This voter education guide is published primarily as a resource and does not constitute an endorsement of any candidate or proposition by ANTIGRAVITY Magazine.
Greetings, you tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and welcome to the guide for the August 15 runoff for electing a judge to First City Court.
Since 2014, we have published and lovingly crafted voter guides as a service to our readers, first in collaboration with the New Orleans Harm Reduction Network and now simply under the ANTIGRAVITY banner. Our most consistent position? That no aspiring politician has earned our endorsement. Truly liberatory social change happens in the streets, not in the ballot box. Therefore we review candidates with the mentality that we ought to elect the people whom grassroots movements might successfully push and pressure to lessen suffering among those most likely to suffer. In other words, we vote for who we most want as our opponents.
To create this guide, we pored over local media, pulled public records, corresponded with candidates, and sought insight from friends, neighbors, and local activists. We used our values to guide us:
Local politics impact us most, and vice-versa. We prioritize issues that involve New Orleans, surrounding areas, Louisiana, and the Gulf region. We reject the influence of post-Katrina opportunism, pandemic-era exploitation, and austerity at all levels of government and the private sector.
Any analysis of power ought to center the needs and experiences of the most vulnerable among us—those most subject to bodily and institutional violence and neglect, not just by the State but also by mainstream progressives. We seek to promote justice, dignity, and autonomy for historically punished and exploited populations like Black people, Indigenous people and people of color, people with disabilities, poor people, queer and trans people, immigrants with and without documentation, youth, elderly people, women, unhoused people, people who use drugs, people who earn income in informal or stigmatized industries like sex work, currently or formerly imprisoned people, and people most affected by climate crisis.
We write this guide as unapologetic utopians: we refuse to let the scarcity, limitations, and horrors of our present dystopia limit our imaginations. For the past several months we have been sick, exhausted, scared, and grieving. But we’ve also seen essential workers organizing on a massive scale; tenants, local councilmembers, and even congresspeople calling for the cancellation of rent or the decommodification of housing altogether; prison abolition entering the national dialogue; local and national mobilizations figuratively and literally fighting police brutality locally and everywhere; and the successful unarrest of a Black woman thanks to an act of collective solidarity right here in our city. We have hope, but we didn’t find it on a campaign trail.
Voting, for those who are able, is among the lesser forms of being politically engaged. The late visionary author Ursula K. Le Guin once said: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” So right now, we’ll use those.
If you are registered and don’t care to vote, you can find someone who is currently incarcerated, on parole, undocumented, or otherwise disenfranchised from voting, but wants their opinions heard. You can vote for their interests.
We suggest you bring a photo ID to the polls, but if you do not have one you can still cast a ballot by signing a voter affidavit which vouches for your identity. The secretary of state audits all voter affidavits after the election to ensure that you are who you say you are.
If you have a disability, you are entitled to receive assistance to cast your vote. If your assigned polling place is not accessible, you can vote at the nearest polling place with the same ballot or at the Registrar of Voters Office.
The makeup of the ballot, including names of candidates and texts of propositions, as well as information about how, where, and when to register and vote is based on information provided by the Louisiana Secretary of State. For info on what your ballot looks like, as well as information about disability and voting, go to voterportal.sos.la.gov.
Judge, 1st City Court
Marissa A. Hutabarat
The First City Court has jurisdiction over the Eastbank of New Orleans, covering civil lawsuits, small claims suits, and evictions. The judgeship became vacant when Judge Angelique Reed passed away in November. In the main election, among a field of five candidates, neither Marissa Hutabarat (with 33% of the vote) nor Sara Lewis (with 28%) won enough of a majority to preclude a runoff (with a 25% turnout). In the main election’s voter guide, these were the two candidates we named in our summary. Lewis, endorsed by (relatively) renter-friendly state Representative Mandie Landry, described the eviction rate as a “crippling burden” that disproportionately impacts people of color. We noted that Hutabarat volunteers with the First 72+, an organization that assists recently incarcerated people with their immediate and long-term needs. When it came down to specific positions, we found more substance in Lewis, who (alone in the race) completed our survey, espousing nearly every progressive position we offered.
But the candidates are nearly tied on the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance’s scorecard. Hutabarat and Lewis both have a rack of endorsements, both have moving immigrant backstories, and both tout professional and volunteer experiences that paint them as wholesome, civic-minded people.
We were hoping that the candidates would distinguish themselves from one another at a July 24 Housing and Justice Candidate Forum, but instead we found more similarities. When asked if either candidate had been to court since it reopened to assess the conditions, neither had.
They also answered much the same on disability rights and virtual hearings. We judge societies by how they treat their most vulnerable members. We must also judge these would-be judges on how they’d treat them, too, particularly because both have run their entire campaigns on a purported commitment to using full discretion to protect the most marginalized people in the city. The moderator asked if the candidates would allow virtual hearings for those unable to appear in person. Each candidate replied that if both parties agreed to a virtual hearing, it would be allowed. However, our understanding was that thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even if there was a policy that both parties need to agree, if one party requests a virtual hearing as an accommodation, they are entitled to that accommodation in the interest of equal access for people with disabilities.
People with disabilities, particularly Black people, are among those most vulnerable to eviction in New Orleans (and everywhere). They face obstacles to fair representation beyond the physical dimension. The risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus compounds a situation which for many might have already been insurmountable. Did neither candidate know about the ADA? Did we misunderstand? This is a court where most tenants do not appear with the benefit of having legal counsel or full knowledge of their rights. The judge, even if committed to fair treatment, cannot serve as legal counsel to a defendant/tenant. So it matters very much how they plan on navigating the power imbalances that will appear before them.
We asked both campaigns for clarification on what role they believe the ADA has here and how proactive they would be in letting people know about their rights. They both communicated their commitment to honoring the ADA, but with different spins on being proactive. Representing the Hutabarat campaign, Victoria Short-Coulon (of Teddlie Stuart Media Partners) said “many who access that court often do not have the means to access virtually.” That’s true—but judges do have the power to provide litigants with accessibility devices. One of the judges in Jefferson Parish has been sending a clerk door to door with a tablet and a hotspot so that people don’t have to go to court. Short-Coulon added that due to COVID-19, Hutabarat’s court would enforce “staggered dockets, social distancing, and frequently sanitizing common areas.” Lewis’ response focused less on hygiene and more on how she sees her role in the courtroom. “I commit to making sure all litigants understand their rights, and that includes the rights of people with disabilities,” she told us. “I see my job as more than making judgments but also educating litigants to ensure they have every opportunity to be heard—this includes finding creative solutions on a case-by-case basis for litigants who cannot physically access the courthouse.”
Is the fundamental dignity of people with disabilities perhaps not spicy enough for you? Well, in the time since the main election and before the runoff, heated accusations about both candidates have popped up on social media. Posts on Twitter alleged that Hutabarat’s live-in boyfriend Mark El-Amm, a former New Orleans assistant City attorney with a real-estate business, allegedly operates seven whole home short term rentals—allegedly illegally. So why would this be relevant or any of the public’s business at all? Given that whole home short term rentals have driven up eviction rates in New Orleans, a candidate’s relationship with them is not just a matter of personal judgement, but also impartiality when campaigning for a seat overseeing eviction court. Lewis’ campaign was not immune to internet drama either. Posts on Facebook called attention to her role defending one of the correctional officers at St. Bernard Parish Prison (SBPP) who participated in the cover-up of Nimali Henry’s death by intentional medical neglect. Lewis’ practice focused on environmental law, so this too left us with questions. In an age where social media allegations are consumed uncritically, what good is our guide if we don’t dig further?
We asked each campaign if any member of their household has ever operated a short term rental property (and if so what type and was it legal). We also offered each of the candidates an opportunity to comment on the issue in relation to their opponent. Lewis responded that short term rentals are an “existential issue that our policymakers need to tackle head on.” She disclosed that at one point, a total of three times, she had rented out the apartment she’d lived in for eight years to cover the rent, and that she is now a homeowner. Regarding her opponent, Lewis said “I made a promise to myself and the City of New Orleans at the beginning of this race to run a clean campaign—no mud slinging, no vicious attacks, no playing dirty.”
When we posed that same query to the Hutabarat campaign, Short-Coulon took issue with the question itself: “I have never seen a male candidate asked questions about someone they are affiliated with or have a personal relationship,” she said. “It is sexist at best and it has no bearing on the office she is seeking.” Hutabarat herself followed up with further comment, saying that she does not own any interest in any short term rentals and never has. She acknowledged that a member of her household has (though she did not name El-Amm), and that they are in active litigation. Hutabarat says she is unable to issue a statement about that because the state judicial code prevents her from doing so.
The litigation in question? Most likely a suit El-Amm brought against the City1Civil District Court Docket No: 19-4613 ELAMM EQUITY INVESTMENTS, LLC VS THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS AND THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS DEPARTMENT OF SAFETY AND PERMITS protesting fines he received for operating multiple short term rentals after his permits, which the City characterizes as “temporary” and “intermittent,” had expired. El-Amm indicated that he would like to see his fines reduced to $500. The City contends that El-Amm’s properties do not legally qualify for a nonconforming use designation, that he hadn’t requested the designation prior to the suit, and that the operation of his rentals was illegal.
As it stands, the court has remanded this case and the outcome will depend on a ruling from the Department of Safety and Permits. That department will now fall under the purview of recently-hired Peter Bowen,2Bowen’s position isn’t an elected one. He actively profited off of the housing crisis and now will earn a six figure salary (up to $175k according to the job description) applying his free market libertarian ideology to City policy. We can’t vote him out. Chew on that. the former general manager of the short term rental corporation Sonder. Bowen, who quoted Ayn Rand in his corporate profile (“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me?”), favors individual profit over regulation. It seems El-Amm could not have hoped for a better hire.
Striking a markedly different tone than Lewis’ credo of a “clean campaign,” Short-Coulon raised questions of Lewis’ character. “Are you aware of allegations circulating on social media regarding her legal defense of big oil companies that are destroying our environment along with the defense of dirty police officers accused of gross misconduct that resulted in the death of Nimali Henry in a St. Bernard Parish jail?” She asked, emailing screenshots of posts regarding Lewis’ role in the Nimali Henry trial (repeating some inaccuracies—Lewis represented one, not four, of the defendants, who were correctional officers, not police).
We had already contacted Lewis about that. No matter what office someone was seeking, we would want answers about why they would take on a case defending one of the correctional officers complicit in the death of Nimali Henry, a 19 year-old Black woman and new mother with a blood disorder, who had been deprived of her medication for ten days. Lewis explained that she didn’t choose that client, but rather was appointed through the Federal Criminal Justice Act Panel, which fulfills the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel by appointing attorneys for low income criminal defendants. Attorneys appointed as such are compensated by the Department of Justice at federally mandated rates. “Working with the Panel allows me to do an important public service even as a civil attorney in private practice,” Lewis explained.3As for her client, Debra Becnel is “currently awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to making a false statement to an FBI officer in the death of Henry.” Henry was being held before trial simply because her family could not afford the bail. In her response to our survey for the main election, Lewis indicated that she was in favor of eliminating cash bail. Hutabarat did not complete a survey.
What of Lewis’ career in civil law? Her firm did defend oil, including Liberty Oil & Gas Corp, one of the legion companies involved in the Tennessee Pipeline, but she says she was minimally involved in that case and cannot comment on it. Lewis also said she has represented both landowners suing oil companies and vice versa. What of Hutabarat’s career at Glago Williams, a civil litigation and personal injury firm? Mostly focused on getting settlements from insurance companies. Both candidates had clients seeking compensation after hurricane damage.
And what about representation for this majority Black city? Lewis is a white woman descended from Holocaust survivors, and grew up translating for relatives. Hutabarat, who identified herself as Asian on her candidate filing, watched her Singaporean-American father battle xenophobia in the legal system.
Ultimately, either candidate, if elected, will preside over the eviction of low-income tenants during a pandemic. Either candidate, if elected, is bound by the laws of our fundamentally inhumane justice system. People are going to get kicked out of their homes, some will become homeless, some will get sick, and some will die. Eviction court should not be open.
SUMMARY: After evaluating the troubling claims informally raised since the main election, it still looks like Lewis would be the less harmful choice. We are on the brink of yet another manmade disaster: an eviction tsunami that mortally threatens our precarious collective health. Join the Renter’s Rights Assembly and get ready to fight back.
The deadline to request a mail ballot is Tuesday, August 11 by 4:30 p.m.
The deadline for the registrar of voters to receive a mail ballot is Friday, August 14 by 4:30 p.m. (other than military and overseas voters).
Early voting for this election began on Saturday, July 25 and ends on Saturday, August 8 (excluding Sunday, August 2) 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Saturday election voting hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
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image courtesy of the public domain