Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni is in real danger of being removed from office by voters following his admission that he sent explicit text messages to a 17-year-old, according to a new WWL-TV/Advocate poll.
Nearly half of those polled say they would "definitely sign" a recall petition said Ron Faucheux of the Clarus Research Group, which conducted the poll for the two news organizations. The firm interviewed more than 500 people registered to vote in Jefferson Parish.
To get the matter of removing Yenni from office on a ballot, one-third of the parish's registered voters would need to sign the petition.
All told, 69 percent of those polled said they would either "probably" or "definitely" sign the petition. And if an election were called, an overwhelming 72 percent of registered voters would favor tossing the first-term parish president from his post, the poll found.
Just 13 percent would vote for Yenni to stay in office. The poll has a margin of error of 4.4 percent.
The WWL-TV/Advocate survey comes on the heels of a University of New Orleans poll which found 79 percent of Jefferson Parish voters want Yenni to resign. The UNO poll, supervised by political science professor Ed Chervenak, did not examine how many people would sign a recall petition.
Both polls found the sexting scandal is almost universally known in Jefferson Parish, with more than 90 percent of respondents saying they are familiar with it.
Removing politicians from office in Louisiana is notoriously difficult, and both Faucheux and Chervenak cautioned that the outcome of the recall effort -- led by Metairie attorney Robert Evans III -- depends on how organized the campaign proves to be.
However, the early numbers on the public's mood give Yenni plenty of reason to worry about his prospects of riding out the scandal, Faucheux and Chervenak both said.
"It tells (Yenni) nothing that he's done so far has worked publicly," Faucheux said of his poll's results. "It tells him that a very strong majority of voters in the parish want him out of office. And it would tell him if the other side gets organized -- and they do it right -- they could recall him, which I think puts some added pressure on him to get out on his own."
Both of the surveys found wide disapproval of Yenni across voter blocs: men, women, Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Yenni’s fall has been precipitous. A little over six months ago, he registered an approval rating of more than 70 percent in UNO’s annual quality of life survey. Now, according to the WWL-TV/Advocate poll, 70 percent view Yenni unfavorably. And 55 percent view him very unfavorably, a figure that is almost eight times greater than the seven percent who see him very favorably.
That kind of reversal of fortune is about as harsh as it gets in politics, Faucheux said.
"His political standing has been very badly damaged," Faucheux said. "And it would take some type of a political miracle for him to recover."
Yenni’s tepid ratings stand in stark contrast to those of other prominent Jefferson officials, who are generally well-liked. Sheriff Newell Normand, Yenni predecessor John Young, and at-large Parish Council members Cynthia Lee-Sheng and Chris Roberts all hauled in favorability ratings of between 77 percent and 47 percent, compared to unfavorable ratings of only 7 and 16 percent, the poll found.
Yenni has resisted calls from nearly all of the parish's public officials for him to step down. He now runs the risk of becoming the first chief executive of an area as large as Jefferson -- the second-most-populous parish in Louisiana -- to be recalled, as far as Faucheux and Chervenak can tell.
In response to the recall campaign, Yenni said he would abide by the "will of the people." But he hasn’t said precisely what he means by that. Yenni’s camp did not respond to the findings of the UNO poll last week, nor did officials respond to the WWL-TV/Advocate poll, the results of which were provided to Yenni media consultant Greg Buisson on Tuesday.
For the survey, Clarus conducted live landline and cell phone interviews of 501 voters registered in Jefferson Parish. The poll found that the 45 percent of respondents who would "definitely sign" a petition to recall Yenni equates to 121,000 voters, well over the 90,000 required before an April 9 deadline.
The recall drive's success will depend on whether organizers can capture valid signatures from about three-fourths of those who would "definitely" sign a petition to recall Yenni, Faucheux noted.
Faucheux said, based on his experience, virtually all petition signers will come from the pool of voters in the “definite” camp.
On Tuesday, those in charge of the recall said they were happy with the progress they have made so far.
The petition had gathered more than 5,000 signatures in the first six days of its filing, said Charlene Mahner, a paralegal for Evans, who last week pledged $100,000 of his own money toward the recall.
Organizers expected to collect about 1,000 more at Night out Against Crime events across Jefferson Parish on Tuesday, after efforts to gather signatures at prep football games and school fairs proved successful, Mahner said.
This week, organizers opened a headquarters in a suite at 1000 Veterans Memorial Boulevard, where people can sign the petition from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The plan is to eventually extend those hours with help from volunteers, Mahner said.
A few businesses, including Duckworth Tires on Metairie Road and Top Gold Buyers locations in Marrero and Kenner, are also accepting signatures. For the Nov. 8 presidential election, those behind the recall say they will set up tables near polling stations -- at the required minimum distance of 600 feet -- to collect as many signatures as possible.
The campaign, whose online home is RecallYenni.com, has also hired prominent political consultants Karen Carvin and Deno Seder to handle public relations.
Among Carvin's clients are Normand and Lee-Sheng, whom political insiders believe would be a natural candidate to replace Yenni if he steps down or is forced out by voters.
Aside from being popular in her own right, the veteran councilwoman and daughter of late Sheriff Harry Lee would undoubtedly receive support from her legendary father's protege, Normand.
But last week, Lee-Sheng, who along with Normand stands among the many public officials to demand Yenni's resignation, said she has the job she wants. Carvin on Tuesday said that Lee-Sheng has not given any outward indication that she is interested in the parish presidency, though "a lot of people would like Cynthia to run for that seat if it became available."
Yenni has complained that some of his critics on the council “have been and continue to be politically opportunistic,” although he has not publicly called out any council members by name.
The Yenni scandal began when WWL-TV reported Sept. 29 that he was being probed by federal authorities for sending sexually explicit text messages to a 17-year-old boy he met at an event hosted by his alma mater, Jesuit High School. WWL-TV reported the texts -- sent when Yenni was mayor of Kenner and campaigning for the parish presidency -- may have violated a federal law that bars sending obscene materials to minors.
Yenni has since acknowledged he sent "improper texts to a young man," apologized, and repeatedly asked fellow elected officials as well as constituents for the chance to redeem himself, casting the scandal as a personal matter.