I’m Mark Moseley, and for past six years I’ve used the pen name “oyster” at my blog, Your Right Hand Thief. It’s a real pleasure to be the new opinion columnist at The Lens. For me, blogging serves as a therapeutic alternative to yelling at the TV. So my challenge here is to vent in a way that creates useful friction for The Lens audience because without friction there is no thought.

Naturally, my style will differ from my esteemed predecessor, Eli Ackerman. By way of introduction, I was tempted to compile a selection of “greatest hits” from Your Right Hand Thief. But why set the bar any higher than necessary? You can search those archives if you’re interested in the typical direction and tone of my political rants.

What better way to distinguish myself from my predecessor than by tackling nearly the same topic he wrote about in his first Lens post, and quote approvingly from his follow up post in April? In that post, Eli observed:

[It] doesn’t look like this campaign [for LA House District 93] is much about “the issues” and public persuasion. Instead, it looks like this election is going to come down to turnout and endorsements. That’s too bad because District 93 is home to the city’s commercial base, several of its keystone neighborhoods, and several controversial development projects. Meanwhile, New Orleanians will need an advocate as the Legislature poises to pare down spending to make up for a $300 million hole in the state budget.

Well, it seems even that forecast was optimistic. In the past two weeks a sleepy, low-profile House runoff between James Perry and Helena Moreno has become a nasty fight dominated by thinly veiled character attacks, lawsuits, and political blunders. While these aren’t unprecedented developments in Louisiana politics, I’m truly amazed at the poor handling of the situation by the James Perry campaign. What the f$#*! are you doing, I’d like to ask. It seems the Perry campaign is determined to make the same sort of tactical errors it made during the mayoral race.

Let’s review the latest: reeling from the Moreno’s TV attack ads about James Perry’s long history of parking tickets, driving violations and general disregard for these low-level crimes, the Perry campaign responded by issuing a press release raising bogus “questions” about Moreno’s vehicular collision from seven years ago

Moreno was not cited in the… crash, in which a passenger in another vehicle was killed when its driver blew through a red light and collided with Moreno’s SUV, Perry says the incident report alleges “negligent homicide and apparent preferential treatment.”

Helena Moreno was not at fault but Perry thought he could gain traction by repackaging a non-story which most (but not all) of the media had pointedly ignored. Perry claimed he was merely asking “questions” about Moreno’s role in the incident, but he was actually sculpting an incomplete set of facts so that he could cast doubt on her ethics and link Moreno to the scary words “negligent homicide.” Moreno forcefully responded to Perry’s exploitation of the incident, saying she felt “almost abused” by Perry’s implications, and that she would not participate in the remaining debates because she didn’t want to be in the same room with Perry. Then, for good measure, Moreno filed a lawsuit against Perry regarding another matter.

So after swatting the political media’s hive with a short stick, and after getting a strong response from Moreno, the Perry campaign acted abashed, and deplored the “politics” in the race. Pretending he was still on high ground, Perry reminded everyone that his campaign was really about the “issues.” In short: after hopelessly obscuring the real issues with political attacks, Perry now wants to focus on the real issues and ignore the political attacks.

Well, that’s not going to happen. Certainly not now.

For a political enthusiast like myself, it’s a frustrating turn of events. I wrongly assumed that Perry’s campaign learned its lesson after making a similar mistake last year. In the fall, before Mitch Landrieu entered the mayoral race, Perry turned in a brilliant debate performance where he demonstrated a strong grasp of the issues and capitalized on ignorant gaffes made by other major candidates. Unfortunately, Perry immediately followed that success with a disjointed ad buy that was memorable only because it featured regular New Orleanians cussing in frustration.

At the time I said

Perry doesn’t need to engineer a “wtf” moment with an “edgy”campaign ad, because a (rare) “wtf” moment just occurred [in the campaign debate]– use it for all it’s worth!

Instead of becoming the young whiz kid candidate who made the older candidates look stupid, Perry – a former Eagle Scout – became the candidate associated with foul-mouthed people. It was a clumsy tactical move, and a lost political opportunity.

Undoubtedly, Moreno’s attack ads on Perry have been effective. I don’t know what inspired her team to look into Perry’s driving record (perhaps the attacks on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s driving?). Nonetheless, real damage was done. It got people talking, and The Times-Picayune cryptically retracted their endorsement of Perry because they were no longer convinced of his forthrightness, though they didn’t opt to endorse Moreno. Not only did Moreno damage Perry’s reputation and get voters to reconsider their choice, but they vaulted Perry’s team into panic mode. The result was a clumsy media gambit that relied on little more than thick innuendo about a horrible episode in Moreno’s life that wasn’t her fault. And this response backfired horribly, in several ways.

Side note: Interestingly, the Perry campaign wasn’t the only one thrown off its game by Moreno’s ads. Her TV spots prompted the press to see things that weren’t there. For example, today’s Times-Picayune story describes Moreno’s ad as depicting “Perry as a wild-eyed, cartoon figure seated behind the wheel of a car that careens down the road before it crashes.” Actually, there is no crash. Perry is shown skidding to a sideways stop in front of a street barricade. The Louisiana Weekly goes even further, saying Moreno “portrayed the former Mayoral candidate speeding recklessly down a city road, evading, and speeding off a cliff.” Um, maybe the Weekly inadvertently confused the ad with a Toonces skit.

Hindsight is easy, and in-the-moment political decisions are difficult. Everything’s simpler from the outside looking in. But still, what exactly were Perry’s wise men expecting from this counterattack? And are we naive enough to believe they had absolutely nothing to do with the timely and widespread dissemination of the partial accident report? Did they think Moreno would retire to the fainting couch while the media lapped up their innuendo-laden “questions?” Were they looking even two moves ahead in this political chess endgame? Perry had a crucial opportunity to respond to the attacks like a frontrunner who is in full control of his campaign, and he failed. After all, Perry has come a long way over the past year. Despite the aforementioned errors, Perry was nearly everyone’s favorite “second choice” in this year’s mayoral contest. He placed first in the District 93 primary and was looking like the frontrunner until this blunder put the race into “anyone’s guess” territory.

Here’s how James Perry should’ve handled the situation:

Since Moreno’s attacks made news, Perry could assume they would be one of the topics on the “Hot Seat” debate on WDSU. When asked about the topic, Perry could’ve first softened things up with a little humor “The ad was not all bad. I liked how Moreno portrayed me as wearing a helmet while driving –a safety first, you know.” Follow this with an honest admission: “And there’s no doubt that I’ve had problems with the meter maids in the past, and I take full responsibility for my traffic tickets and driving violations. These were obviously mistakes I’ve made but I’ve paid the fines and am moving on.” Then a slightly overwrought defense: “But Ms. Moreno is wrong to question my character, and impugn my integrity with these attack ads about traffic tickets.”

Then finish strong:

“I’m here to talk about the issues. Time and again, Moreno has avoided taking stands on important issues that affect our lives. I understand the issues important to you, and candidates disserve voters by focusing on the small things and avoiding the big things. I wish my tickets were the biggest issue facing New Orleanians because then we’d have it made. But we’re in the middle of an oil spill crisis, a state budget shortfall, and a national recession. The city suffers from crime, failing schools, poverty, and blight. And Ms. Moreno says she doesn’t have enough time to answer tough questions, but her team can dig through my driving record and make an attack ad out of it. If you want someone who has never had trouble with the meter maids, I’m not your candidate. If you want someone who takes the time to understand and address the issues, I want to ask you for your vote.”

There, is that so hard? Not at all. It’s basic politics. And it dovetails nicely with Perry’s claims that Moreno avoids issues because she is “bankrupt” of ideas. Indeed, there is some evidence for Perry’s “she’s avoiding the issues” charge.

Take Chris Tidmore’s story in The Louisiana Weekly:

Despite repeated attempts both on the radio, in questionnaire form, and in person, Moreno said that she lacked the time to answer any further questions, as her opponents James Perry, Thomas Robichaux, and Rhodesia Douglas had. Even the offer of another week of time, or an on the air interview to provide the responses, was not taken up by the candidate. She explained to The Weekly in an email, “Regretfully, the short timeframe to answer the extensive questionnaire, did not allow me to address every issue. The following answers, however, should indicate my position on the matters that will make the greatest difference to the district.” Extensions of more than two weeks were offered to gain her stands on the RSD, Constitutional Amendments in this session, the budget deficit, the VA-LSU hospital footprint, a single board for the port and university systems, and the proposed abolition of the Lt. Governor’s office. Moreno’s campaign chose not to reply to questions on those topics.

On the nolablogger front, Huck Upchuck is still waiting for Moreno to take a position on HB 1025, the Louisiana Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2010, which he’s been closely monitoring.

Not only was Perry’s poor response to the situation a lost opportunity, but it gave Moreno an excuse to play the righteous victim card and use Perry’s half-baked attacks as an excuse to skip the last two candidate debates. Debates are Moreno’s weakness and Perry’s strength. Perry likely would’ve shined in those forums, or Moreno might’ve blundered (as she did in a previous campaign regarding The Stafford Act)… or perhaps both. So Perry made a colossal error by jeopardizing that potential political opportunity. When you make personal attacks through innuendo, and send press releases claiming you’re merely “asking questions” about the incident, you insult everyone’s intelligence. Even if we naively and charitably assume the Perry campaign had nothing to do with this accident report that was sent to many reporters and bloggers, Perry gets away from the issues at his own peril. He should run like the favorite, and act like it.

It’s befuddling on so many levels. For example, one of Perry’s “questions” about Moreno’s incident was why she didn’t take a field sobriety test after the wreck. We all know what that’s implying. But Cedric Richmond crudely brought up the drug issue in a debate with Moreno during a previous campaign, and Moreno got headlines for her forceful response. Why would Perry try to go back to that dry well?

If Perry wanted to get crafty, he could follow the “avoiding the issues” line with a credible charge that Moreno is a DINO, or closet Republican. He could say “Why is Moreno hiding her positions? She’s only been a Democrat since 2008, when she turned down a job at her father’s oil and gas firm. Recently she worked for former Republican John Georges, and she employed David Vitter staffers during her congressional run. Moreno has supported Republicans like Jay Batt and has been financed by Republican bigwigs like shipyard magnate Boysie Bollinger. Given all that, I think it’s incumbent upon Moreno to be upfront with voters and prove that her views are not out of synch with the district. She needs to specifically detail her plans for the city.”

Perry’s reaction to Moreno’s attack ad is important because it’s instructive. I believe New Orleans needs more promising young candidates such as James Perry, and I’d rather not see them come undone by amateurish political mistakes. Getting attacked is OK. It means you’re doing something right. But how you respond to those attacks is crucial. Voters want to see how a candidate reacts to a hard shot. So you need someone on the campaign who is familiar with political dynamics and who can think a few moves ahead. I outlined an example of an effective response strategy in this post, but Perry made a mistake when he decided to get cute with the media and make serious but implied accusations without the “goods” to back them up. When you’re an upstart frontrunner in the final weeks of a campaign, it’s a damn expensive time to take a hard lesson in basic political strategy.

Now District 93 voters won’t get to see their next representative in a debate before going to the polls on Saturday, and everyone loses. Or perhaps almost everyone.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...