Sunday, August 12, 2007

A clean slate

"How you like dem ersters?"
-- Famously corrupt New Orleans
Mayor Robert Maestri to visiting
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

So, City Councilmember-at-large Oliver Thomas, a favorite to succeed "Chutzpa" Ray Nagin, has fallen like so many before him. Commentators all across this nation will cluck their tongues tomorrow and wonder what is wrong with us, staring out the windows of their high-rise, media-conglomerate studios vaguely in our direction, and thereby missing all of the corruption around them.

Try Googling (should that be capitalized? Should it even be a verb? Have you ever Chevroleted or Jesused or Kleenexed someone before? sorry...) Try searching the Internet for city government corruption. Funny, New Orleans comes up fourth when I try that, and on the blog that one of those link to, New Orleans is listed behind San Diego, Atlanta and Philadelphia in the post. What is up with those people in San Diego? Perhaps it has something to do with so many people with such short haircuts spending all that time in the sun on the golf course.

That would not, how ever, explain Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. I find the headline "`Uncle Ted' Stevens's Corruption Probe Imperils Aid for Alaska" odd. What sort of aid, precisely, does a state that receives so much in oil royalty payments from the federal government that they cut checks to their citizens rather than collect taxes. Must be nice to actually get paid to have your oil taken. Maybe we should look into that for Louisiana.

New Orleans and Louisiana in general isn't particularly more corrupt than the rest of the nation. How many prominent men and women have done their "perp walks" in the last few decades, and how many more have looted companies and governments with impunity. Our local reputation arises in part because we tolerate the little bits of corruption, the expectation that someone who performs a service should be given a little something extra. My wife used to be amazed at my insistence that I tip people like city garbage collectors. I was raised to make sure no tradesman or laborer should leave my property thirsty or without some money is his pocket. I'm not sure what the root of that is, but I suspect it is the pervasive poverty of those who do the most menial jobs, perhaps even a throw back to the master-slave relationship. Whatever the cause, that large economy of small tips and favors is the way things are done down here.

From that, it's not a large leap to expect government to run on the same principles.

In Washington and the nicer states of the nation, these things are done with a bit more discretion. Contributions are given, dinners are held, and tax breaks and government contracts rain like manna on the Israelites. No one should suggest this is corrupt. At least I know the arguments well, having rehearsed them during my years defending the system while I worked on Capital Hill. Why, those PACs are just good people like yourselves--teachers and real estate agents and plumbers. Its downright unAmerican to suggest that they not be able to band together in free associations to stuff a little something in the pockets of the people who do all that heavy lifting for them in Congress.

What's sad about Oliver Thomas is that he is someone who tried to bridge the racial divide in this city. Many people looked to him as a reasonable successor to Nagin. Now he is out of the picture. What does that mean for a city in our situation? I think it offers, if not hope, at least an opportunity. It gives us one more chance to move beyond the alphabet soup of political organizations that have one after the other ruled this city, back to the days of Maestri's Regular Democratic Organization in the first half of the last century.

Machine politics with all of the baggage of patronage and the potential for corruption is something that should be carted away with all the sodden sheet rock and moldy sofas. We need to find people who are neither the wards of political machines nor the step-'n-fetch-its of the old-line Uptown circle of clubs and krewes. The machines that that arose out of the civil rights movement foolishly followed in the steps of the Italians and Irish before them in other large cities, becoming a conduit for transferring patronage and corruption to a new group because it was their turn. The old money power structure has failed for over fifty years to effectively govern the city or, when they lost control of City Hall, to use their money and influence for any general good.

As the old leadership fall or are taken out one by one in the aftermath of the Flood, there is still the promise we saw in the aimmediate ftermath of disaster: the possibility that we would be given a clean slate, given the chance to make our city over into something that preserved the best of what it was while eradicating the worst of what it was. Every day that takes us further from that path is more disheartening than the last. I have to view these continuing collisions between the old way and a determined federal prosecutor as second chances to do it right.

As I've written here repeatedly of late, the issue that is most likely to drag us down is the profound racial divide boarding on the paranoiac that governs every one's reaction to events. We cannot let ourselves be ruled by people who see in the Landrieu Administration and its integration of Blacks into the city's leadership and government as the root of every ill of today, or those who view any criticism of an elected Black official however venal or incompetent as if it were a harangue at a torchlight procession to the noose. Those who are the heirs of the integrationist and the segregationist have nothing to contribute. They are too bound to a past that the Flood very nearly washed away.

But not quite.

Here in our solitary salons of the blogosphere some names of our own have been bandied about as candidates for the vacancy Oliver Thomas' almost certain resignation on Monday will create. While those nominated in the underworld of Internet comments are just the sort of people I would have running city hall, they suffer from what Hunter S. Thompson once called "a profound racial handicap". They are white. I think that to avoid touching off another firestorm of paranoid ranting by civil rights has-beens and their friends among the ministry, Thomas' replacement will have to be Black.

That we even have to have this conversation as if were were settling the civil wars of Lebanon or Iraq is a sad commentary, but I'll stipulate to it as the lawyers would say. It is my own belief that it will be easier for the right Black candidate to reach out to the white community than the opposite, at least in the current atmosphere. I think that given the level of paranoia in some circles, Thomas' replacement will not be Bart Everson or Karen Gadbois as some of my fellow bloggers have suggested, although I'd pretty much follow either of them to the gates of hell and back.

I have no idea who it should or will be. I only know that we need someone to fulfill the promise Nagin offered but proved incapable of delivering, the promise of someone outside the old machines who could bridge the two communities, could appease the fears of both communities while promising the ability to run something as complex and cranky as a city and make it work. It should be someone like Bart or Karen, people who are giving immensely of their lives to rebuild this city without any thought of reward, people of high character, noble purpose and immense energy. We need in our next election to run a clean slate.

Somewhere in this city of now 300,000 people like Bart and Karen are reading the news about Thomas and wondering as I am what will happen next. If they are going to step forward, now is the time to do so. We have missed so many chances to make a real change of direction in the last few years, I don't know how many more we are going to get. Right now we are all an angry rabble, black and white, uptown and downtown, river and lakefront. We are ready to believe the worst when we hear it. Without some real leadership, we can no more save this city than the children in Lord of the Flies could recreate the polis of ancient Greece. Without people of good will ready to step forward, we are instead liable to end up hunting each other through the rubble with sharpened sticks.

Don't you hit's just a tad presumptuous to decide in advance the race of the next candidate to fill Thomas' seat? I thought that was up to the voters of the city to decide.
I don't really care what that person's race is or gender or religion. I just want someone honest, conscientious and intelligent. It wouldn't be good or bad for the city if that person was white or black. The person who wins a city wide election might be our next mayor so I'd vote for someone I thought had a shot at being a good mayor.
I don't think I'm deciding, just recognizing the lay of the land. What's most important is that they be someone from outside the old ranks who can actually deliver what Nagin promised to be.
Character, purpose and energy are all important. But, to win an at- large council seat, you generally need about $250,000 in cash, maybe much more. However, this special election, if held in October, might be the exception to the rule.
Running for and winning public office is damned hard, I can assure you. I tried it.
Having been a Legislative District party chair (in charge of candidate recruitment, finance, etc.) and a one-time nominal candidate for state senator (I was the placeholder candidate for an unbeatable incumbent in our district) I have no illusions about what is required.

In fact, one source of candidates with a backround in the private sector (as opposed to someone who's been climbing up the political rungs) is in the world of money people. That idea didn't make the post, although I mentioned it in comments elsewere (YRHT I think).

One thing an outside candidate might not have to spend on is the walkin'-around-money the alphabet soup crowd requires for GOTV. I'm curious now and will have to look back and see what was spent, for example, on the one assessor campaign.

It could be expensive for an outsider, if they have to buy a lot of media to overcome the built in advantage that machine candidates have at the grass roots, and to a certain extent in the churches in the black community.
The thing that discourages me the most is I just can't think of anyone I'd like to see run.
You're probably right about Bart and/or Karen not making City Council, or for that matter, Broadmoor's LaToya Cantrell, who doesn't even have the "profound racial handicap".

But here in Honolulu, there'd be an outlet for the civic energies of these stalwart individuals (and who knows, perhaps Folse as well?). We have a system of 32 duly constituted, elected (by mail) neighborhood boards. At one point, the previous, more progressive administration was even going to give them their own budgets, to be used for projects that came out of a visioning process.

How might this work in New Orleans? As I recall, there are no fewer than 73 defined neighborhoods. That's an awful lot of boards for a city presently about one-third the size of Honolulu (which covers the entire island of O'ahu). Another approach might be to establish one board in each planning district, with each neighborhood entitled to a certain number of members based on population. Indeed, most of our boards are divided into geographic subdistricts. That way, you'd get a dialogue going among (in Board 4) Mid-City, Faubourg St. John, Tulane/Gravier, etc.

Sorry I can't make it to Rising Tide... maybe next year!
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