A radio lesson from the ACLU in NOLa DA’s race

by Wade Rathke

December 6, 2020

Pearl River   The 2020 election season isn’t quite over, as the Senate runoff in Georgia proves, but that’s not the only place where there are key runoffs. In New Orleans, a highly contentious, and important, race for district attorney was the featured bout, along with a gaggle of judge and school board contests.

The incumbent DA, Leon Cannizzaro had been in for three terms, too long. As the Lens, New Orleans’ reported,

…the current DA, Leon Cannizzaro, who took office in 2008, has come to represent the worst of the old-school tough-on-crime policies that led to New Orleans once being the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the country. A number of his tactics — such as the use of fake subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify and the use of material witness warrants seeking to have witnesses and crime victims jailed — drew national media attention, lawsuits from civil rights groups, and condemnation from local officials….Cannizzaro saw his approval rating drop from 55 percent in 2016 to 42 percent in 2018….

Let’s be frank, he was a bum.

Jason Williams, the New Orleans City Council president, and a defense attorney under a 12-count federal indictment for $200,000 in income tax shenanigans was running as the progressive candidate against a local judge, Keva Landrum, who had previously done a short stint as an interim appointee as DA, was running as the more moderate candidate. Williams barely made the runoff, getting 29% of the vote to Judge Arthur Hunter’s 28%, but crushed Landrum in the runoff 58% to 42%, promising widescale changes in the office. All that is for the good. We had a sign up in our yard for Hunter in the first round and were solid for Williams in the second round, including pictures of ACORN affiliate, A Community Voice, leaders in some of his circulars.

I was as interested in a sidebar to this race. Driving back from Arkansas and Mississippi this week when I was in range, I was listening for a bit to the University of New Orleans NPR station. Out of nowhere, I heard a long ad from the ACLU. It was a “hit” piece with a nonpartisan twist. They mentioned both candidates and the election and then compared their positions on criminalizing marijuana arrests, saying Williams was for decriminalization and Landrum was uncommitted. In the ad, they then went to great links to say they were not endorsing either candidate, that neither had given them money and that they were nonpartisan in a classic, “throw the rock and hide the hand” move. What’s more, it was a very political ad on noncommercial radio, where political ads are pretty much unknown and, normally, “wise men fear to tread,” while protecting their license from the FCC.

The Lens seems to have also noted this from another angle…

Last week the ACLU of Louisiana launched a six-figure advertising campaign to bring awareness to the race. While they didn’t formally endorse any candidate, it pushed voters to “end the failed war on drugs,” and noted that while Williams would not prosecute individual marijuana possession charges, Landrum “may continue Leon Cannizzaro’s policy of sending marijuana cases to Municipal Court.”

Six figures, six dollars, my takeaway as someone who manages non-commercial radio stations in Little Rock, New Orleans, and Greenville is a bit different. The ACLU has lawyers crawling out the kazoo! The ACLU Foundation is a tax-exempt, 501c3 nonprofit. The ACLU is a 501c4, membership organization. They clearly would have vetted this up one side, and down the other, and in doing so, convinced the very conservative NPR affiliate to run the ad prominently, and cash the check. Great for New Orleans and criminal justice reform that Williams won, but potentially great for noncommercial radio for now and the future, that the ACLU might have just put a fine point on what we have been advocating for some time, often as voices in the wilderness.

Nonprofits of all stripes should use noncommercial radio to communicate where people, including politicians in the middle of hot campaigns, stand on issues. That’s an opportunity for the public and for advocates, all within the lines of nonpartisan activity.

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.

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