A Susan Hutson win could give New Orleans — and the U.S. — its 1st progressive sheriff
The result of the Orleans Parish Sheriff's election this Saturday could give the United States its first glimpse at a progressive Sheriff — or the city could return to its conventional incumbent, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who has run a jail that has been shrouded in controversy since he overtook it in 2004.
Gusman nearly took the primary vote with 48% of the vote and has rarely faced a worthy opponent in his past 17 years as sheriff until independent police monitor Susan Hutson entered the arena.
With her three C's ideology, "care, custody and control," Hutson earned the support of the young progressives and prominently white districts of the city, taking 35% of the vote. While both candidates are Black democrats, the run-off race gave voters a glimpse at the differences between the two.
“I put the ‘I,’ in independent police monitor,” said Hutson in a recent debate. “I fought with this community to make that office independent and over 70% of you voted for that.” Hutson was a key figure in a 2008 ballot referendum that created the independent regulatory office; New Orleans voters passed the measure overwhelmingly.
She’s following the game plan of progressives across the country, like New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams, promising to reform the criminal justice system with a left-wing ideology. Hutson’s campaign is likened to Williams, who ran against Keva Landrum, a former judge and interim DA, and won alongside other more progressive prosecutors across the nation.
But Hutson is also breaking new ground. Instead of running for a position that can alter sentences or laws regarding the justice system, she is running for control of the parish jail. This could make her the first elected sheriff in the country chosen during a moment when a wave of progressive cries demand reform of the justice system.
Unlike Williams, who lacked prosecutorial experience but spent five years on the City Council, Hutson has zero political experience. And even more, she has never worn a police badge. Hutson has spent time behind the scene serving 17 years as a police monitor in several different cities, including the past 12 years observing the New Orleans Police Department.
Her opponent, Gusman, is a central member of the city's Democratic Party, spending time as the city's Chief Administrative Officer for former Mayor Marc Morial and a term on the City Council. Gusman also received an endorsement from Gov. John Bel Edwards, a fellow Democrat, and other prominent members of the state’s Democratic Party.
Gusman seemed to want to coast on his name and accomplishments in the primary election, and he nearly succeeded in taking 50% of the vote in order to avoid a runoff election. The sheriff fared well in parts of the city with predominantly Black districts and the conservative pockets of the city.
Gusman's campaign has focused on how much change he's implemented since he inherited the jail, just eight months before Hurricane Katrina hit the city, including reducing the jail's population by 85% and condensing 13 different prisons into one. The sheriff also lists Travis Hill School, located inside the Orleans Justice Center, where inmates can receive high school diplomas and job skill training.
But once the runoff election began, money and attacks from both sides poured in. In a debate on WBOK-AM, Gusman claimed Hutson is attempting to defund the police.
“You’ve seen me say anything about defund or eliminating the jails? That’s my opponent saying that,” Hutson rebutted. “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.”
Hutson said in her 11 years as a monitor of the New Orleans Police Department and having additional experience in Los Angeles and Austin, where she also worked with its police department’s independent police monitor, she has never once sided with the far-left idea of abolishing prison or defunding police.
But Gusman pointed to Hutson's out-of-state donors, who he claims believe in defunding the police. Hutson has received support from PAC for Justice, a local organization that claims to want to shrink the sheriff's department's $55.4 million budget to divert toward social programs. Hutson’s campaign struggled to pull in money, only taking in $131,000 from donors, but during the runoff, PAC for Justice received a $200,000 donation from a national group named FWD.us, which has also donated funds to end non-unanimous jury trials.
“Although my opponent hasn’t said anything about defunding the police, everybody and all the money around her are sure talking about it — she’s just a puppet [for] them,” Gusman said.
Outside funding for Gusman has also entered the campaign. Part of the $969,000 Gusman raised for the campaign comes from vendors he’s chosen for the prison, including $36,000 from a Cleveland business, Ozanne Construction, who have been the sheriff’s project management, and $1,000 from South Dakota-based Summit Foods Services. The prison has used Summit since 2017.
River Parish Disposal also donated $35,500 to the sheriff’s election campaign; the company is contracted for supplying the office with dumpsters, as reported by the Times-Picayune. Louisiana politicians are allowed to roll over their fundraising to different campaign cycles, allowing Gusman to lead with a head start.
The WBOK-AM radio debate also touched on a mailer that was sent out labeled "The Marlin Gusman Campaign," that listed Hutson as unmarried, childless and “religion unknown.” Gusman said his campaign was not responsible, as his campaign's name is "The Committee to Re-Elect Marlin Gusman," and that he thinks the PACs behind Hutson were mailing the cards to make him look sexist.
Hutson said the mailer could be from Gusman, as he has been accused of running a workplace that openly rated the appearances of female employees and mistreated women.
In 2018, a WWL-TV report found several employees of Gusman who claimed that female employees dealt with a culture of sexual harassment, and their complaints were ignored by management.
If elected, Hutson would be the first female sheriff of Orleans Parish. A 2020 report by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, a data activist group, found that 90% of the nation's Sheriffs are white men, and fewer than 3% are women.
The report also showed that Louisiana is one of 16 states that did not have a woman in the role of sheriff, though a woman served as sheriff in Baton Rouge nearly a century ago.
Hutson said if elected, she would also support promoting women to deputies to diversify the workplace, helping to buck the national trend of the white male sheriff.
The campaign's main fight is centered around Gusman wanting to build another jail to house inmates with mental health issues, known as the Phase III building. Hutson and the majority of the city government think the current jail, built in 2015, has room to house those who need help and that building another jail could result in more inmates.
The plan is complicated by a federal consent decree that the Sheriff's Department is under and has been since 2013. Consent decrees are rare for policing bodies — theDepartment of Justice is currently only enforcing decrees on 17of the country's almost 18,000 police departments.
A federal judge levied the consent decree after the city faced multiple lawsuits for the conditions of the Orleans Parish Prison and treatment of the inmates. The consent decree took away Gusman's control of the jail and listed 174 items that needed reform for the prison to reach constitutional standards.
Gusman said his department is currently almost 98% compliant with the decree but needs to build the Phase III building to help in ending the federal regulations. The wing would include 89 beds for inmates with mental health issues and an infirmary. Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu agreed on the decree, but currently, no city department favors the addition to the jail except Gusman.
“It’s not really an expansion,” Gusman said. “It is really just a critical component of the jail.”
Gusman explained during the debate that the building would be designed to better help inmates who are having mental health issues and would operate as a unisex infirmary. The onsite infirmary would also ease manpower, as currently deputies are having to transport prisoners to and from hospitals.
The City Council, who controls the purse strings for the project and collectively opposes the building, have said they will wait for the deadline set by the judge to make the final decision before anyone builds Phase III.
Hutson, who is campaigning on not building any more jails, said that a city the size of New Orleans will only see 25 to 50 cases a year that would need the services provided by the Phase III building.
In a budgetary meeting held Nov. 16, Gusman said the jail currently held 876 inmates, much less than the 1,438 beds the OJC holds. In 2015, the city allocated $150 million of FEMA money to rebuild the jail and move out of the decrepit and notoriously dangerous Orleans Parish Prison and into OJC.
When Hutson accepted an endorsement from Williams, the city's DA, she did so in front of the former Sheriff's Community Correctional Facility, which is now empty and sits across the street from the OJC facility. Hutson said the empty building could be a possible solution for the Phase III dilemma by retrofitting a building that OPSO already owns.
Hutson has also stated in her campaign that she believes mental health issues can be taken care of inside the OJC.
“After watching this campaign very closely and spending time with Susan, I am confident that she will work to execute strategies that improve in neighborhoods, improve technology, data sharing and transparency,” Williams said.
Hutson, who resigned from her role as president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said she is very knowledgeable of consent decrees, having worked as a monitor of police departments in Los Angeles and New Orleans under federal regulations. She calls consent decrees "livable, breathing documents" that can change over time, and with her experience, she’s confident she can convince the judge the jail isn’t necessary.
Election night is this Saturday, Dec. 11, in which residents will vote on five other runoff elections, which include a couple of tight City Council races, and two millages. To view our voting guide, click here.