By Matt Sledge | Staff Writer/NOLA.com | October 14, 2020
In years past, Keva Landrum’s race for Orleans Parish district attorney might have been more of a walk. She’s the only leading candidate with experience as a prosecutor. She was the first woman to lead the office, as interim DA from 2007 to 2008. And she recently secured the endorsement of New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
But the scramble for DA this year comes after a summer of reckoning on race and years of shifting attitudes on criminal justice, which have upended assumptions about what sort of resumé candidates should bring to the job.
Landrum’s opponents count her time in the halls of power as a blemish, tying her to now-maligned policies of district attorneys Harry Connick Sr. and Leon Cannizzaro. Landrum has tried to flip the script at campaign forums, pledging to use her knowledge of the system to change it.
“In my experience, both as a DA and as a judge, I am the only one [who] can really deliver the reform that we’re talking about,” Landrum said recently. “It takes someone who has operated within this office to implement the change that is necessary to move this office forward.”
She’s also argued that she’ll bring a wealth of experience to fighting crime, as the number of homicides soar 70 percent so far this year.
Whether she can win over voters eager for a course correction, while hanging on to backers of the tough-on-crime policies advanced for decades under Connick and Cannizzaro, will define her chances in the Nov. 3 election and a likely Dec. 5 runoff.
The other leading candidates are City Council President Jason Williams and Arthur Hunter, who like Landrum is a former Criminal District Court judge. A fourth candidate, former Judge Morris Reed Sr. hasn’t raised any money and is considered a longshot.
Early voting begins Friday.
Landrum, 47, grew up in New Orleans East and commuted to Ursuline Academy in Uptown from the second grade on. Like many New Orleans residents, she had personal experience with violent crime from a young age. Landrum recalled being an eighth grader when her family got the call that her grandmother’s brother was murdered.
“I remember hearing my grandmother scream,” Landrum says. “That instilled in me something about wanting to be able to seek justice and heal people.”
After Ursuline, she went off to Washington University in St. Louis, then returned home for law school at Tulane University. She was friends there with Williams and another student who went on to political success, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans.
She graduated from law school in 1997 and joined Connick’s office in May 1998. Her first assignment was in the courtroom of another opponent in the DA race, Hunter.
Landrum rose quickly through the ranks during Connick’s last term and continued her ascent under his successor, Eddie Jordan. She was a line prosecutor, a homicide and sex crimes screener, chief of the juvenile division, chief of the screening division and first assistant to Jordan.
It was a sign of Jordan’s trust in her that she was one of two prosecutors in the 2004 death penalty trial of a man accused of killing a New Orleans police officer responding to an armed robbery at a St. Roch bar. The jury voted to convict the killer but spared his life.
Landrum once estimated that she tried 100 bench or jury trials, including rapes, murders and robberies, in an era when the criminal courthouse saw far more trials than it does now. She says she still gets text messages and holiday greetings from crime survivors. She said she’s the only leading candidate who’s prosecuted cases.
“If you have never sat with a rape victim and listened to her story, or if all you’ve ever done is cross-examined rape victims for the last 20 years, I don’t know how you flip the script now and become that advocate,” she said in a presumed dig at Williams.
Jordan’s position as DA became untenable after Hurricane Katrina as the conviction rate nose-dived, staff morale plummeted, friction with the Police Department increased and a federal court slapped the office with a $3.4 million judgment over its discriminatory firing practices. He resigned in October 2007 and bequeathed the office to Landrum, who now says she was initially reluctant to accept.
If Jordan seemed remote to some, Landrum struck an affable, down-to-earth tone. In office as interim DA for less than a year, she earned praise for winning help from the Louisiana Legislature to resolve the judgment against her office, and for patching up relations with the the Police Department. Her brief tenure generated speculation that she might run for the office outright in the election set for October 2008, although she’d pledged not to do so.
“I felt like she did an outstanding job under very difficult, trying circumstances,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Instead of mounting a bid for DA — her friend Williams challenged Cannizzaro that year — she was elected a judge without opposition. She was re-elected in 2014, again without having to mount a campaign.
Landrum’s time as a prosecutor and interim DA are integral to her appeal, but they’ve also provided ample grist for critics.