A year ago, having never held elective office, Susan Hutson ousted a dyed-in-the-wool political insider to become the first female sheriff of Orleans Parish.
The title is somewhat misleading, making Hutson sound like a major crime buster, when pretty much her only responsibility is running the city jail. Still, that, in the nation's murder capital, is a crucial assignment; keeping a bunch of desperadoes locked up and away from one another's throats has proved too much for a succession of sheriffs.
The one Hutson beat, Marlin Gusman, held the job from 2004 until 2022, but garnered so many negative reviews, that, for the last few years, he operated under a federal consent decree, which continues to bind the Sheriff's Office to this day.
Having held the job of independent police monitor for several years, Hutson was hardly a stranger to the rough and tumble of New Orleans politics. Gusman, as chief administrative officer under then-Mayor Marc Morial around the turn of the millennium, was the one with up-close experience, but Hutson did not exactly come across as a babe in the woods.
She was certainly not lacking in chutzpah. More or less her first move after she won the election was to ask the City Council for a budget increase of $13 million.
Some of the money was earmarked for pay raises, a cause that council members could hardly oppose, given that deputies in Jefferson Parish and Baton Rouge are much better paid than their Orleans Parish counterparts. Hutson, however, was told to find the money for pay raises within her existing budget.
Meanwhile, homicide and suicide remained part of the jailhouse scene, and Hutson was convinced more money was the answer to the mayhem.
She decided to get it by ignoring the penny pinchers on the council and appealing directly to the people. Peace would reign in an efficiently run jail, she figured, if only the Sheriff's Office millage were doubled, to generate the $13 million or so the council refused to cough up.
We will never know if such a cash infusion would indeed have brought peace and discipline to the jail, because what followed may have been the most inept political campaign in New Orleans history.
It is axiomatic that any campaign for a property tax increase must start early, keep hammering home the blessings the extra revenues will bring and never let up before election day. This one was handled more like a state secret, and voters who weren't paying close attention will have had no idea they were being asked for a millage hike. Whatever political acumen Hutson had displayed to get elected had deserted her.
Barely a year after taking office, 91% of the voters said no to Hutson, saddling her with a fiscal flop of unprecedented proportions.
She says she has no intention of asking for a tax raise again any time soon — the first time she's made political sense in a while.
Email James Gill at firstname.lastname@example.org.