A young New Orleans doctor was very angry and decided to do something about it. It was the 1970s and the physician had noticed that several of the city’s prisoners, many of whom were drug addicts, were suffering and dying. At the time they had no access to methadone, a drug with dubious qualities but that was believed to at least lessen the pain. The existing coroner opposed the distribution of methadone to inmates; the young doctor, who had already worked with a local nun to establish a regulated clinic outside the jail, mainly to aid addicted prostitutes, argued that prisoners needed the drug too. To correct what he thought was a wrong, the doctor decided to run for the one office that had the legal authority to treat the city’s prisoners, the Orleans Parish coroner.
In his book “Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans,” author Dan Baum selected nine New Orleanians whose lives and stories he would trace through the Katrina recovery. One of them was the young doctor who was elected coroner in 1974. His name was Frank Minyard.
At the time, Minyard was seen as being a heroic figure, not only dealing whit the methadone issue, but also making good on his promise of being not just a coroner for the dead but for the living. He would be more than a shadowy figure behind a desk at the city morgue, but rather someone who would speak out on public issues. And if everyone felt good, the fact that Minyard also played a pretty mean trumpet brought a touch of humanity to the office.
Minyard was able to make those pledges was because there was an electoral process. He became popular and was elected to ten terms. Toward the end of his public career, especially with the post-Katrina turmoil that necessitated his working out of a trailer, he might have gotten fatigued, but he had had a good run.
Elections, it turns out, do matter. The electoral process allows the opportunity for candidates to make commitments to voters. That’s how democracy is supposed to work. By contrast, the current farce of a coroner’s election is how democracy cannot work.
In case you have been in a cave and haven’t heard, incumbent Jeffrey Rouse, Minyard’s candidate to replace him four years ago, signed up for re-relection and then a few weeks later, after filing was closed, announced that he would not campaign. Instead he congratulated his lone opponent, the controversial perennial candidate and former felon, Dwight McKenna. Last week it was revealed that Congressman Cedric Richmond had arranged a meeting between Rouse and McKenna so that Rouse could tell McKenna the good news: He was likely going to become coroner by default. According to McKenna his reaction was relief that he would not have to campaign. We’ve come a long way from passionate promises to be a coroner for the living to celebrating the need not to have to promise anything.
Who knows, McKenna could be a decent coroner, but that is an issue that the voters should have a chance to decide rather than just having the election handed to him. There is still a possibility that McKenna could be stopped but it is a long shot. Even though he has quit campaigning Rouse’s name will still be on the ballot. If he somehow still wins and then resigns, a special election will have to be called in which we will assume that other candidates will sign up to run.
Recently Tim Morris, a columnist for Nola.com/The Times Picayune, ran an opinion piece with this headline:
VOTE FOR THE QUITTER. IT’S IMPORTANT
Those who were around might remember that slogan as a spoof of the infamous gubernatorial runoff between Edwin Edwards and David Duke. Public sentiment saw Edwards as the lesser of two evils hence the war cry, “vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”
And why shouldn’t we vote for someone who has never quit running for public office? Morris explained:
McKenna served nine months in federal prison in 1993 after being convicted of making false statements on his tax returns. His attorneys said he was guilty only of sloppy bookkeeping. But prosecutors said he under-reported $367,000 in income for 1987-88, and tried to cover it up through various means, including cashing some of his checks at a local grocery store.
It is not uncommon for publish officials to grow weary of elected office and to leave, but that is usually done before signing up for relection and scaring away all opponents but one.
Yes there is merit to voting for the quitter. And if a special election is held and McKenna runs and wins his legitimacy will be unchallenged. Democracy will have served him well.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), is available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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