Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) - Thursday, April 13, 2006
Author: Gordon Russell and Frank Donze Staff writer
A slew of small billboards that look remarkably like those erected locally by Mayor Ray Nagin's campaign have begun springing up in and around Atlanta and Houston.
They read: "Re-elect Our Mayor" and feature a picture of hizzoner above the slogan: "Let's Keep New Orleans Moving Forward."
But according to both the Nagin campaign and the buyer of the signs -- 54 of them, to be exact -- the ad blitz is a completely independent effort that has no relationship to the campaign.
As a result, the sponsor, Sewerage & Water Board member Ben Edwards , has been able to spend well over the $5,000 that any individual can normally pour into an effort to elect a candidate. In fact, Edwards -- a minister from the 9th Ward -- said he and members of his family have ponied up more than $100,000 so far, and they plan to spend more. Soon, he said, billboards and a radio ad supporting Nagin will be seen and heard in Baton Rouge and in the Memphis, Tenn., area.
Under state law, individuals or groups may spend as much money as they desire on "independent expenditures," defined as those not made in coordination with a political campaign. Anyone who does so is required to file reports with the state showing where the money came from and how it was spent -- a fact that came as a surprise to Edwards , who has not filed any reports.
Edwards appears to have overlooked another campaign law in donating $5,000 to Nagin's war chest recently through a nonprofit he runs, Third Shiloh Housing. Such organizations, which enjoy tax-free status, are prohibited from donating to political campaigns.
Edwards said he was aware of that rule, but unaware that Third Shiloh had cut a check to Nagin, which the mayor reported on his most recent filing. "I need to find out what happened there," Edwards said. "That will be corrected."
Though the similarity of Edwards ' billboards to those posted by Nagin might suggest a collaboration with the campaign, Edwards said he created the images he used independently by scanning one of Nagin's bumper stickers into a computer. The Nagin campaign told a similar story.
"I've never heard of him," said Nagin strategist Jim Carvin of Edwards .
But Nagin certainly has. After a more than a decade on the water board -- which earned Edwards a reputation for meddling with contractors and insisting on the hiring of disadvantaged businesses -- Nagin chose not to replace Edwards or reappoint him to a new term, but to have him serve at the mayor's pleasure.
Edwards ' largesse is impressive, dwarfing even that displayed by shipping magnate Boysie Bollinger, who has funneled $45,000 to Audubon Nature Institute executive Ron Forman's campaign through a raft of companies he controls. The $108,000 Edwards said he has spent so far is about one-fifth of what Nagin reported spending on his own behalf during the first three months of the campaign.
But while Bollinger's riches are well-known, Edwards is a minister in the devastated 9th Ward, where his church, home and other properties he controls were all trashed by Katrina, he said. Edwards said he is working to restore his properties while living in Algiers.
Although Edwards has been on the water board for well over a decade, he was never appointed by Nagin. He was first appointed by Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, and he was then reappointed by Mayor Marc Morial.
Edwards stressed that Nagin has never done him any favors, nor does he expect any in a second Nagin term. He's merely supporting a mayor he thinks has shown courage under fire.
"I think he did a superb job during the storm," Edwards said. "I think he showed leadership like I've never seen before. I'm not getting anything out of this. I just want to make sure we get the right man in office."
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OFF WITH THE GLOVES: Just in time for Passover and the Easter holiday weekend, the on-air mayoral campaign has gone negative.
The first TV attack ad was launched by Forman against Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, whom Forman repeatedly has described as his friend throughout the race.
The 30-second spot, which began airing Wednesday night, raises questions about Landrieu's support for taxes during his 16 years as a member of the state House, and refers to the low ratings Landrieu received from the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
The lone speaker in the ad identifies himself as a small contractor.
"We don't need a mayor who sees taxes as the answer to every problem," the man says as he loads painting supplies into the trunk of his car. "That's not how we rebuild New Orleans." Landrieu, who is leading in most polls, labeled the ad a pathetic attempt to win votes.
"We knew this day was going to come," Landrieu said in a prepared statement. "Ron is running a desperate campaign. Our city doesn't need divisive politics."
A campaign spokeswoman said Landrieu has the support of a coalition of small-business owners and was recognized as a legislator by the Chamber of Commerce as a "business champion."
Viewers who miss the first few seconds will miss the sole hint that the ad was produced by the Forman camp.
Forman does not appear or speak during the spot. His photo and the words "Forman for Mayor" flash on the screen at the outset.
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COAST TO COAST: In an effort to reach many New Orleanians displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the next televised mayoral debate will be broadcast nationwide, an unprecedented event in the city's history.
WDSU, the local NBC affiliate, has joined hands with its cable parent, MSNBC, to stage a forum that will air both locally and across the county Monday from 7 to 8 p.m.
The joint venture will be co-moderated by WDSU anchor Norman Robinson and Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball." The program also will be available for viewing on WDSU.com and MSNBC.com
Candidates invited to attend are Forman, Landrieu, Nagin, lawyers Virginia Boulet and Rob Couhig, the Rev. Tom Watson, and former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson.
A related blog post of mine.