DSA New Orleans Voter Guide for 2020

The Municipal Action Committee has prepared a guide for voters heading into the upcoming elections. Below, find information about dates, deadlines, and information about each race and the candidates involved.

Dates and deadlines

  • Early voting period: June 22nd – July 4th
  • Deadline to request mail-in ballot: July 7th
  • Deadline to receive mail-in ballot: July 10th
  • Election Day: July 11th

Our Guide

First City Court Judge

The July 11 election will decide the new judge for City District Court Section B, one of four judge positions on the First City Court. This is a special election to fill a seat left vacant due to the passing of longtime Judge Angelique Reed. It is currently being filled on an interim basis by former City Councilperson Nadine Ramsey. This court makes decisions on civil lawsuits with claims up to $25,000, small claims suits up to $5,000, and evictions for residential and commercial properties where the cost of rent is up to $3,000, which covers the vast majority of rentals in New Orleans.

A statewide moratorium on eviction hearings ended on June 15, and despite a unanimous resolution from the New Orleans City Council urging the courts to wait until August 24, eviction proceedings can now be heard again. Already, landlords are lining up “by the dozens” to file. 

New Orleans lacks strong protections for renters. Evictions in our city have and will continue to predominantly affect Black New Orleanians. A recent Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI) report illuminated just how harsh the legal process can be for tenants facing eviction. Despite the fact that only 59% of New Orleans is African American, 82% of tenants facing eviction in the cases JPNSI observed were Black. 57% of tenants facing eviction were Black women. This is a population who have already suffered displacement, theft and violence at the hands of the city in many ways: in the destruction or restructuring of public housing, the lack of support in returning after Hurricane Katrina, in development projects such as Gordon Plaza, Claiborne Overpass, the closure and redevelopment of Charity Hospital, and in the city government’s inability or unwillingness to push back against AirBnB and other factors that make housing less affordable and available. The city needs a candidate who will use their judicial discretion to be an advocate for renters, someone who will help people stay housed.

It’s aggravating that in so many important local elections, there is little to no practical information available for voters. Often these municipal positions are a direct way to change our community for the better, and it’s disheartening to see the lower level of energy and coverage compared with more well-known positions in government. In this race for First City Court Judge, candidates have provided stale, expected lists of their educational achievements, past employers, and community service they want to highlight. They have offered vague and cliched promises to be just, committed to the office, and to respect New Orleanians from all walks of life.

The New Orleans DSA sent out a survey mostly focused on evictions to all First City Court Judge candidates. At time of writing, Shalyece Harrison and Sara Lewis had filled out the survey. The full survey and their responses will be linked below.

In this race, the Municipal Action Committee has sought to aggregate news and campaign information to present a picture of each candidate and help voters make a more informed choice. New Orleans DSA is not endorsing any candidate in this race.

Aylin Acikalin‘s career as a lawyer has been focused on environmental and consumer protection issues. She is the candidate with the most varied experience working in government. Acikalin has served as an aide for Senator Mary Landrieu and as a member of the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee. She worked under Nadine Ramsey, first as a clerk while Ramsey was a judge of the Civil District Court in Orleans Parish, and then as Legislative Director when Ramsey was elected a City Council member in New Orleans. In this later role, Acikalin led the creation of an Environmental Advisory Committee and a Climate Action Plan. Acikalin unsuccessfully ran for City Council in 2017. She has been the most visible supporter of vote by mail in this race.

In 2018, Council member Ramsey was called out for fast-tracking an application to rezone a residential property owned by Aylin’s father for commercial use. Tamer Acikalin is a frequent buyer and seller of real estate in New Orleans, and donated around $5,000 to Ramsey’s City Council campaign. Tamer claimed he wanted to establish a medical clinic at the property, though, as a Times-Picayune article pointed out, he had been running an AirBnB at the site, and the rezoning would allow him to push past the 90-day cap on AirBnB rentals for residential property. That same year, pro-short term rental lobbying group Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity named Acikalin and Ramsey as key allies “who have pledged to work with us” in an email to their membership

Acikalin and Sara Lewis (whose campaign is described below) are the two white candidates in the race, and the two candidates receiving the vast majority of contributions from the city’s corporate, legal and political sectors. The largest donations to Acikalin’s campaign include a $5,000 in-kind contribution from businessman and prominent political donor Fouad Zeton Sr., as well as monetary donations from the medical management corporation LA MRI Inc., Corrington Law Firm, and personal injury attorney Brad Egenberg.

Robbins Graham worked for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Service in the Child Support Enforcement Services. He also ran his own practice handling civil litigation and criminal defense. He worked as an assistant district attorney under Harry Connick for several years. He has done pro bono work for New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation. Graham has largely promoted himself as an ideal candidate for judge because of decades of work in many different areas of law and his ability to relate to the people of New Orleans, saying “I have the experience to impact people’s lives. You have to be able to listen to people and be able to understand them.” Graham’s bid for First City Court Judge appears self-funded, with no political donors listed by his campaign.

In an interview, Graham acknowledged some systemic racism and problems in New Orleans’ criminal justice system, but largely seemed to be an apologist for it. Speaking of his time as an assistant district attorney right out of law school, he said, “The Prosecutor’s office is not a safe haven for black attorneys in New Orleans, because you’re prosecuting your own kids. But that’s because the arrests and the injustices that exist today in the black community existed thirty years ago. The police of New Orleans were not the police of today […] The police of today are more compassionate officers. They are more understanding, community police officers. Later in the interview, he added, “There’s a lot of injustice going on with people who think their method is right. The law is not necessarily right, but it’s the law we have. We have to follow that law.”

Schalyece Harrison is a civil litigation and tax lawyer who appears to be running a mostly self-financed campaign. Harrison has worked as an administrative hearing officer for the city of New Orleans and as a disciplinary hearing officer for the Sewerage & Water Board. She has also volunteered her time for The Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana.

Harrison demonstrated concern for the people brought before the court in an interview for local blog LA Data Weekly, saying, “Often the parties are unrepresented single moms who are facing eviction, therefore we need a judge who is from this community and understands our culture and our traditions and who will treat everyone with dignity and respect no matter their race, age, or income level.” She has posited her experience as a hearing officer has prepared her for being a judge better than any of her electoral opponents: “I’m the only one that has written judgments, that has reviewed evidence, taken testimony, and rendered judgment in over 3,500 cases.”

 In her response to the DSA survey, Harrison wrote that judges did not have the discretion to mandate a payment plan between tenant and landlord. She committed to acting as an understanding and compassionate judge, and that she believed judges have the discretion to give evicted tenants additional time to move. The full survey with her answers is here.

Marissa Hutabarat is a civil litigation lawyer who has collected endorsements from many prominent New Orleans politicians, including councilmembers Nguyen, Giarusso, and Palmer, and state reps Duplessis and Hughes. She has also been endorsed by the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, The Independent Women’s Organization (a dual endorsement shared with Acikalin) and the AFL-CIO of Orleans Parish. Hutabarat has clerked for three judges — Judge Roland Belsome and Judge Edwin Lombard, both of the Louisiana State Court of Appeal, Fourth circuit, and Judge Monique Barial of the Orleans Parish Civil District Court. She is running as “a judge for the people of New Orleans,” and has posted video endorsements by New Orleanian elders who trust and respect her. She is a legal advisor for First 72+, a program that helps people newly released from jail get back on their feet. 

Hutabarat’s campaign site says she “uses her legal qualifications to help people that others leave behind. Working families, ex-offenders, local businesses, and anyone else feeling locked out of the American Dream.” Hutabarat is running a largely self-funded campaign, including a personal loan of $95,000, though she has received $1,000 from Darleen Jacobs, a well-known New Orleans lawyer and director of the Coalition for Better Government

Sara Lewis‘ focus in law has been in oil, gas and environmental litigation. She has been endorsed by the Alliance for Good Government and the New Orleans Coalition. She also won the New Orleans Bar Association’s poll on First City Court candidates. Lewis has also previously been on the board for Luke’s House, a free clinic offering medical care, help with prescriptions, and education. She is currently on the board of Energy Wise, a non-profit that seeks to lower energy costs through retrofitting and education. 

Lewis has spoken about racial disparities in evictions as part of her campaign, noting at a candidate forum in March, “We have twice the national eviction rate. In areas that are predominately African American, one in four people faced eviction within the last three years versus one in twenty-four in predominantly white areas.” She has noted “eviction rates are closely related to racism and poverty,” although she has qualified that, saying elsewhere “[…] as a judge, I can’t legislate, I can’t tell you that I will be able to change those numbers. What I can tell you is that I can impartially apply the law, and I can do as much as I can, both before a case comes before me as well as after a case comes before me.”

In light of recent struggles for black life and liberation, Lewis wrote on Twitter: “I’ve tried to think of what I can say to discuss the relentless violence against black people in this country, but my words don’t suffice. All I can say is I’m sorry, and I will do better. It is the duty of those of us who are beneficiaries of our systems of white supremacy to dismantle them. This is not a political issue, but an issue of fundamental rights.” Lewis has said as a First City Court Judge she will work with the Access to Justice Commission to set up voluntary, free mediation as an alternative to First Civil Court, with law students and volunteer lawyers helping parties reach an agreement together instead of going to court. Lewis says it would be similar to an existing program in Baton Rouge Family court.

In her answers to the DSA survey, Lewis expressed a willingness to use her discretion as a judge to prevent homelessness, and to act not just as a judge but as a “[T]rusted resource for residents facing hard times.” She wrote that judges did not have the discretion to enforce a payment plan or give additional time for tenants facing eviction, but pointed out that appealing an eviction can give tenants more time, and promised she would make clear their right to an appeal. She pointed to some dangerous outcomes that an eviction could lead to, and listed legal powers judges could use to prevent evictions.Lewis has received the most donations of any candidate, including large contributions from a wide swath of donors including consulting from Kristine Breithaupt of Mayor Cantrell’s Action New Orleans PAC, and monetary donations from recently elected State Rep Mandie Landry, and from Sandra Herman, former executive director of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources under Governors Foster and Blanco, and former board member of French Market Corporation, the Louisiana First Foundation and the Louisiana State Museum. The full survey with her answers is here.


Democratic voters in this election will have the opportunity to elect the members of two of the three governing committees of state Democratic Party leadership. These elections happen every four years along with presidential elections. 

The Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC) is the governing body of the Louisiana state Democratic party. The DSCC is made up of two committee members (one female and one male) from each of the 105 State House Districts. After each election of DSCC members, the committee votes for officer positions. These officers, with two representatives from each congressional district in the state, form the Democratic State Central Committee Executive Committee. According to the state Democrat bylaws, their duties are to “elect Democratic Candidates in local, state, and national elections, conduct the Democratic National Committee delegate selection process, promote and build the state party, fundraise, conduct research on judicial or executive issues, maintain voter relations, education and leadership programs.”

The Democratic Parish Executive Committee (DPEC) positions make up committees for each parish in the state. Their responsibilities are to fund-raise, and to endorse and support candidates at the local level. They are under the jurisdiction of the state-level DSCC and cannot adopt or change any of their organizational rules without permission from this higher body. In Orleans Parish, voters may elect 14 committee members from their city council district.

There’s not much energy behind the election of these positions. Democratic Party power has generally been on the decline in Louisiana over the last twenty years culminating in last year’s devastating legislative elections which left us with the most right wing state house composition in modern memory. These committee offices lack visibility and transparency that could encourage more involvement from Democrats around the state. Come election time, there is little visible campaigning for these positions, and what campaigns do exist are not focused around any issues or ideology. Some parishes have many vacant seats and only one or two DPEC members, and DSCC seats are usually taken by Louisiana politicians with the name recognition or established bases of support to win without an electoral effort.

The Republican State Party is run essentially the same way, except for refusing to have an equal number of women as men in their Central Committee.

Because of the large number of candidates for these positions and New Orleans DSA rules around endorsements, this guide will not be publicizing the names of candidates for these races. We encourage curious voters to ask DSA members for their choices, or to email the Municipal Action Committee about their personal preferences at municipal@dsaneworleans.org

Democratic Presidential Nominee

This election, residents of Louisiana registered as Democrats will have the chance to cast a vote in the Democratic Party Presidential Primary. While it’s frustrating to be voting after the contest has already been decided, there is some consolation in knowing our state acted more responsibly than many others by pushing back the election date and expanding early voting. It is worth noting, however, that states such as Ohio (a state with double the population of Louisiana and months less time to prepare) managed to vote entirely by mail. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s efforts at expanded vote-by-mail were stymied by its Republican-controlled legislature. 

At this point in the race, candidate Joe Biden has collected enough delegates to clinch the nomination regardless of who wins the Louisiana primary, but Bernie Sanders (among others) will also be on the ballot. Beyond his work in congress, Sanders has run two presidential campaigns that excited leftists and other disaffected voters, increased awareness of democratic socialism, and proved the popularity of many ideas that centrists and conservatives have dismissed. The Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020 exposed a clear division between the left and right factions of the Democratic Party. While party leaders and money from the rich and powerful continued to prop up a morally bankrupt status quo, Sanders encouraged many new organizers to fight for a better world. Millions of Americans rallied around demands for health care for all, the right to earn a living wage, and a just transition to a Green New Deal. In organizing for Sanders, many have gained valuable experience and built relationships with like-minded people. Bernie Sanders has both exposed the limits of our broken, failing system, and opened up a new feeling of possibility for many people. 

Many of his supporters were disappointed with Sanders’ refusal to be aggressive against Joe Biden, and with his capitulation to the will of the moderates in the Democratic party in endorsing Biden without fighting for concessions. He has also not been as strong and supportive a voice for the current movement to defund the police as we would like. While he has tweeted “every police department violating people’s civil rights must be stripped of federal funding” and supported banning tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray on protestors, he also has pushed for better training and more resources for police departments as solutions, rather than the radical shifts in our so-called justice system that are long overdue. 

However, it is necessary to contrast Sanders’ response to the national uprising for Black Lives with Joe Biden’s which has been nothing short of shameful. Biden has met the demand to defund police with a proposal to increase police funding by $300 million. Biden’s prescribed solution to the scourge of police violence has been to encourage cops to shoot people “in the leg instead of in the heart.” Add to this Biden’s long and troubling record as a proponent of mass incarceration, his support for American imperialism up to and including support of the Iraq War, his close alliance with the financial industry, and his steadfast refusal to embrace health care for all, and the moral imperative to cast a vote against Joe Biden — even at this late point in the primary calendar — could not be any clearer. 

What a vote for Bernie Sanders will materially achieve is sending more of his delegates to the National Democratic Convention. Sanders delegates could become a significant force in the unlikely event that there is a contested convention. If, for example, Biden became incapacitated or had to be removed as a candidate for some other reason, delegates then become free to choose a new candidate for president, regardless of whom they originally came to represent. At the very least, sending a large number of Sanders delegates to the convention would reflect the strength of the campaign. 

The DSA national organization endorsed Sanders in this primary, and also decided not to endorse any other candidate in the primary or general elections. Voting for Bernie in this primary will be a chance to show dissatisfaction for Biden as the Democratic candidate for president, and to express which candidate better represents your politics. Some Bernie delegates will be afforded an opportunity to attend the national convention to see some of the party machinery in action, make new contacts, and gain experience in the election process. 

However you choose to cast this mostly-symbolic vote, remember the excitement of having meaningful change within reach, and take it into the movement happening right now in our streets and city governments.