Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Monday, April 24, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 20

Dear Folks,

Well, we did it. Another New Orleans milestone has been passed. We had an election. Yay!!!

Okay, so let’s recap: we’ve now had Mardi Gras, we have our mail delivered ALMOST every day (some of it) and we (occasionally) have our garbage collected.

So everything’s back to normal, right?

Well, not exactly. But the election was another big step. And I hope (and pray) that it’ll be seen as such by the rest of the world, which ranges from Jesse Jackson to Wall Street to the powers that be up on Capitol Hill. New Orleans still has a long way to go, but having an orderly, efficient, much diminished but still well-patronized election should go some distance towards silencing at least one segment of the nay-sayers. I’m referring to those who see the city as too riven by racism and disenfranchisement to survive. Well, we CAN survive, and we’re doing it. We can be civil and responsible and democratic and play by the rules. And we did. It was a long day, for those like Bill and me who were working the polls, but I can’t overstate how moving and gratifying and exciting it was to be there.

We started out by waking up at 3:30 AM worrying we were going to screw things up (pre-exam jitters, in other words). Actually, getting up at 3:30 AM wasn’t a bad idea, since we had to be at our assigned polling places by 5:30 AM. As I may have mentioned, Bill was at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church on 3rd Street, a pretty devastated area that’s coming back, but very very slowly. I was at the fire station on Magazine Street where Bill and I will normally vote...i.e. the Garden District polling place, although given the city’s on-going destruction, four other precincts were also voting there temporarily. A good deal of the day’s confusion, in fact, resulted from people not knowing which table to go to to sign in, and which machines to use to cast their votes. But things went remarkably smoothly. We were understaffed, and most of us had only the haziest idea of what we were doing, but we learned as we went along and by the end of the day, damn if we weren’t pretty good at it! Yours truly was signing ‘em in, writing down their names on the log sheets, turning on the machines, explaining the procedure, and even cracking jokes and playing sing-along games with the kids who were waiting around outside while their parents voted. It was a happy, moving, empowering experience for everyone, and the attitude quotient was effectively nil.

And what a cross-section of humanity! The precinct whose voting machine I was manning is located across Magazine in the Irish Channel, which means today it’s a mixture of old time Irish retirees and black families, with a smattering of young white professionals. We had a man (his name was O’Rourke) with the most luxuriant nose hair I’ve ever seen on a human being (when you’re sitting watching people in line you have time to notice such things) hugging and weeping with joy to see his neighbor, a woman who also had the map of the Old Sod on her face. They compared notes on their losses and reassured one another that they were indeed home for good. We had black families coming in with some of the most beautiful children I’ve ever seen: pastel-dressed cuties with eyes like warm ink, brimming with shy mischief. And some people really got dressed up in their Sunday best. There was a gentleman in a white linen suit complete with white bucks and a Panama hat. There were women in Prada sandals and silk dresses, and women in tennis shoes and sweats, and a gorgeous young thing, her milk-white skin decorated with some of the most exquisite tattoos I’ve ever seen (I got the name of the parlor she uses...I still want to get some ink).

There was a guy, jet black and built like a line-backer, who’d been a waiter at Commander’s (still closed) and who came by after finishing his shift in the French Quarter. There was a couple who came in (around 5 PM) so inebriated you could smell their breath across the room: he’s an old-time Garden District resident while she’s a recent emigree from France, and they met and fell in love while toughing out the storm here. There was a man, so frail he shook like a leaf in a high wind, who revealed he’d just gotten out of the hospital the day before. When one of the workers held him up while he voted, he announced this would be his last election, since he’d probably be dead soon. The worker, God bless him, told him he’d have to stay alive for another month to vote in the run-off.

And there were neighbors and friends, and greetings shouted across the room, and recipes exchanged during lulls in the action (along with restaurant like crab cheesecake, there’s this place in Metairie that makes it with a pecan crust...savory, not too much Tabasco...) and towards the end of the day someone’s wife brought in a couple of trays of lasagna and it started to feel like a party. We were dog tired (the polls closed at 8 PM, and we’d been there non-stop) but we were also jazzed and proud of ourselves and even more proud of our fellow citizens.

And yes, we were also avid to see how our precincts had voted! Fortunately, one of the rules (I don’t know if this was new or not) requires that each machine’s tally by posted in the window of the polling place for all to see. Suddenly, out of the darkness, a swarm of campaign workers and reporters gathered like moths, and we joined them, and read how our neighbors had chosen. It wasn’t a scientific sample, since we’d only had five precincts to observe, but we’d been observing them all pretty closely all and now we wanted to see what they’d done.

So how did they vote?

Well, the Garden District went to Forman, as did much of Uptown, but as you all probably know by now, he finished third: still enough to be a king-maker, but not a king. Nagin did better than expected, and you know, I’m actually pleased as all hell about that. I voted for Forman, but I think I may vote for Nagin in the run-off. We’ll see. Nagin took the precinct I was working for handily, but Landrieu did well too, and he may very well end up being our next mayor. He can certainly draw the cross-over vote. And as I said in the previous blog, at least all three men seem to be very VERY smart. So I feel cautiously optimistic that whoever’s running this city a month from now, at least won’t be a neophyte, or an extremist, or a fool.

Actually the fringe people, even among the major candidates, did surprisingly poorly (including Virginia Boulet and the Rev. Tom Watson), leading me to think voters here are far less concerned with pie-in-the-sky than with practicalities. Peggy Wilson, our local Klan pin-up, got even LESS votes than our other favorite “character”, Kimberley Williamson Butler. Rob Couhig finished fourth, and while I’m personally glad he’s out of the picture (I thought some of his positions were dangerous), I think his good showing was also based on his focusing on pragmatic details. And I think that’s a good sign right now. New Orleans may be the city that care forgot, but New Orleanians these days are very, VERY serious. They don’t want cheap rhetoric, and they’re looking at things very closely. They’re watching the whole process, and they’re as alert as anything to make sure the butcher’s thumb never comes anywhere NEAR the scales.

So what happens next? Now there’s a run-off in four weeks, between Nagin and Landrieu, and also between several lesser candidates (including our own City Council member) who failed to receive an initial mandate. Bill and I will be working the polls again, and I’ll have to remember to bring something nice for us to eat at the end of the day, maybe some crab cheesecake. I told the people I was working with that I felt like I’d been in the trenches with them, and it’s true: we were tired, we’d been bored, we’d been frazzled, but we’d also done something momentous. At least let’s hope so. Elections are only as good as the behavior of those we elect, but as some of us have learned to our sorrow, they can be more important than anyone can conceive of at the time.

Now there’s Jazz Fest and a party for us to give, and I’ll let you know how all of THAT goes! Meanwhile, all I can say is get involved. Work the polls in your community. Vote. Maybe even run for office. It matters. Lemme tell you. Hurricanes aren’t the only things that can hurt you.

And when bad stuff happens, it matters who’s minding the store.



Thursday, April 20, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 19

Dear Folks,

So who’s running for office down here? And what do I think about them?

Well, have you got about twelve hours? ‘Cause this could take a while...

The first thing you’ve got to know is, Louisiana is a state (and New Orleans is a city) that LOVES electing people. They love to elect people to EVERYTHING. The more people you have running for different offices, after all, the more chances you have for colorful campaigns, and the more positions you have to fill, the more opportunities there are for successful graft.

So there are a LOT of people running for elected office down here.

To start with, right now there are twenty-two different candidates for mayor.

That’s right. Twenty-two.

Basically, anybody with the filing fee (which is minimal) can announce his or her candidacy, and get his or her name on the ballot. So people do it. These people include lunatics and laborers and restauranteurs and old-line civil rights workers and, as I mentioned in a previous posting, our current Clerk of Court, Kimberley Williamson Butler. There’s James Arey, a local radio announcer, and F. Nick Bacque, a student at Tulane. There’s Elvin Brown, who’s running because God told him to, and “Johnny” Adriani, who’s been running his campaign from his car and a coffeehouse on Metairie Road because he lost his Lakeview house to flooding. There’s Sonja “Lady” DeDais, who says she knows how to take care of a city because she took care of her mother and grandmother, and James “Jimmy” Lemann, a disabled Lower 9th Ward mechanic who’s running because he’s interested in meteorites (he wants to create a research institute in the city to study them).

And then there’s Manny “Chevrolet” Bruno, a local entertainer. When he ran for mayor in 2002, he touted himself as "a troubled man for troubled times." After Katrina, he says, "I'm troubled now more than ever." His platform is to make New Orleans the new Amsterdam, with state-of-the-art levees funded by legalized prostitution and hashish bars.

Hmm, sounds nice.

There are also people like Peggy Wilson and the Rev. Tom Watson who probably won’t garner enough votes to make the run-off, but who are running on extreme platforms (ultra-Republican in her case, and vocally pro-black power in his) so their ideas at least get floated in public.

Because in reality, the election scheduled for April 22 is really a primary election. Unless a single candidate receives 50% of the vote plus one vote more, no real winner will be declared. What will happen is, the top TWO candidates who receive the most votes will compete in a run-off. That’s already been scheduled for mid-May, at which point we can have even more colorful campaigns and start all over again (you starting to get the picture here?)

What this affords, in THEORY, is an opportunity for the widest number of candidates to compete in the first or primary election, with a later winnowing-down process.

What actually happens is the vote is often so fragmented that you get two candidates competing in the run-off whom NOBODY particularly wants, but who still got more votes than anybody else. This actually happened in the run-off for governor several years ago, when Edwin Edwards ended up competing against ex-Klansman David Duke. Nobody wanted Edwards, a convicted felon, but he was the only alternative to Duke, so bumper stickers started appearing advising people to Vote For The Crook.

You add in numerous people running for the different City Council seats (there are five), and running for Criminal Sheriff, Civil Sheriff, Clerk of Criminal Court, Clerk of Civil Court, City Council Member-at-Large (2) and Assessors (we currently have seven...yes, that’s right, SEVEN different assessors) and you have ballots the size of the King James Bible.

Which is one of the reasons why the city needs poll workers to help out and make sure people obey the rules. Which is what Bill and I have signed up to do. At 5:30 AM Saturday morning, we’re reporting to two different polling places (I got the Garden District, while Bill will be working in a slightly more “chocolate” location) where we’ll spend the next fifteen hours helping people and making sure people don’t cheat. This will probably be the most closely watched election in New Orleans since Lincoln became President, and if everything works it’ll be great (it’ll also be pretty amazing, but let’s keep our fingers crossed). I will, of course, let you know all about it as soon as it’s over,

In the meantime, who are our most likely candidates? Well, if you were watching MSN last Monday night you saw them. There are three front-runners and four semi-long shots. Here’s how they shake out to this unscientific observer:

MAYOR C. RAY NAGIN. A lot of people still like him a lot, as do I. They think he’s got balls, brains, experience, and a nice proclivity for actually speaking his mind, rather than simply being a political bromide machine. I agree. I met him at a Mardi Gras breakfast last February, and I don’t know when I’ve ever seen anyone work a room better. Smart, smart, SMART. He wasn’t a politician to begin with, and he still pretends not to be (although of course he IS now) and his background as a CEO may still be an asset. BUT he’s pissed off a lot of people over the past four years (ranging from the current City Council to Governor Blanco to President Bush) and that’s a liability when it comes to economic horse-trading.

The bottom line right now is, well, the bottom line. This city is practically broke. We need a mayor who can get the money-tap flowing big time, and I’m not sure Nagin is it. Also, he’s been playing the race-card recently, and this may or may not work in his favor. If he wins, he’ll be a far more plausible black leader on the national scene than Al Sharpton or even the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But it may work to his disadvantage.

Grade: B

LT. GOV. MITCH LANDRIEU. He’s the son of a well-known (and largely well-liked) former Mayor (Moon Landrieu) and the brother of a well-known (and both loved and hated) Senator (Mary Landrieu). This guy has name recognition so far in the bag he might as well own the bag. He’s smart, personable, affable, slick, good at working a crowd, and is the personification of a middle-of-the-road Democrat. He reminds me, in fact, a lot of Bill Clinton. A WHOLE lot. Now, since most of you know my “yellow dog” Democrat tendencies, this isn’t at all a bad thing. PLUS, and it’s an enormous plus, he appeals to black and white voters alike. In an election where racism is, like it or not, one of the largest elephants in the room, Landrieu has the potential to cross lines and build coalitions and speak to both sides of a great divide here.

The bottom line is many white people fear his desire to please his poorer black constituency will lead him to make promises he can’t keep: i.e. that every poor neighborhood in the city can be rebuilt EXACTLY THE WAY IT WAS. This is probably impossible. Another big elephant in the room is the issue of what size footprint New Orleans should ultimately end up with, and whether any areas, large or small, should be allowed to revert to green space. Right now Landrieu has mostly limited himself to harmless slogans about “making New Orleans better”, and low-level jabs at Ron Forman, who’s viewed as his chief opponent in garnering the white vote. He might be a visionary, or he might just be an ambitious guy who’ll say and do anything to get elected.

Grade: B

RON FORMAN. This guy must have an ego the size of Lake Pontchartrain, because he’s putting his face up all over the place before the public, and the camera REALLY HATES him. Really. Look him up if you haven’t seen him. In person, he’s no beauty, but he’s much more personable. And he’s smart as a whip. In fact, I have to say that all three of the leading candidates for New Orleans mayor right now strike me as immensely intelligent men. So that’s something at least. Unless Kimberley Williamson Butler gets elected, we should have somebody in charge who has more brains than...well, the guy who’s really in charge of us all right now.

Forman’s big claim to fame is that he took over the Audubon Zoo when it was a combination joke and pest-hole, and made it one of the best zoos in the country. Which is still is. The place runs like a Swiss watch. He then got the Aquarium and the Riverfront park built, both massive private-public works that were and are a success. So he’s a “can-do” guy, as he’s been pointing out to all and sundry. I think he’s also someone who’s very good at sitting down with those with real money (their own, or their investors’) and getting them to part with some of it. So if the bottom line right now really IS the bottom line, I think Forman might be the guy to get New Orleans back on its feet financially.

The other bottom line is he’s apparently a real hard-ass. Nobody says they like him and he’s warm and cuddly. If Mitch Landrieu reminds me of Bill Clinton, this guy reminds me a tough old-line Republican like Robert Taft or Herbert Hoover. And let’s remember Hoover got elected after dealing with the disastrous flood of 1927. Of course, after that...the country had to be pulled out of bankruptcy by an old-line Democrat (FDR). So you can make of this whole analogy what you will.

Grade: B+

Two of these three men will PROBABLY make the run-off, and right now the smart money is saying it’ll be Nagin v. Landrieu. Of the other main candidates...

ROB COUHIG is a successful corporate lawyer who’s so far said the most about what he’d actually DO as mayor. He wants to sell off city land and rip down blighted housing to make room for 30,000 new homes in two years (maybe arrayed around the Dick Cheney Memorial Golf Course). He wants to put the city into public-private partnerships with new hospitals and local universities (and maybe the Walt Disney Corporation?) He sais he has “zero tolerance” toward crime, especially petty crime, in a bid to reproduce New York City's anti-crime renaissance. In fact, he reminds me a lot of Rudy Giuliani...not, as many of you people may know, exactly my favorite person.

And perhaps most importantly, he plans to lure flooded-out homeowners from eastern New Orleans and the Ninth Ward into the core of the city, even reserving the right to shut down redevelopment in these ravaged neighborhoods.

Of course a lot of what he says actually makes sense...the city DOES need to tear down some houses and build new ones. It DOES need a private-public partnership with investors. And it DOES need to get tougher on crime. That’s why Ron Forman has actually started saying a lot of the things Rob Couhig said first...a cautious strategy that may backfire at the polls, when people cut straight to the chase and vote for Couhig rather than him.

And of course a lot of people down here see Couhig as a cold-blooded corporate shark...which he is. My main reasons for not supporting him are that he’s an advocate of New Orleans declaring bankruptcy (which would ruin our ability to borrow money, while still not saving us that much) and he’s said he’d cut off city services like police and fire-fighters to places like the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East. This could be, at best, a recipe for creating lawlessness, and at worst a recipe for mass negligent homicide.

Grade: D

VIRGINIA BOULET is another corporate lawyer and director of an oil and gas company...but I still like her. A LOT. I don’t think she’s got a real shot at being mayor, but I hope she’ll have some kind of major role in the next administration (and there’s talk she will). Her platform: we need levees that really work. We need to restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. We need Wall Street even more than we need Washington. We need universal health care (how we pay for it, if it stops at the Orleans Parish border, is an issue she hasn’t addressed). We need to move the University of New Orleans from its current campus at the Lakefront to downtown, right in the Central Business District (which is a wonderful proposal New Orleans could never have afforded even BEFORE Katrina). We need an economic engine other than tourism (this is something Forman and Couhig also stress, while Nagin and Landrieu have so far erred on the side of encouraging tourism, since right now it’s the only economic engine we DO have).

The bottom line: Virginia Boulet is a visionary, but I think she’s smart and committed and she could probably do great work for the city. Plus, she was in the Peace Corps, and her favorite restaurants is Slim Goodies, which I like too.

Grade: A (for imagination), C- (for practicality)

PEGGY WILSON is, as I’ve said, a real Republican’s Republican (I think she, and maybe Rob Couhig, are the only two Republicans running, although Forman is pretty much a red in blue clothing). She’s a former City Council member and then a member-at-large, and I hate to say it, she’s everybody’s worst idea of what “Uptown” New Orleans means: she lives in a beautiful house in the Garden District, her husband is a white-shoe lawyer, she’s got four “perfect” grandchildren, and she dines out regularly at Upperline and Galatoire’s.

In fact, she could be Bill or me, except we don’t have kids and neither of us is a lawyer. And, oh yes, we’re not screaming racists.

Ms. Wilson’s main claim to fame is that she battled then-incumbent Mayor Marc Morial, whose political machine was among the most corrupt in recent memory. The fact that he was black allowed a lot of people to say they were against black CORRUPTION, not just black individuals. But Ms. Wilson’s penchant for declaring her opposition to “welfare queens and pimps and gangstas” (although she’d pronounce the last differently) has gone from being disingenuous to being genuinely offensive. She either believes all this or she sees it as her ticket to office, but it still makes my skin crawl

Plus her main platform plank is creating New Orleans as a tax-free city. No real estate taxes, no income taxes, no capital gains, no state, federal...nothing. Presumably people would flock here in such droves that the sales tax revenue alone would pay for everything. What would keep New Orleans from become the first “on-shore” tax shelter is a nicety Ms. Wilson hasn’t addressed.

Grade: F (with extreme prejudice)

And finally REV. TOM WATSON is a Pentecostal pastor who runs Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries, one of the most vital religious institutions in the city. He is, as I mentioned, the only candidate (I guess aside from Peggy Wilson) who’s openly saying racism is an issue (in New Orleans, in Louisiana, in the South, and in America as a whole). He wants all New Orleanians to come back and all New Orleans to be rebuilt, ESPECIALLY the hardest hit areas. And if he could realistically say how he was going to pay for it all, I’d vote for him in a heartbeat. OF COURSE I’d love to see those areas come back! Who knows, maybe they will. But so far Rev. Watson hasn’t provided a real workable blueprint. What he HAS done is channel the city’s deep pain and mourning post-Katrina, and that will probably get him some votes. He’s also saying there are only two black candidates running in the “front tier” of the race and Mayor Nagin isn’t the man to support his own people. This may or may not be plausible. A lot of people, after Mayor Nagin’s “chocolate city” comment, see him as far TOO eager to support his own people.

The bottom-line: Rev. Watson is a Republican’s worst “liberal, tax-and-spend, welfare-for-everybody” nightmare. I wish he wasn’t, but I’m afraid he is.

Grade: D (with regret)

So there you are. There may be some other really dark dark horses out there, but in all likelihood two of these people will advance to the run-off and one of them will be New Orleans’ mayor in about a month’s time.

Or one of the may get that 50% plus one vote next Saturday.

Stay tuned.


Friday, April 07, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 18

Dear Folks,

Bill’s mom died up in Bethesda on March 24, and I’ve been wondering what, if anything, I should write about that here. This is, after all, a blog called “Notes From Atlantis”, not “Notes About Anything And Everything That Happens To AVP.” A couple of things, though...

I wish she could have come down to see New Orleans, especially now. I think she would have loved it...maybe just because she loved good music and good food and great parties! But I think she also would have admired it and found it fascinating. She ended up fighting her own good (long) fight with illness and pain, and she certainly knew a thing or two about toughness. One of the things I’ll always treasure was her support for us when we decided (after a few failures of nerve) to move down here after all. It meant a lot. Thanks, Elle.

It’s also strange whenever you come to a watershed like a parent’s death. It’s a time when you moves to the head of the line, so to speak, and the view back becomes in one sense finished, and the view forward becomes a little more open-ended. I find myself feeling more and more as if we were moving into open territory, with fewer and fewer signposts: no Do Not Enters, no One Ways, no Stops. It’s liberating, in a way. After my mother died, it occurred to me that I could rewrite my past in anyway I liked, and there would be very few people (no immediately family) to contradict me. Bill only knows me from age 18 on. That’s true of almost everyone else. They only know me as an adult. Is it pleasant to feel my hold on my childhood becoming so tenuous? In a way yes, and in a way no. I suppose ultimately, we all see our stories go from the absolute reality of NOW to the debatable reality of shared memories (anyone for “Roshomon”?) to the sketchiness of “I think...” until they’re finally obliterated.

Maybe that’s why I’ve so much enjoyed doing these blog entries. Because I’ve been able to freeze memories that seem to be going by at dizzying speed.

And maybe that’s why I’ve always wanted to write stories in the first place. To freeze them and share them. To make them last.

Well, something at any rate is going to be frozen and last: I’ve written a “Perspective” piece about New Orleans for the Princeton Alumni Weekly. I have no idea when it will come out, or if I’ll ever see it: we haven’t received magazines down here for seven months. But it was gratifying, and also surprisingly hard work: how could I encapsulate life down here into the confines of a short formal essay? A success? I haven’t no idea. But it’s one more thing that’s been fixed in the flux, so I suppose that’s something.

I guess what I’m groping for here is the fact that my persistent optimism about New Orleans isn’t a 24/7 phenomenon. There are times when I’m scared to death down here. Not of the city. I’ve never felt like New Orleans was going to harm me...maybe that’s naive on my part, but I always felt much more nervous up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, surrounded by conformity, than I’ve ever felt down here in the land of holy fools.

But I fear the storms, and I fear the bureaucracy that’s already been responsible for so many deaths, and I fear the many people in other countries who hate us (with some cause) and I fear the casual disdain of so many people in THIS country, who appear to have already forgotten us. Maybe that’s just my fear talking. Maybe fear IS the only thing New Orleans has to fear. I hope with all my heart that’s true. Talk to me next November, when the 2006 hurricane season is over, and I’ll tell you.

So many friends have been supportive of this strange, personal undertaking of mine, writing in my own voice, that it’s enormously touching. In fact many people have chided me for not writing more, and to them I’d like to apologize and say, it’s lovely being asked! I’d also like them to understand that when I DON’T write, it’s because I don’t feel like I understand something yet, or I’m not sure what I think yet, and it takes time to sort out my own mind before I feel confident in putting even these fleeting impressions on a screen. Even pixels are a kind of freezing, and while I’m sure a lot of what I’ve written here is wrong, I don’t want to lie. At least to the degree that that’s possible.

More later,


Notes from Atlantis 17

Dear Folks,

Well, I think we’ve pretty much recovered from Mardi Gras...although we didn’t have much time before St. Patrick’s Day pelted us with more parades, more beads, more floats, and a whole lot of flying cabbages!

They throw them from the floats, you see. The cabbages. Also potatoes, onions, garlic, and carrots. Everything but a raw brisket. You come home laden with green necklaces and all these slightly bruised vegetables, and two days later (St. Joseph’s Day) you go out and do it all over again, except this time the beads are green and red and white and there isn’t quite so much flying produce.

And then there’s my new favorite local tradition, the St. Joseph’s Day Altar. Italians and non-Italians alike down here build large, elaborate displays of food--cookies, breads, cakes, everything but the meat denied for Lent--in honor of the humble carpenter, and then on the saint’s day the food is distributed to the poor. Houses are opened and strangers are invited in to eat. I truly think this is the nicest idea I’ve heard of in a long time, especially for people like Bill and me who like to entertain! This year, the altars were constructed in FEMA trailers, in reclaimed community centers, in hastily repaired churches and in living rooms redolent of freshly-cut lumber and sheet rock, and a lovely expression of charity and thankfulness was carried on, by people who in some cases had little, giving to those who had less.

And, in addition, if you keep a piece of St. Joseph’s Day cake and then throw it into rising water, it’ll keep a flood away!

Why do I have more faith at the moment in St. Joseph’s Day cake than I do in the Army Corps of Engineers?

Maybe because the Army Corps of Engineers actually admitted (this morning) that “you could say” there had been design flaws in the construction of the levees protecting New Orleans against storm surges from the lake. Gee, who knew? Clearly not them, even though there are internal Corps memos dating from before the storm citing just those design flaws. Now the Corps says it’ll cost another $6 billion to fix what it still refuses to admit it allowed to break. And the 2006 hurricane season is less than two months away. There’s a good deal of not-so-quiet anger down here, even though it’s mitigated by our still being dependent on the Corps to get any 2006 protection built at all.

And then there’s the fact that a lot of people here are going to be heading into the 2006 season living in trailers, which...well, let’s just say there’s not an enormously encouraging track record regarding trailer parks and hurricanes.

It’s a weird time. What can I say? The New Orleans Archdiocese shut down historic St. Augustine’s parish in Treme due to lack of funds, which resulted in the church being occupied by out-of-state protestors who disrupted the mass. Now, even though the Archdiocese was going to allow the church itself to remain open for services, the whole thing’s padlocked.

And there’s Judge Charles Elloie, whose judicial philosophy apparently comes down to “our jails are too full already” and who recently released a known drug-dealer on his own recognizance despite his being caught red-handed with a large cache of cocaine, $100,000, and an assortment of assault weapons. He later said “he didn’t know” about the facts of the case.

People down here are very nervous about crime in general, even though all the statistics are still way down. I think it’s all part and parcel of the way the city is still working through its ongoing trauma. It’s been seven months since the storm, and people down here aren’t numb anymore. They’ve come down from the adrenalin high of just surviving, and realize that in many ways their lives are still difficult, and in some cases impossible, and in other cases just really lousy. They’re raw. They’ve dealt with callous politicians and panicky insurance adjusters (who know if they really pay out all the legitimate claims, they’ll go bankrupt, and are hence reneging) and they’re tired and broke and scared and, as traumatized people always are, worried that something EVEN WORSE may be coming down the pike.

If we get through this next hurricane season without a major hit I think people’s confidence down here will soar.

Of course, if we do endure another hit, there are outlying areas of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes that simply won’t exist anymore.

And in the context of all that, in two weeks we’re having an election.

Maybe this is the best time in the world to hold an election here. Not that the timing itself hasn’t been debated. Is it too soon, with so many residents displaced? Is it too late? Should we have held the election two months ago, as originally mandated? Whatever, we’re having it on April 22, and the general feeling is “it’s about time”. What New Orleans desperately needs now is a leader. It needs a charismatic visionary like Fiorello LaGuardia or F.D.R. or...well, Huey Long. And yes, there have been more than a few people voicing the opinion that we could use the Kingfish right now. I’ll devote the next blog to a run-down of the candidates, and my personal two-cents, but for right now here’s some general observations:

Whoever becomes New Orleans’ next mayor is going to have a dog’s job. If he (or she, there are a couple of women running) can manage to pull it off, it’ll be the most public display of leadership and guts imaginable, and whoever DOES pull it off could presumably write his or her own ticket from there. But it’ll involve taking over a near-bankrupt city government and a school system that’s still beaten to its knees and a cumbersome, bickering City Council and an on-going, back-breaking fight against a system of spoils and graft and cronyism, not merely locally but on the state and federal level as well. Yikes.

Whoever gets elected to our City Council (there are various districts) will do so in the face of widespread disgust with the status quo, which means (I hope) that we’ll see a lot of new faces. New Orleans’ whole system of having a powerful City Council is problematic, since each council member plays to his or her own power base at the expense of the city at a whole, and this usually results in acrimony and endless dithering. It’s like trying to turn a train around when there’s an engineer in every car. Yikes again.

If Mitch Landrieu doesn’t get elected mayor, he’ll probably try for governor in 2007, which wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

If Ray Nagin gets reelected, he’ll have a mandate the size of, well, Louisiana, and it’ll be an amazing comeback story, and he might end up doing a great job. But I think there are too many people who blame him (fairly or unfairly) for the storm and its horrific aftermath. Plus, his record in dealing with the City Council is dismal (see above).

And if Kimberly Williamson Butler gets elected we’re all in trouble. Here’s the story: this woman was originally from Buffalo, was brought down to New Orleans in 1999 to direct the Downtown Development District and then became Mayor Nagin’s CAO in 2002, at which job she apparently stank. She left after a year and then won an upset election to become Clerk of Orleans Parish Court in 2003. I guess people thought she couldn’t do much harm there; after all, she was charge of elections! The Sept 18, 2004 elections were a nightmare, with missing machines, closed polling places, and finger-pointing on all sides.

After the hurricane, when city records were flooded, Butler refused to work with FEMA to salvage the documents. She in fact refused a court order, went on the lam, then showed up several days later at the courthouse to tell reporters “I don’t think I’m the right person for clerk of court” (a statement with which many people agreed). She went on to say, “I think I’m the right person for mayor” and announced her candidacy. She was promptly put in jail (for three days). On her release, she compared herself to Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi.

She is currently in charge of the 2006 elections.

Yikes indeed.

More later,