At the end of June, New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams was indicted on federal tax fraud charges. When Williams defiantly announced that he would continue his electoral campaign as the sole challenger to incumbent District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, the city’s top local prosecutor, Cannizzaro called him “delusional.”
DA Cannizzaro, who has repeatedly abused his authority in shocking ways since taking office in 2009, has been wrong a lot as of late. In ongoing litigation, he has been slapped down regarding the legality of his old practice of sending fake “subpoenas” to witnesses and crime victims, then threatening jail time if they did come to his office to talk. He also tried to hide the relevant documents from reporters, unsuccessfully.
But he is probably right this time.
In all likelihood, DA Cannizzaro, if he confirms his candidacy, will now sail to victory for another six-year term, despite taking fire from the national legal community and high-profile writers for almost a decade. That means another six years of “tough-on-crime” policies that saw his city top charts for both its incarceration rate and murder rate. Since he did not seem to learn anything from the opprobrium he received for jailing rape survivors who do not want to talk to police as “material witnesses” to their own rapes, that egregious human rights violation will likely continue.
Under DA Cannizzaro, New Orleans is both unsafe and profoundly unfree. But even with a critical mass of voters wanting change, they likely won’t take a gamble on a newcomer who could himself be in prison a couple of years from now.
It would be ethically dubious to comment on the appropriateness of criminal charges against Councilman Williams, who has expressed support for bail reform and waiving court fines and fees for impoverished people. What is warranted is observation of the timing.
Williams, who is Black, is alleged to have inflated his business expenses and not paid his full tax liability from 2012 to 2017. How long did the Department of Justice know, and which factors led to charges being issued at the height of an election campaign? Did the DOJ, for example, have enough evidence to prosecute Williams last year, so that people outraged by Cannizzaro’s tenure could have found a candidate who wasn’t compromised?
We can’t know the answers, but Williams’ case isn’t the first to raise such questions. Something similar unfolded, for example, in Birmingham, Alabama a few years ago.
In the 2016 electoral cycle, a criminal justice reform-minded Democrat named Charles Todd Henderson defeated the inquisitorial incumbent DA Brandon Falls, who was first appointed to the seat in 2008. Under Falls, Jefferson County was in the 0.5 percent of US counties that sent five or more people to death row from 2010 to 2015, all of whom were Black men. In contrast, Henderson was “personally opposed” to the death penalty, saying that in practice it should be reserved for men like Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer who raped and murdered 17 people.
In the week before Henderson was supposed to take office, he was charged with perjury due to supposed dishonesty about an alleged romantic affair with a woman whose son he was representing as a guardian ad litem. That representation was meant to support the boy’s best interests during his parents’ divorce, meaning a relationship with the mother would have been a conflict of interests.
The judge on the case Henderson handled as a guardian ad litem removed him after learning his client’s mother was working on his campaign. Then, in the September 2016 divorce trial, Henderson denied sleeping at the mother’s apartment, apparently perjuring himself under oath. At his criminal trial, prosecutors introduced a report from a private investigator hired by the woman’s husband to find evidence of an extramarital affair.
The charge was enough to suspend Henderson from taking the seat in 2017. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, a conservative Republican, was then able to appoint Mike Anderton, a prosecutor credibly accused of once bribing a witness with rent money to falsely place an innocent Black man on death row, as the interim DA of Alabama’s biggest city. The will of local voters, expressed in ousting DA Falls, was flouted until Danny Carr, the first Black man to hold the seat, was elected in a 2018 special election.*
What can activists angry about the status quo do in the face of its future entrenchment in New Orleans?
New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams’ indictment came before the electoral results, but late in the game, with the window for new candidates for the November election due to close later this month. Judge Arthur Hunter declared his candidacy on July 14; it remains to be seen how much traction he’ll get.
If Cannizzaro retains his seat, what can activists angry about the status quo do in the face of its future entrenchment in New Orleans? It is a risky proposition, but consider what LGBTQ rights activists did after the North Carolina legislature passed HB2, the infamous anti-transgender “bathroom bill,” in 2016. After much agitation on the issue, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and others initiated a boycott that threatened the loss of $3.76 billion in business for the state over the next 12 years.
New Orleans’ largest employer is the tourism and hospitality sector. And, as the saying goes, money talks. Imagine if major social media influencers, including feminist organizations, implored their followers to no longer visit the city until Leon Cannizzaro agrees to step down as Orleans Parish DA. It is imaginable that a substantial cutting off of tourism would even get the real estate and business magnate class that gives Cannizzaro his staying power to turn against their rogue official.
Such a strategy is unlikely to be enacted by organizers when the local tourism industry employs many of the city’s most vulnerable residents. In addition, there is a racial justice concern—while Cannizzaro’s brand of “justice” harms Black people the most, so too would a boycott of a city that is almost 60 percent Black.
Yet, under substantial economic pressure, North Carolina repealed its “bathroom bill” less than two years after it was originally passed. If grassroots community aid were simultaneously organized for New Orleans’ most vulnerable, would the pain of a boycott be a price worth paying to prevent six more years of Cannizzaro’s abuses?
*The author was a paid campaign consultant for Birmingham DA Danny Carr’s 2018 campaign.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the window for new candidacies had closed. The article has been updated to reflect that it has not.
Photo of DA Leon Cannizzaro via Orleans Parish District Attorney Office