NEW ORLEANS -- Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Jeff Rouse ended his re-election campaign Thursday, saying he will instead work with people who have mental-health issues before they wind up on the autopsy table in the city morgue.
His decision came after the July 21 deadline for candidates to have their names removed from the fall ballot, meaning that any votes cast for Rouse in the Oct. 14 race will count toward him and he will have to resign if re-elected. The city will then have to call a special election to be held in the spring, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Rouse drew just one opponent, Dr. Dwight McKenna, a 75-year-old former surgeon who was forced off the Orleans Parish School Board in 1992 and sentenced to prison after he was convicted of tax evasion.
Rouse, a psychiatrist who served as former Coroner Frank Minyard’s No. 2, said he “reluctantly” chose to run for a second term but quickly decided he could better serve the city in private practice.
“The mental health crisis in our city is real,” a statement from Rouse read. “I am refocusing my professional energies in that direction.”
His goal after his term ends will be to work with people who have severe psychiatric illness and are tangled up in the criminal justice system. “I have the opportunity to prevent more suffering and death before the coroner’s office gets involved.”
Rouse took over the office from Minyard, a trumpet-playing obstetrician-gynecologist who served as the city’s coroner for 40 years. Minyard was often criticized for running an operation that not only was slow to adopt new technology but also completed questionable autopsies when a person died at the hands of police officers or while under their watch.
In addition to the grueling number of autopsies the coroner’s office conducts each year, it also commits people who need psychiatric help, something Rouse headed up while serving under Minyard.
He said he ran for coroner in 2013 with the goal of modernizing the office, which is now housed in a new state-of-the-art facility, and overhauling how death investigations were handled, inviting in outside parties to view autopsies whenever someone was killed by law enforcement or died in their custody.
But he said his strengths are “more technical than political, (more) behind the scenes rather than in the spotlight.”
While never a highly visible presence, Rouse eventually withdrew from almost completely from the public eye. Interviews with the media became a rarity, and political consultant Danae Columbus wrote in a recent column for The Uptown Messenger that Rouse was noticeably absent from a number of recent candidate forums.
Rouse said he has spoken to McKenna and is “convinced that his plan for a more public role for the coroner’s office in health education and violence prevention is the logical next step for the evolution of this office now that a strong team is in place and internal processes here have been updated.”
McKenna launched three prior unsuccessful campaigns for coroner, including one against Rouse.
And while the voters will have the ultimate say on who succeeds him if a special election is needed, Rouse indicated he believes his lone opponent from this year’s race will take the helm once he leaves office.
“In the remaining months of my term, I shall share with Dr. McKenna the many facets of this complicated job, as one physician transferring the care of a patient to a colleague,” Rouse wrote, going so far as to congratulate him for “his persistence and on becoming the first African-American Coroner for our great city.”
Attempts Thursday afternoon to contact McKenna were unsuccessful.