Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu is far and away the frontrunner in this Saturday’s election for the next mayor of New Orleans, with some political pundits even predicting he might win in the primary. And with The Big Easy being the Queen City of the South, there is huge interest in the outcome — but even more so in this election. A Landrieu victory may be the key to picking the next Louisiana governor.

New Orleanians feel the election cannot come soon enough, whoever ends up winning. The current mayor will go down in the annals of the Crescent City as one of the most dysfunctional public officials in the city’s history. And for New Orleans, that’s really saying a lot. From his “Chocolate City” comments to his response of “keeping the brand out there” for the country’s highest murder rate, Ray Nagin has successfully proven the truth of the Peter Principal. Either by design or incompetence, C. Ray just doesn’t get it, and the city has suffered greatly.

Landrieu lost a close race to Nagin four years ago but seems primed and strongly favored to come back a victor this time around barring any unforeseen circumstances. So assuming he wins, Landrieu would resign as lieutenant governor in early May, and the process to replace him would kick in. The governor picks a replacement, with the Legislature’s concurrence, who serves for a matter of months until a special election takes place in the fall. So the Jindal pick would hold office for about five months. If Landrieu’s replacement wants to run for a full term, he or she would have a short jump start to keep the job.

Normally the state’s second spot doesn’t attract that much interest. The lieutenant governor’s duties center around important but perfunctory tasks: cutting lots of ribbons and encouraging tourism and the arts. When I held the secretary of state’s post back in the 1980s, I often joked about the duties of the second in charge. Bobby Freeman held the lieutenant governor’s post, and was chagrined when I would say: “Here’s what the lieutenant governor does each day: He gets up in the morning, has his coffee, then calls the Governor’s Mansion to see if per chance the governor died the night before. If he didn’t, the lieutenant governor is free to go fishin’ or play bourré for the day.”

But the national ambitions of Gov. Bobby Jindal have put a whole new slant on the number two job. Just last week, Newsweek was touting Jindal as a strong possibility for vice president in 2012. If the Democrats continue to slip and the Republicans regain the White House, Jindal should at least be a shoo-in for a major cabinet position. And that would mean the Louisiana lieutenant governor would take over the top spot and be primed for two more terms. So the lieutenant governor’s job now becomes all the more attractive to a number of ambitious Louisiana politicos.

A number of Republicans are already expressing interest to the governor for an appointment, but close observers don’t give Jindal’s potential pick that much credence. The short time frame gives such a pick too little time to effectively build a base of support, particularly when a number of major present and former statewide officials will give the race a good look. And so far, Jindal’s track record has not been particularly good when he supports a candidate.

On the Republican side, two statewide officials are definitely giving the office strong consideration. For them, it’s a “free shot,” for if they should lose, they still hold on to their present positions. Secretary of State Jay Dardenne is weighing the race as well as Treasurer John Kennedy. Both have good reputations and can point to significant improvements in their respective offices. They both would like to be governor, and see the lieutenant governor’s spot as a way to extend their political base.

Both Dardenne and Kennedy have been independent of the governor, and Kennedy has even been quite aggressive in pushing a separate statewide agenda from Jindal. But you can bet they will be in lock step with the ambitious chief executive if they have a chance to move up to the top spot.

So who’s on the Democratic side? Let’s see….oh, yes. There is a former two-term lieutenant governor who received high marks in the job and used it as a springboard to becoming governor. She presently has a war chest of some $3 million dollars banked to use for a campaign. That’s right, Kathleen Blanco is rested and ready! She is working on a book about her time in public life that should be timed well for a future campaign.

Jindal was out of state 41 days last year. And as national attention increases for Jindal, his national travel will continue to increase. When he’s gone, the lieutenant governor is acting governor. It would be quite a scenario to watch a Jindal-Blanco relationship in action at the Capitol in the years to come.

A spicy race for lieutenant governor will increase interest in already busy fall elections that are less than nine months away. And the winner will immediately become the favorite to replace Jindal whenever he finishes his term or moves on to bigger and better things. So to see if the first step in this scenario takes off, keep an eye on the New Orleans Mayor’s race this weekend.

Jim Brown is a former Louisiana state representative, secretary of state and insurance commissioner. His weekly column, available at www.jimbrownla.com, appears in numerous newspapers and Web sites throughout the South.

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