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    Susan Hutson defeats Marlin Gusman in Orleans Parish sheriff’s race | Local Politics

    First-time candidate Susan Hutson toppled 17-year incumbent Marlin Gusman in the Orleans Parish sheriff’s race on Saturday, a stunning rebuke for a seasoned New Orleans politician and a sign that the local progressive movement to reform the criminal-justice system is here to stay.

    WWL-TV called the race when Hutson had 54% of the vote, with 308 of 351 precincts reporting.

    Along with Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, self-styled reformers of the criminal justice system now control New Orleans’ two top elected law enforcement posts, a remarkable reversal in a city that was once one of the most incarcerated places on the planet.

    Susan Hutson announces she’s running for Orleans Parish sheriff on June 14, 2021.

    Hutson has pledged to double down on efforts to reduce the jail’s population, to stop an 89-bed jail expansion, to end charges for phone calls from jail and to bring the lockup in compliance with a federal reform agreement.

    A former prosecutor who served as New Orleans’ independent police monitor for a decade but has never run a jail, Hutson defeated one of the city’s savviest political operators by following Williams’ playbook from last year.

    Like Williams, Hutson trailed by a sizable margin in the primary. But in the runoff, she ramped up attacks on Gusman as an obstacle to reform, in much the same way Williams used former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro as his foil. Outside groups backing Hutson plowed money into the race.

    Her victory is a stinging defeat for Gusman, who has operated in the upper echelons of the New Orleans political elite since serving as a youthful department chief for former Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial.

    Gusman struck a conciliatory tone in a concession speech at the Carver Theater in Treme.

    “Let’s look up, let’s not look down. Let’s look ahead and not look back. Let’s think about how we can get better and keep getting better,” he said.

    In the final days of the election, Gusman launched harsh attacks accusing Hutson of being the soft-on-crime “puppet” of radical, out-of-state special interests. Yet Hutson managed to turn the election into a referendum on Gusman’s long tenure, which has been dogged by violence and the deaths of incarcerated people in the jail.

    She also attacked Gusman on what became a central issue of the campaign, the proposed 89-bed “special needs” facility for people with mental health and medical problems.

    A quiet presence

    When Hutson first announced her candidacy back in April, she was well known to local police officials and civil rights lawyers but was far from a household name. While the Sheriff’s Office has more than 800 security staffers, Hutson had never managed more than a dozen people.

    Hutson was born in Philadelphia but raised in Houston and graduated from Tulane University’s law school. She worked as a municipal prosecutor in Corpus Christi, Texas, as a police monitor in Austin, Texas, and finally as an inspector general monitoring the Los Angeles Police Department.

    In 2010, she was selected to serve as the independent police monitor for New Orleans, which had recently created the post in the wake of incidents of police brutality after Hurricane Katrina.

    Her tenure included disputes with federal police monitors and her onetime boss, former Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, over their respective powers.

    She also spoke frequently of seeking community input and touted a mediation program as an alternative to police discipline.

    Former Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson, a supporter, described Hutson as a quiet presence.

    “That’s just how she presents herself, because that’s who she is,” he said. “She’s not the kind of person who’s going to punch you in the mouth.”

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    An incumbent with baggage

    In contrast to Hutson, Gusman is a blue chip New Orleans politician with local roots. He first won election as a City Council member in 2000 and traded up for the sheriff’s slot in 2004 despite a lack of law enforcement experience.

    Gusman inherited a sprawling jail complex from former Sheriff Charles Foti. During his first two terms, he weathered criticism about his handling of the evacuation of thousands of inmates during Hurricane Katrina, and about his plan to construct a 4,300-bed jail after the storm.

    Nevertheless, he swatted away Foti’s attempt at a comeback in 2014 and didn’t face a challenger in 2017. Some observers said his unopposed reelection was a product of deep problems at the jail rather than a tribute to his success.

    In 2013, Gusman was pressured into agreeing into a wide-ranging federal reform agreement known as a consent decree in response to frequent violence and disorder at the jail, including an infamous video shot by one incarcerated person that showed people using drugs and manhandling a gun.

    Since then, Gusman has struggled to fulfill the agreement. He narrowly avoided outright receivership but was sidelined from running his own jail between 2016 and 2020.

    Separately, the sheriff also weathered a major corruption scandal when his top deputy was convicted in a case involving off-duty details.

    Now back in charge of the jail, Gusman argued he was within reach of finally fulfilling the consent decree — as long as the city builds the special needs jail for people with health problems.

    A fierce runoff

    Hutson made opposition to that new building a centerpiece of her campaign. She backs Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s plan to renovate part of the main Orleans Justice Center instead. Gusman has called the rehab idea an unworkable fantasy and said Hutson has no way to overrule a federal court order to build the facility, but it proved a rallying cry for Hutson supporters.

    The fight over the building gave the race “clear stakes” and helped attract national interest, according to Max Rose, of the North Carolina-based Sheriffs for Trusting Communities, a group supporting Hutson that aims to elect reform sheriffs.

    In the primary election Nov. 13, Gusman came strikingly close to outright victory, with 48% of the vote compared to Hutson’s 35% share. Gusman and Hutson, both Democrats, were trailed by three long-shot candidates.

    The primary’s precinct results suggested sharp divides among voters. Gusman did better in heavily Black neighborhoods and in neighborhoods with more conservative White voters like Lakeview. Hutson performed best in racially mixed neighborhoods and liberal areas like Faubourg Marigny, Bywater and Mid-City.

    Immediately after the first vote, Gusman issued a statement casting Hutson as a pawn of the police abolition movement. She countered with an endorsement from Williams and a plan to deploy deputies to the streets on “visibility patrols.”

    Even after forcing Gusman into a runoff, Hutson struggled to raise campaign cash. Yet she was buttressed by massive spending from the PAC for Justice, a progressive campaign outfit that first emerged during last year’s judicial elections, and Voters Organized to Educate, a local tax-exempt group.

    Through Friday, Gusman’s campaign reported spending $429,000 this year. Hutson reported spending $90,000, and the PAC for Justice reported spending $203,000.

    Gusman tried to claim the reform mantle for himself, noting that the inmate population dropped around 85% on his watch. Yet he also ran ads bemoaning the city’s rising violent crime rate and cried foul about out-of-state special interests tipping the race, in a way that also seemed to play to some voters’ dislike of recent arrivals to the city.

    “They don’t know us,” he said in one ad. “That’s why I humbly ask for your prayers, and your vote.”

    Criminal justice reform advocates held a news conference to denounce Gusman for standing against jail reduction efforts rather than with them. In one of her closing arguments, Hutson insisted that she wasn’t a radical.

    “You’ve seen me say anything about defund or eliminating the jails? That’s my opponent saying that,” Hutson said in a debate on WBOK-AM. “If you are a person who is anti-law enforcement, that’s not me. As a police auditor for 17 years, we help our police departments serve our communities better.”

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