What the #$*! does James Perry Know?

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Though he announced his intention to seek the city’s highest office way back in 2008, housing advocate James Perry has largely failed to generate any discernible attention – positive or negative – in print, on television, or over the radio airwaves.

That no longer seems to be a problem.

This week was a bit of a coming out party for Mr. Perry. In a matinee debate on Wednesday, Perry schooled his more seasoned rivals on the Youth Studies Center – a troubled juvenile prison cited in lawsuits for inhumane conditions, and not the benign tutoring program his opponents seemed to think it was. The exchange, which was caught on video, was quite a coup. Not only did he show off his own knowledge, but he was able to demonstrate an appropriate indignation toward those who whiffed so badly.

That same afternoon, the Perry campaign leaked a preview of its first television ad to supporters and the press. The ad, which will run next week on local broadcast and cable stations, features bleeped expletives from the mouths of New Orleanians outraged by the “political insiders and career politicians” running for mayor, followed by Perry remarking that he’s an Eagle Scout. Perry then makes the rotund promise that he won’t run for re-election if he can’t cut the murder rate by 40%. The YouTube clip of the ad drew 12,000 views within its first 48 hours online. The ad is intentionally shocking and risky, designed to capture the attention that has hitherto eluded the Perry campaign.

I emailed his campaign manager, Alex Morgan, to ask about the reaction.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive and we expected it because the spot is real in the sense it’s not inspired by polls or focus groups.

Perhaps the Perry team should have screened the ad to a few focus groups before releasing. While responses have been overwhelming, their tones have been mixed. Polarized reactions over the last two days is emblematic of why so many political ships in New Orleans capsize, even when the water seems calm.

Yesterday afternoon and this morning, the Perry ship took several shots across the bow from WBOK, New Orleans’ only African American talk radio station. Hosts and callers blasted Perry for the ad, expressing dismay that the mayoral candidate would be insensitive to the negative stereotypes around African Americans and foul language. Perry has invested a lot of effort in generating enthusiasm among young voters but may have made a poor first impression among older regularly voting African Americans who may be sensitive about perceptions of young, unruly African-American men who use vulgar language, and how that reflects upon their race.

Perry is 34 and is by far the youngest candidate in the election. The segue from the bleeping anger of New Orleanians to his pride over attaining Eagle Scout status is a double irony – not just because of the odd juxtaposition of profanity against honorable character, but also due to Perry’s interesting decision to list a high school extra-curricular activity in his all-grown-up campaign ad. Perry has another appearance on WBOK for Monday in which he’ll almost certainly be forced to carry some water.

More bizarre was the adoring response he got in an appearance on the Castner and Carty morning show on 99.5 WRNO, aka “Rush Radio” (as in ultraconservative and racist blowhard Rush Limbaugh). One would think that Perry, an African-American liberal who has made his name suing for housing discrimination, and is dating a prominent liberal pundit who comments regularly about race, would be a marked man on conservative talk radio. That wasn’t even close to the case. Castner and Carty thought James Perry was the bees knees for his ad, which they thought really captured the anger felt by everyday New Orleanians.  Michael Castner, who spends most of his airtime bellyaching like the other hosts on the station about the Obama administration’s latest attempt to kill freedom and liberty, seemed like he found his man: “You just get it. You get it.” The hosts went so far as to tell a caller from Slidell to “get a life” when she noted the hypocrisy of  a profane ad by an Eagle Scout.

If this all seems a bit ironic – a liberal, African-American candidate getting called out for racial insensitivity on a black radio station and then hailed on a conservative, white talk radio station – well, welcome to New Orleans, I suppose.

While the ad may be generating the intended buzz now, the Perry campaign may come to regret not instead playing with the points he scored in Wednesday’s already-forgotten debate. And now that Perry has finally grabbed the attention he’s been seeking, he’d be keen to observe the scout motto: Be prepared.

— Eli Ackerman

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