Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

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.

Ad’n

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