It didn’t involve a lot of money. But when New Orleans City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt helped herself in 2006 to a new SUV that had been donated to the city for Katrina relief — and snagged another one for her boyfriend, Mose Jefferson — it struck a civic nerve.
It wasn’t just the cars: It soon became clear that Gill Pratt and the rest of the Jefferson political family had been siphoning everything they could from a series of sham nonprofits they controlled.
The outrage was palpable, and the FBI announced an inquiry. Indictments wouldn’t come for another couple of years, but the Progressive Democrats — the formidable political organization U.S. Rep. William Jefferson had built over decades — would not come through the scandal intact. Today, the group is a historical footnote, with all of its former leaders, including Jefferson himself, Gill Pratt and others, either dead or in prison.
In hindsight, the Jeffersons’ implosion signaled more than just the end of a political dynasty. After the storm, common outrage at all levels of government made for a more engaged populace across the region. People who saw politicians doing wrong ratted them out, and the public demanded prosecutions, a desire the U.S. Attorney’s Office tried hard to satisfy.
But a newly engaged citizenry went further than just weeding out crooked politicians. Amped-up New Orleanians helped kill the idea of shrinking the city’s footprint, the most contentious issue facing city leaders after the flood. And they pushed reform on old, hidebound systems that hadn’t made sense for a generation or more.
“People were shocked into paying more attention to government,” is how Ed Chervenak, a professor of political science at the University of New Orleans, puts it.
The new activism took place against a backdrop of great disruption in the democratic process itself. The diaspora set in motion by the floods disrupted the balance of power in the city’s racially riven elections — tilting it toward white people — without overturning it altogether. The scattering of so many black voters also accelerated the decline of the city’s once-influential political organizations, most of them dominated by African-American standard-bearers.
The city’s new political paradigm is still being fashioned.
Currents of change
Some of the changes wrought by Katrina already were in motion before the storm struck. The decline of the political organizations, for instance, was laid bare in 2002, when cable TV executive Ray Nagin easily won a wide-open seat for mayor, trouncing the candidates from what he mocked as the “alphabet soup” groups.
Nagin’s election also seemed to signal a growing weariness with corruption and cronyism. Though he’d go to prison a decade later for selling his office, Nagin swept in as a post-racial reformer, promising scandal-weary residents he’d run government efficiently and transparently instead of giving contracts to his pals.
By 2005, the hollowness of those promises had started to become apparent, but it still appeared Nagin would cruise to a second term, as every mayor in modern New Orleans history had done before him.
The storm put that to the test. Months after the floods, Nagin found himself facing 23 challengers. It was a diverse group, but all of the well-funded ones were white, and it was clear that the coalition of white voters and middle-class black voters that secured Nagin’s victory in 2002 was falling apart.
Not that the mayor hadn’t done his best to hold it together: He stacked his Bring New Orleans Back rebuilding commission with prominent members of the business community and publicly entertained the footprint debate, widely viewed as a subterfuge to redline poor black neighborhoods and keep out their former residents.
When it was clear the coalition was no more and that many of his wealthy white supporters were writing checks to his opponents, Nagin tacked hard in the other direction. He made explicit racial appeals: His signs asked voters to re-elect “our mayor.” He told black voters in other cities that his many opponents “don’t look like us.” And he gave his infamous “chocolate city” address on the 2006 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, in which he indirectly rebuked supporters of a smaller footprint, to whom he himself had granted a megaphone.
The tactic worked. Nagin tapped into a collective sense of despair felt by many black people — a feeling that they were losing the political power that they had worked generations to achieve. In beating Mitch Landrieu in the runoff, Nagin nearly ran the table among black voters, many of whom came to town from distant locales to pull the handle for him. In the runoff, Landrieu’s share of black votes was smaller than in the primary.
Racial patterns in flux
But if Nagin’s re-election was a triumph of racial-identity politics, it didn’t necessarily signal a long-term return to those voting patterns. In fact, many subsequent elections have offered hints that race is no longer the primary driver of results.
The most obvious clue is the election of white politicians to major offices, something that was almost inconceivable before the storm. Landrieu, of course, easily won the mayor’s job in 2010 and again in 2014, each time with broad biracial support. And other politicians — notably District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who is white, and Councilman Jason Williams, who is black — have managed to build similarly diverse citywide coalitions.
Analysts say that suggests race is no longer the dominant predictor of voting patterns.
“It all depends who’s running,” says Chervenak, who analyzes every Orleans Parish election for racial voting trends. “It’s hard to make generalizations. In some races, you’ll see racially polarized voting. In some, you won’t see any. The race of the candidates doesn’t always matter.”
Some politicians have brought out the old patterns far more than others. For instance, “the Cynthias” — former City Councilwomen Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Cynthia Willard-Lewis, both of whom are black — had a difficult time making inroads among white voters in racially split elections, and both are now out of politics. And current Councilwoman Stacy Head and former Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, both white, have had similar difficulties breaking through with black voters.
Though both have won citywide races, each made remarks or gaffes that hurt them with black voters. Clarkson made tone-deaf remarks expressing nostalgia for the New Orleans of the 1950s, when Jim Crow was the law of the land. Head blew kisses at her opponents as she voted to demolish the city’s overwhelmingly black “Big Four” housing projects.
Willard-Lewis and Hedge-Morrell, meanwhile, issued denunciations of shrinking the footprint that rubbed many white people the wrong way.
Veteran political consultant Cheron Brylski thinks that Nagin, ironically, helped to bury the identity politics that in the past often carried the day in New Orleans.
“Nagin’s election underscored the cost of voting just on race,” she said. “People felt it in their pocketbooks and in the effect on their lives.”
The contentious nature of the public dialogue after Katrina likely contributed to the racially polarizing feel of the 2006 elections. But with the anger came an upside: People were engaged as never before. Rich and poor, black and white turned out en masse for public meetings.
At first, much of the focus was on beating back the “green dot” plans to declare some neighborhoods off-limits for rebuilding. But the activism hardly ended there. Thousands of people helped craft a series of plans that finally concluded with the adoption of the Unified New Orleans Plan — dubbed as such because it sought to stitch together the various documents that preceded it. A total of 2,500 people turned up in the city and at several satellite locations for one of UNOP’s “community congresses” in 2007.
The footprint question wasn’t the only divisive one. Other topics, such as where scarce public money should be spent in the rebuilding, also provoked tension. But other topics spawned broad agreement, and new coalitions formed to push reforms and to seek more state and federal aid.
The Women of the Storm got dozens of members of Congress to visit New Orleans to see the destruction. Citizens for 1 New Orleans helped to lead a successful effort to consolidate regional levee boards in a way that made hydrological sense and required the board members to actually have expertise. And the city’s multiple-assessor system, which promoted inconsistent evaluations, finally met its end.
Katrina also provided an opening for a major reform that city voters had approved a decade before the storm. A 1995 charter change envisioned the creation of an Office of Inspector General and an Ethics Review Board. A year after the storm, the City Council, led by newly elected members, finally was ready to implement them, plus an independent police monitor.
With the stakes so high, civic-minded people and groups tried harder to work together. Greg Rusovich, former chairman of the New Orleans Business Council, said his group has become much more inclusive since the storm, seeking partnerships that it had never pursued.
The mostly white Business Council and the mostly black Urban League of Greater New Orleans often find common cause on civic topics, he said, and their leaders talk constantly. “That would have never happened 15 years ago,” Rusovich said. “The business community realized it was going to have to broaden its reach. Now we have a beautiful partnership with the Urban League, and I can’t see how that’s anything but positive.
“Whenever there are race issues, and there will be, we can talk to each other, rather than people being in cocoons and talking about each other.”
Erika McConduit, president of the Urban League, generally agreed, saying that civic groups are doing their best to hold hands on issues of common good.
“You see more strategic partnerships and coalitions being formed around large goals, even if we don’t agree on everything,” she said. For instance, she said, groups of various stripes have banded together to hold campaign forums and provide information about candidates.
“It doesn’t mean we necessarily agree on a ticket, but what we do agree on is making sure we bring the issues to light and bring a platform for the community to be informed and engaged,” she said.
Change is regional
The currents of discontent and reform in Katrina’s wake were most intense in the city, but by no means did they stop at the parish lines.
Some of the changes wrought after Katrina, such as levee reform, were multiparish by their nature. And others seemed to be infectious, spreading out from the city. Jefferson Parish, for instance, decided to create its own inspector general after New Orleans took the lead, and in St. Tammany, a citizen group has been pushing for one.
The same anger that galvanized New Orleanians after Katrina flared up in the suburbs as well. The flooding of much of Jefferson Parish’s east bank was widely blamed on Parish President Aaron Broussard, who was barely re-elected against a no-name challenger and went on to be convicted on fraud charges.
“Probably the biggest change we’ve seen in Jefferson Parish since the storm was ethics reform,” says Greg Buisson, a political consultant who advises many Jefferson politicians. “That really became a mandate.”
The wave of nearly 20 corruption convictions that followed the storm also stretched to the north shore, which had generally prided itself on being free of the shenanigans that always have infected city politics. In fact, the first bribery case made by federal prosecutors after Katrina involved a St. Tammany Parish councilman who extorted a constituent for a piece of a debris contract.
Years later came the conviction of longtime Coroner Peter Galvan, and more recently, five-term former District Attorney Walter Reed was charged with illegally helping himself to taxpayer funds and campaign contributions.
Amid the various scandals, north shore voters seem to have tired of officials they were in the habit of re-electing over and over. Longtime Assessor Patricia Schwarz Core, who came under fire for questionable spending, lost a re-election bid in 2011, and Reed chose not to seek a sixth term last year.
Longtime Clerk of Court Malise Prieto has announced she will not be seeking re-election because of “ugly politics and twisted truths.” And Jack Strain, who has been sheriff since 1996, is facing his most spirited opposition in many years.
The new normal
With the near-demise of the old political organizations and the exit of many familiar faces, the path into politics in New Orleans isn’t as clear or well-trod as it once was.
Time was, many, if not most, aspiring New Orleans politicos were raised in those groups, doing political field work and serving as legislative aides to those who held office. That created a deep bench of people ready to go into politics.
“At one time in the African-American community, it was like a step up to go into the political arena because we hadn’t been there before,” said City Constable Lambert Boissiere Jr., a former state senator and city councilman. “Now that a couple of generations have passed, it’s not as attractive as it was.”
And the groups — such as Boissiere’s COUP organization — aren’t nearly as vital in the training process as they once were.
“We’re not doing street work like we used to; the old neighborhoods aren’t the same,” Boissiere said. “And the organizations aren’t grooming young people anymore. We don’t have that bench.”
Some believe the political groups’ loss of power has an upside.
“I think people can think for themselves more — they’re more engaged, more independent,” said City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who rose to prominence by leading the neighborhood organization in flooded Broadmoor. “They’re not looking for the machine to tell them who to vote for.”
Along with the move away from political organizations, some observers detect a shift away from political ideology and toward a new paradigm in which competence matters more than core beliefs. Landrieu is often cited as the embodiment of this trend, with voters flocking to him in 2010 because of their disgust with Nagin’s fecklessness.
“Certainly, it’s almost been a revolution at City Hall in terms of how it performs,” said Chervenak, of UNO, who oversees the university’s annual poll of New Orleanians’ attitudes. “It’s like night and day in terms of functionality and interfacing with the public.”
While there seems to be broad agreement that Katrina sparked a rise in civic activism and engagement, it’s a difficult thing to measure. And whether it has staying power is an open question.
Some observers see complacency setting in as many of the contentious debates that once electrified the city recede into the background — even if they haven’t been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.
One thing that’s easy to count is voting, and it is down, at least in New Orleans. Take the 2010 citywide elections, when the ticket was topped by the open seat for mayor. Turnout was 33 percent, compared with 46 percent in 2002, the last time the office was vacant.
Four years later, when Landrieu was seeking re-election, turnout was a bit higher, at 35 percent. But that was largely because of a purge of the post-Katrina voter rolls; there actually were almost 4,000 fewer votes cast in the 2014 election compared with 2010, even though the city had been steadily growing over that time.
“It seems like we have more citizens, stakeholders and policymakers paying more attention to what’s happening,” McConduit said. “But that civic participation isn’t translating to the polls. ... It’s difficult to understand how on the one hand, we are more engaged civically regarding the systems we’re building, but less so when it comes to voting. That, to me, is the most troubling aspect of this.”
Oliver Thomas, the former City Council president whose promising political career went down in flames in 2007, when he admitted taking bribes for protecting a city contractor, is also troubled by some of what he sees.
Superficially, he said, New Orleans appears politically calm, especially in comparison with years past, when School Board meetings often turned into shouting matches and City Council meetings ran late into the evening. But there are rip currents below the placid surface.
“In New Orleans, to me, we have half-a-day politics now, with 24-hour problems,” Thomas said. “Our political officials brag that our meetings end early. Well, how can you brag about getting along when you got issues in the community? We don’t need you to get along; we need you to debate. We need you to provoke thought; we need you to challenge. ... This whole idea about decorum has duped people into believing that things are great. So what are we finding now? They’re not.”
Silas Lee, a veteran Xavier University pollster and political science professor, also sees dark clouds hovering.
Some of the problems that have bedeviled New Orleans for generations — economic inequality, lack of social mobility, poor schools, chronic underemployment of black men — are as bad or worse than ever. And the tension around those issues is palpable, even if has flares infrequently.
“We have to be careful with this illusion of normalcy,” Lee said. “It can be deceiving.”
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter @gordonrussell1.