Section B

As an incumbent judge, Hutabarat has a leg up on her opponents. She understands the law and has presided over hundreds of cases. Hutabarat’s docket moves smoothly. She has name recognition and lots of endorsements. Hutabarat’s secret weapon is husband Mark El-Amm, a skilled political player whose guidance will continue to serve her well. 

“The opportunity to serve as judge in New Orleans First City Court Section B these past two plus years has been a great honor. There is no greater fulfillment in life for me than to compassionately serve the community by providing citizens’ access to justice. If elected, there will be no on-the-job training. I am already doing the work,” said Hutabarat. She is endorsed by the four clerks of court along with almost the entire City Council, seven legislators and the AFL-CIO. 

Stephanie Bridges qualifies in January.

As a former deputy city attorney, Bridges was a familiar face at Civil District Court, where she handled a wide variety of cases. If elected, Bridges would make good use of her experience representing families in child custody and other domestic matters in her private law practice. As head of the National Conference for Community and Justice, her work with youth is commendable. Bridges, who has run twice previously, has grown as a candidate. She presents herself as not beholding to any individuals or organizations and therefore believes she can be impartial.  

David Jefferson Dye

Dye has a diverse background including working on civil rights and environmental cases. A sole practitioner, he currently provides legal services for the Lakefront Management Authority, among other clients. Dye is something of a whistleblower and is obviously committed to what he believes.  Despite never having run for office before, Dye won the endorsement from the Alliance for Good Government on the strength of his credentials and his no-nonsense delivery.  

“Based on my experience, education, commitment and vision for the court, I am the most qualified candidate,” Dye said. He has handled real estate transactions valued at more than $15 million and has defended juveniles prosecuted as adults on a pro-bono basis. Prior to attending Tulane Law School, Dye worked as an environmental scientist in the natural gas pipeline industry. 

The race for Criminal District Court Division A is really the most contentious. Diedre Pierce Kelly, Simone Levine and Leon Roché II face off to replace Judge Laurie White, who retired, on the bench at Tulane and Broad.

Family members join Deidre Pierce Kelly as she qualifies for the judicial race.

Deidre Pierce Kelly has wanted to be a judge since her teen years at McDonogh 35. Currently chief of staff to Criminal Justice Committee Chair Oliver Thomas, she lives and breathes law and order. Kelly is very comfortable in the courtroom and sensitive to second chances, having received a second chance herself. A passionate speaker who also listens to other opinions, she is being dogged by some voters for her relationship with attorney Ike Spears, with whom she previously worked. Kelly is her own person, says Spears, and made her own decision to get in the race. At report time, Kelly still had almost $40,000 which she raised from contributors including Democratic State Party Chair Katie Bernhardt, Troy Henry, Ethan Ashley and David Croucelle.  Her long list of endorsements include the entire City Council as well as numerous legislators, school board members, and U.S. Rep Troy Carter. 

Kelly, a community leader, said she is the best qualified candidate because of her diverse background inside and outside the courtroom during the past two decades.  Her role working with Councilmember Olive Thomas on criminal justice matters has allowed her to witness first hand some of the challenges and at the same time be part of the solutions. “I have learned the importance of working together and creating partnerships to make New Orleans a safer place,” Kelly explained.  

Judicial candidate Simone Levine is joined at qualifying by her husband, Will Harrell, and their two sons.

Simone Levine is an intense speaker and delivers lengthy answers to almost every question. As the long-time director of Court Watch Nola, she has built a base of support from people who watched her meticulously call out the indiscretions of the various agencies in the criminal justice system. Now as a prosecutor for DA Jason Williams, she has added another layer to her complex thought processes.  Levine has raised more than $150,000 and has almost $90,000 remaining, as of the last report.   Her donors include many heavy-hitters such as Sheriff Susan Hutson, Morris “Buddy” Bart, Merritt Lane, Leslie Jacobs, Jay Lapeyre and Barbara Kaplinsky. In a city where 54% of registered voters are Black, Levine firmly believes a nonincumbent White female can still win a judicial race. 

“We should have independent, fair and balanced judges in New Orleans. I am the only candidate in the race who has law enforcement experience. I have worked as an independent monitor. I have blown the whistle on locking up crime victims on phony DA subpoenas. My platform is for safe streets and fair courts,” said Levine. Her endorsements include the Alliance for Good Government, the Forum for Equality, state Rep. Aimee Freeman, Sheriff Hutson, Commissioner Lewis as well as the firefighter and police unions.  

Leon Roché

Leon Roché has earned considerable respect from fellow attorneys because of his years of work in the trenches as an Orleans Parish public defender. For more than a decade, Roche has tackled a client load that would scare off most lawyers. As of the last campaign finance report, Roche still had about $85,000, which will come in handy during the final weeks to pay for get-out-the-vote efforts. Most of Roche’s donors — including Charles Rice Jr., former judicial candidate Meg Garvey, and other public defenders — contributed small amounts. But those small dollars can quickly add up. 

Roché has received the endorsement of famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump as well as Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Davanate Lewis, V.O.T.E. and several unions. “As an attorney, I have practiced exclusively in the field of criminal law for over 13 years. First as a public defender … and currently as the senior partner at my private defense law firm. I have fought for equal protection under the law and fairness in the courtroom. Now more than ever, it’s critical that we elect independent judges with the experience to back up their knowledge,” Roche said. 

The strategic placement and grouping of campaign signs is often an indicator of candidates on the move. In less politically complicated years, one might think that Richardson, Hutabarat and Kelly would all emerge victorious. All three are the official candidates of the Democratic Party. While that still may be true, the outcomes are getting tougher to predict.  

Early voting runs Saturday (March 11) through the following Saturday (March 18) (excluding Sunday, March 12 ) from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is March 21 by 4:30 p.m. You can request an absentee ballot online through the Secretary of State’s Voter Portal or in writing through the Registrar of Voters Office, 1300 Perdido St. 1W24, New Orleans, LA 70112.

The deadline for the Registrar of Voters to receive an absentee ballot is March 24 by 4:30 p.m. On election day, the polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.To find your polling place and see a sample ballot, go to the Voter Portal.

CITY COUNCIL PRESIDENT J.P. MORRELL HAS FUNDRAISER 

Since Hurricane Katrina, the private rooms at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse have become go-to locations for fundraisers large and small. Council President J.P. Morrell has gathered a Who’s Who list of hosts and sponsors for tonight’s event, which is scheduled from 5 until 6:30 p.m.  Among those sure to be in attendance are Rico Alvendia, Blake Jones, James Williams, Bill Hines, David Kerstein, Gary Solomon Sr., Pres Kabacoff, Brian Gibbs, Ryan and Amanda Berger, and Bill Hammack and Janice Parmelee. 

STATE REP. AIMEE FREEMAN SEEKS INPUT FROM RESIDENTS PRIOR TO SESSION

Uptown state Rep. Aimee Freeman is inviting her constituents to a town-hall meeting Tuesday, March 21, to talk about legislative priorities before the 2023 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature begins next month. This session will be devoted to fiscal matters such as insurance reform and taxes. Join Freeman in the Conference Room at Children’s Hospital from 6 until 8 p.m.

STATE REP. CANDACE NEWELL SETS FUNDRAISER; STATE REP. MANDIE LANDRY SEEKS DONATIONS

With re-election right around the corner, State Rep. Candace Newell is building a war chest for the fall campaign season. Led by new supporter attorney Ike Spears, Newell will benefit from a March 15 fundraiser at 30/90 Nola (second floor), 520 Frenchman St., from 5:30 until 7:30 p.m. 

State Rep. Mandie Landry, who lost a racially charged battle for state Senate to Royce Duplessis last year, is asking supporters to send campaign donations of any size. Landry says 15,000 people cast a vote for her in the senate race last year — “proof that being yourself and focusing on progressive issues is something that voters want.”   

Danae Columbus
Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

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 former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, former 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 swampednola@gmail.com.

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