Quitters Never Win, But Sometimes Winners Quit

Nancy Marshall turns New Orleans politics on its head

Published in 2008 Louisiana Super Lawyers — January 2008

Few political candidates run for office on the platform that they will step down once elected. But that was exactly Nancy J. Marshall’s promise when she ran for assessor of District 6 in New Orleans.

Marshall, a products and professional liability attorney with Deutsch Kerrigan & Stiles in New Orleans, sees her victory as part of the spirit of reform that has been sweeping through New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Six other candidates joined with her on the “I Quit” (I.Q.) ticket to represent the city’s other assessor districts. And although Marshall was the only I.Q. candidate to be elected, she says the group will ultimately achieve its goal of consolidating the seven assessor districts into one.

How did she beat the trend and win office? “In my district, the incumbent was the only one who did not have a familiar name,” Marshall says. “Also, I know a lot of people. I’m from New Orleans and have lived in the 6th District all my life. Even Tulane, where I went to law school, is in my district.”

Some back story: The job of a real estate assessor is to determine property values and thereby property taxes. All the other parishes in Louisiana have one assessor, but due to how the city grew (and a few other factors), New Orleans ended up with seven assessors overseeing seven districts. Marshall says common wisdom holds that, like anywhere else, one person could handle assessments for the entire city, but that the system would be tough to change. “They’re an entrenched group,” she says of the assessors. “Some offices have been in families for over 100 years, passed down through the generations. They’ve developed connections and supporters.”

The problems with the seven-assessor system are numerous, Marshall says. For one, it’s expensive. The city has to pay seven assessor salaries and establish seven offices instead of one. The system also produces wildly uneven assessments, which can dramatically favor established homeowners over new homebuyers, and no citywide standards have been put in place. One assessor defended his office by asking, “Where else can you walk into a 108-year-old courthouse and have a cup of coffee or Coke and visit with your assessor?” That “cup of coffee,” however, became the rallying cry of the I.Q. candidates, who criticized the practice for fostering handshake deals.

There had been attempts through the years to reform the assessor system, but when intolerance of governmental inefficiency skyrocketed after Katrina, the ball got rolling in earnest. And after the Louisiana Legislature defeated an assessor-reform bill in February 2006, Marshall was inspired to act. “It was an important issue for a lot of reasons, and I found it appalling that the legislature would stand in the way of that kind of reform,” she says. “There was a lot of national press focused on New Orleans. The assessor system had nothing to do with the hurricane, of course, but the time was right to change it.”

The I.Q. ticket for the April 2006 ballot came together through word-of-mouth in professional circles. All its candidates pledged, if elected, to refuse a salary and to use office budgets to hire qualified assessors while working to consolidate the seven offices into one.

Even though the other six candidates lost, the momentum created by Marshall and her colleagues greatly contributed to the November 2006 passage of a state constitutional amendment that will consolidate the seven assessor offices. Average property tax rates have already dropped citywide. “Citizens for One Greater New Orleans”––a nonpartisan reform group––“did a masterful job of getting the amendment passed and putting pressure on the legislature,” she says. “There’s no formal connection between the I.Q. ticket and Citizens, but we both wanted the same thing.”

Marshall will continue to balance her legal practice with her assessor duties until the consolidation happens in 2010, when she plans to triumphantly announce, “I quit!”

She means it. Once her assessor position is eliminated, Marshall has no intention of running for office again.

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