Today, I published a story in Politico about the New Orleans sheriff race, which pits Susan Hutson — long-time police monitor who has expressed a commitment to reforming the New Orleans jail — and Marlin Gusman — who has been sheriff since Hurrican Katrina.
Putting aside the question of what a “progress sheriff” would like — or whether it exists or what it would mean — I wanted to talk a little bit about Gusman’s campaign contributions. In the process of writing this story, I pulled his campaign contributions and was a bit surprised at what I saw. Gusman has raised around $250K from last I saw. But his donors were interesting and telling, not just of this race, but of sheriff races in general.
For some context: Unlike prosecutors or other elected officials, sheriffs have near-discretionary use of their budget. They also buy more stuff: uniforms, linens, food service, medical care for incarcerated people, construction-type services, construction materials, architecture plans, accountants, electronic gizmos, telephone services, video conferencing services, and on and on. Jails are huge public works projects that require a lot of things to keep them going. And, while Gusman doesn’t do patrols, for sheriffs who do police the county, there are even more things to buy.
This website breaks down Gusman’s campaign contributions and provides a lot of information. I wanted to highlight a few items.
First, there are no prohibitions on campaign contributions from groups or individuals who might benefit from contracts with the sheriff’s office or who have current contracts with the sheriff’s office. So, if you are, say Grace Hebert Architects — the group that came up with the original Phase III plans for the jail expansion in New Orleans — why wouldn’t you contribute money to ensure that your project gets completed and that you get another call when plans change?
Second, there are a lot of contributions from Dallas, which (as a Dallas resident) confused me. Many are from mail-order gun shops. (I really want to know more about this and if it’s linked to Gusman’s lobbying against open carry laws in Louisiana — there’s some weirdness there.) According to the website, the Dallas connection appears to be linked to the Securus phone company, which, as many people probably know, charges incarcerated people high prices to talk to their families. (Getting rid of Securus is part of Hutson’s platform). But there are also a lot of GOP donors, which I guessed based on their addresses.
Third, there are plainly a lot of real estate interests putting money into this campaign — restauranteurs, hotels, etc.
There’s a lot more to look at, including bail bonds companies, repo companies, Wellpath (which provides the “health care” at the jail) and more. I bring all of this up because there’s been a push in some places for prosecutors to refuse police union donations. But, I’ve seen little to nothing about the people who donate to sheriff campaigns. Look, is it surprising? No. Political campaigns will always be awash in contractor cash. I point this out only to say — sheriffs have the ability to make more contracts than other elected officials.
Gusman’s public relations firm responded thusly:
I wanted to revisit the question about campaign contributions to the Sheriff, but on a related note. In this race, unlike previous ones, nearly all our opponents have been unable to raise significant funds. The main driver of issues have been local political action committees associated with various advocacy and non-profit groups with an interest in criminal justice issues, and sometimes advancing misleading information. These PACS do report their funds...with most of it coming from national 501c4 PACs and out-of-state donors. Thus the opponents in this race have largely been these anonymous funding sources. The transparency in this race seems terribly one-sided. I was hoping you might note that in your story...I've attached the reports of one such 501c3/501c4 group as an example...and note their latest 'press release' below...
She attached financials from, and was presumably referring to, PAC for Justice, which seems far from a dark money group. Now, the financials for PAC for Justice that she attached showed a total of some $100K, far less than what Gusman has raised. And, while some of the donors are nonprofits or other large-ish donors who contribute to these races, a lot are also New Orleans residents giving $100 here and there. So, I’m not totally clear what her point is — btw per campaign finance, she got paid around $15K at least to do her job.