Friday, April 18, 2008

NOLA, corruption, and a second chance

This is my second entry in the NOLA/Gulf Blogathon at Daily Kos.


The US Attorney's office in New Orleans has been one busy place, particularly since Katrina and the US Attorney purge scandal (coincidence?).

Although Congressman William Jefferson's indictment came out of Virginia, other New Orleans politicians (including Jefferson's brother) have been targets of corruption probes emanating from that office. Because of the nature of the political power structure in New Orleans, the vast majority of those indicted have been African American.

The Katrina diaspora has significantly altered the demographics (PDF) of the city. Post-Katrina elections in the city have reflected that shift.

In some ways, New Orleans today resembles the city in the late 50s and early 60s, before white flight to the suburbs kicked into high gear.

Prior to Katrina, African Americans constituted about 70 percent of the population of New Orleans. As a result, they dominated the political power structure of the city. But, the economic power structure remained predominately white. And, that, I believe those facts help explain why corruption appears so endemic to the city.

Because African Americans will continue to return to the city, New Orleans will have the chance to revisit the power shift that it blew in the 60s and 70s. The ramifications of that blown opportunity manifest themselves, I believe, in a significant amount of public corruption that has paraded through the courts and in the media in recent years.

I'm not defending corruption or anyone involved in it. What I am suggesting is that there is something about the insular nature of New Orleans social and civic life that has spawned a political culture of corruption that is more robust in New Orleans than in other places.

I've lived in New Orleans on three different occasions, the last time for over a decade that ended in 1998.

A friend of mine served as a chief administrative officer for Victor Schiro when Schiro was mayor of New Orleans in the 1960s. My friend recounted a couple of anecdotes that I believe demonstrate that old line New Orleans' (i.e., the white business community) resistance to change cost the city economically, but also inflicted a price on the political development of the city that New Orleans continues to pay today.

The first anecdote involves the Walt Disney Company. According to my friend, when Disney was seeking a site to locate what became Disney World in Orlando, New Orleans was one of the areas under consideration. Apparently the interest was serious enough to warrant a meeting between Disney officials and civic, political and business leaders of New Orleans.

One of the things that the Disney people wanted assurances on was that, if they located their facility in the New Orleans region, company officials would be welcomed into the upper echelons of New Orleans society.

That turned out to be the deal breaker from the New Orleans side. The people with the Boston Club, the Louisiana Club, and others balked at that possibility. After all, membership was reserved for them and their legacies. One could not buy their way in.

The second anecdote involved the retirement of Congressman F. Edward Hebert, then a powerful and long-serving member of Louisiana's congressional delegation.

Again, as the story has been related to me, a member of Hebert's staff, having secured a new position, invited Mayor Schiro to lunch at either the Boston Club or the Louisiana Club. Lunch occurred without incident. However, when the club member returned to his office, he was recalled to the club and told in no uncertain terms that he was not to bring Italians (including the Mayor!) into the club.

A few hundred miles away in Atlanta, the white political and business leadership in the 1960s recognized that the best interests of their community demanded that they reach an accommodation with leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta. That accommodation opened the door to both political and economic integration in Atlanta that never occurred in New Orleans. That accommodation in Atlanta contributed significantly to the economic advancement of that region.

New Orleans, on the other hand, has stagnated.

The people behind the Boston and the Louisiana clubs (and the old line Mardi Gras krewes like Comus and Momus) have continued continued to resist change and continued to support the economic segregation of the city.

With no economic accommodation available in New Orleans, the government contracts and politics became established as the access channels to revenue and upward mobility. Handing out those contracts came to be viewed a source of economic opportunity directly linked to political power. That is, by definition, corruption. But, it is also the natural result of the development in a culture where avenues for economic power sharing were not allowed to develop.

Katrina has, in a way, provided New Orleans with the opportunity to re-do the accommodation and transition that it botched four decades ago.

It is not looking like it is an opportunity that will be taken.

There is a distinct racial current that has developed in the discussions about corruption, that some how this is a problem that is distinctly African American.

This lie conveniently ignores the long line of white politicians who were involved in corruption scandals in earlier years (does the name Michael O'Keefe ring a bell?).

The fact is that when paths to economic advancement are tightly controlled by a small, regressive group, the public sector becomes the alternate path to economic advancement by default.

New Orleans has the opportunity to turn the disaster that was Katrina into a fundamental (and badly needed) re-ordering of the economic and political culture.

Because of the rank opportunism displayed by the current crop of economic and political leaders of the city today,

There's been a lot of discussion in the New Orleans area about the impact of Katrina and its aftermath on the mental health of the region. It can't be called post-traumatic stress disorder because the trauma is ongoing.

The clinical definition of insanity is said to be doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.

Rebuilding New Orleans without knocking down the barriers to economic segregation will only set the city up to repeat the failures and disappointments it has experienced repeatedly since the '60s when the white business establishment said they would not be moved.

Mike Stagg

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