Saturday, September 17

Kathleen Blanco, Ray Nagin, and a look at Blanco's first year as Governor of Louisiana

[2004] The only time she drew any attention that morning came in House Committee Room 1, where Wayne Parent, a Louisiana State University political science professor, was expounding on his new book, Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics. [...] Someone asked Parent about Louisiana's history of political shenanigans.

"All of the oil and gas money in the 20th century allowed for a political culture that could breed corruption," he said. "It wasn't the people's money. It seemed like Texaco's and Exxon's money. We don't have that money anymore. We can't afford to be corrupt anymore."

Afterward, Blanco went up to Parent. "It's an interesting theory," she said. "But I'd like to think it had something to do with people in place over the past nine years. A thief will steal no matter how much money there is." [...]

"It's so frustrating," she said. "I'm trying to stop the bleeding. We lost the oil industry, everybody's now in Houston. New Orleans has little or no corporate presence. I'm determined to recapture what we lost. I'm trying to create an economy that generates the tax dollars to get us past the crisis that we have year after year. One option is to start passing taxes. Who in the heck wants to accomplish that?"
"Pundita, I'm sure both Nagin and Blanco are decent people in their own right. There's no way either of them would intentionally hurt citizens. But [their] feud explains why there wasn't any communication and coordination in the critical days and hours before and during the crisis."

Those observations from a reader who passed along old gossip in Louisiana that Ray Nagin's backing of Blanco's Republican rival for the governor's seat, Bobby Jindal, greatly angered Kathleen Blanco and caused her to signal the start of a feud. In theory she might have had good reason to dislike Nagin: he was a Republican who only switched to the Democrat camp just prior to launching his run for mayor.

My reply was that given the well-established knowledge that a hurricane striking New Orleans would be catastrophic, whatever feud that might have existed would have taken a back seat in the days running up to Katrina's landfall on the Gulf coast.

In truth Governor Blanco did not make her decisions in a vacuum; she had a legislature to answer to. That she might have buckled to pressure or conversely overridden pressure from within the legislative body about how to respond to Katrina's threat remains to be explored.

And the towering fact is that Blanco's decisions in the critical hours did not only affect Nagin's Orleans parish; they also affected nearby parishes, over which he had no control.

However, Blanco's feud might have played a role in Nagin's failure to combat crime in New Orleans -- a situation that was to have tragic consequences in Katrina's wake. Long before Nagin's tenure New Orleans had been awash in crime -- and to such extent that reportedly major hotels routinely warned tourists not to venture outside the French Quarter and a very few other locales in the city. Crime went big-time during the past decade, with TOCs (transnational organized crime) syndicates staging turf wars against the local gangs.(2)

I interject that Americans outside Louisiana should keep all that in mind, before leaping to conclusions while listening to horror stories of fleeing New Orleans residents blocked from entering neighboring towns in the storm's wake, or met with distrust in other areas of Louisiana.

Many American blacks saw this decidedly unneighborly treatment as a sign of white racial prejudice against Americans of African slave heritage. The fact that racism, and bigotry of all kinds, have not been completely purged from American society should not be confused with the crime issue in this case.

Concerns about racism in the context of Katrina's onslaught ignore the obvious: Louisiana has a large black population. Blacks and whites alike across Louisiana were very much aware of the huge crime problem in New Orleans and justifiably worried that local police forces would be no match for a sudden influx of armed, organized and very dangerous criminals.

To help you conceive of the scope of crime in New Orleans, reportedly the police force could not fill enough slots without accepting candidates with criminal records and without expunging criminal records. Reportedly 7,000 hospital jobs in New Orleans went begging because the hospitals had rules against accepting workers with criminal records and who could not pass a test to screen for use of illicit drugs.

Behind the cutsey-poo mask that New Orleans put on for the tourist world, the Big Easy was Crime, Inc.(3) Only the large presence of battle-hardened US troops with federal power behind them has put a clamp on the street crime -- a type of crime that is only the tip of the iceberg, and which intersects with entrenched corruption in Louisiana government.

Fighting the level and scope of crime represented in New Orelans would have required help from the state government. Yet Kathleen Blanco's first year in office saw her greatly focused on scaring up money for education improvements, drumming up business, and embroiled in a battle with the owner of a football team.

So, given the amount of money the federal government plans to pour into Louisiana in Katrina's wake, I thought it might be helpful to take a look at the two central characters in the unfolding fiscal drama. First we'll visit Wikipedia for orientation:
Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (born December 15, 1942 in New Iberia, Louisiana) [...] On November 15, 2003, she was elected Governor of Louisiana, defeating Republican opponent Bobby Jindal in a run-off election by a margin of 52% to 48%, becoming the first woman to hold the office.

Kathleen Blanco is a member of the Democratic Party. She was formerly Louisiana's lieutenant governor, having served two terms in that office, starting 1996. Prior to that, she was on the Public Service Commission and was a state legislator.

She graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, in 1964.

During her time as lieutenant governor, Blanco focused on developing the state's tourism industry. Her efforts led to Franco FĂȘte, a statewide celebration of 300 years of French influence in Louisiana in 1999. The festivities drew a large amount of tourists, especially from France and Canada.

Blanco also coordinated another large tourism success -- the state's celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase in 2003. Blanco was the perfect person for this task, utilizing and showcasing her own French-Acadian Cajun ancestry.

On 11 January of 2004 she took the oath of office in both English and French, succeeding Murphy J. Foster, Jr. as Governor of Louisiana.

A major focus of Governor Blanco's time in office has been the future of the New Orleans Saints, one of two major sports franchises in the state of Louisiana. At one time or another, Governor Blanco has proposed the construction of a new stadium for the team, a renovation of the Louisiana Superdome, and has implied that the state cannot afford to retain the team. This has led to an ongoing impasse between Governor Blanco and Saints owner Tom Benson.

In the spring of 2005, Benson halted negotiations between the team and the state until after the 2005 NFL season is over. While Governor Blanco would certainly like to resolve this issue and remain focused on issues such as education, there is little doubt that the outcome of this debate will play a major role in Louisiana's future economic development. It will also affect Blanco's chances for re-election in 2007.
Here I must interrupt the Wikipedia writer to present a somewhat different description of the issue:
In her first year, Blanco has won high marks for forcing Saints owner Tom Benson to withdraw his demand that the state build him a new stadium and for challenging his back-up demand, that the state continue paying him more than $25 million a year to stay in New Orleans and pay more than $150 million to renovate the Superdome.[1]
To continue with Wikipedia's account:
Blanco has traveled more than her predecessor, Mike Foster, to seek economic development for the state. She has visited Nova Scotia, and in December 2004, visited Cuba to boost trade with the state. On her controversial visit to Cuba, she met with Cuban President Fidel Castro. As of 2005 Governor Blanco will also be visiting Asia (primarily Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) in the near future. She has been accused of junket[sic].
I think the author means 'junketing,' a practice whereby politicians receive nice vacations and related perks in exchange for putting in an appearance at function.

Pundita very much doubts a visit to Cuba and meeting with Castro could be considered a junket. Blanco was playing hardball -- and not only to scare up trade; she was going head-on with the Bush administration.

Now we'll turn to Wikipedia's biography of Clarence Ray Nagin Jr.
[Born] June 11, 1956 in New Orleans, Louisiana) is properly the Mayor of Orleans Parish but is more commonly referred to as the Mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana, as the Parish coexists with the city. He was elected in May 2002, succeeding Marc Morial. [...]

Before his election, Nagin was a member of the Republican Party and had little political experience; he was a vice president and general manager at Cox Communications, a cable communications company and subsidiary of Cox Enterprises.

Nagin did give contributions periodically to candidates, including President George W. Bush and former Republican U.S. Representative Billy Tauzin in 1999 and 2000, as well as to Democratic U.S. Senators John Breaux and J. Bennett Johnston earlier in the decade.

Days before filing for the New Orleans Mayoral race in February 2002, Nagin switched his party registration to the Democratic Party. Shortly before the primary election, an endorsement praising Nagin as a reformer by Gambit Magazine gave him crucial momentum that would carry through for the primary election and runoff.[4]

In the first round of the crowded mayoral election in February 2002, Nagin received first place with 29% of the vote, against such opponents as Police Chief Richard Pennington, State Senator Paulette Irons, City Councilman Troy Carter and others. In the runoff with Pennington in May 2002, Nagin won with 59% of the vote. His campaign was largely self-financed.

Shortly after taking office, Nagin launched an anti-corruption campaign within city government, which included crackdowns on the city's Taxicab Bureau and Utilities Department.

Nagin also made a controversial endorsement of current Republican U.S. Representative Bobby Jindal in the 2003 Louisiana Gubernatorial Runoff over current Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco, and only reluctantly endorsed U.S. Senator John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential race.

Nagin received a B.S. degree in accounting from Tuskegee University in 1978 and an M.B.A. degree from Tulane University in 1994. [...]
With that orientation behind us, it's time to take a closer look at Governor Blanco. Writing for Gambit Weekly a seasoned Louisiana journalist, Tyler Bridges, provides an in-depth look at the governor and her first year in office in his November 2004 cover story, Blanco's Bid.

Tyler Bridges is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and a former reporter for New Orleans' The Times-Picayune newspaper. He's also the author of The Rise of David Duke and Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards. (5) At least at the time of the article's publication Bridges was a Miami Herald reporter based in Lima, Peru.

Finally, for readers here and abroad who can't get enough background on Louisiana politics, here is Gambit Weekly's archive of links to journalist Clarence DuBos' writings going back to 2001; just scrolling down the list of titles is an education.

1) Quotes from Blanco's Bid; see above for link to the article.

2) 2001 Louisiana Drug Threat Assessment, published by US Department of Justice.

3) Gambit Weekly 12/2003. Note: A reader has raised a question about one of the facts cited in the commentary: "New Orleans is on track to lead all 71 major cities in per capita homicides -- for the second year in a row." He wrote that he was under the impression that New Orleans was second in homicides in 2003.

Good catch, Dan! However, the discrepancy might be due to different types of statistical analysis, so for now I will allow both views to stand. Even if the fact is in error the commentary does a good job of conveying the seriousness of crime in New Orleans, which was my reason for including the reference.

4) Gambit Weekly's endorsement of Ray Nagin for mayor. And I thought I was the only one who likened Louisiana's politics to those in a Third World country!

5) Part of a review of Bridge's book from Publisher's Weekly:
When the bayou state's oil boom bottomed out in the 1980s, Edwards decided gambling could revive the economy, but the cash flow through casinos, riverboats and video poker led to corruption, greedy promoters and "snake-oil salesmen in expensive suits," as the Times-Picayune put it. Following FBI wiretaps and raids, the 72-year-old Edwards was indicted and convicted on charges of extortion from riverboat casino companies.

Numerous quotes re-create remembered dialogue in this fascinating and fluid narrative reconstruction. Describing Louisiana as the country's most "exotic" state, Bridges does a formidable job of capturing its allure (as well as that of the former governor), but his easy flair is supported by high journalistic standards, including his meticulous attention to details and his exhaustive research which, all in all, make for an irresistible read.

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