The Baton Rouge Area Foundation can’t win them all — and that’s too bad for Baton Rouge, because it’s been right most of the time over the past couple of decades. But the ones it does not win reflect a growing division, larger than the question of whether “elite” opinion at BRAF has too much influence in town.
A sharply polarized political culture isn’t up to the task of agreement, and with problems of growth getting more complex and solutions to Baton Rouge’s problems potentially more expensive for taxpayers, the achievement of BRAF head John Davies’ laudable ambitions for the city depend on whether the political leadership can make the most of BRAF’s intellectual leadership.
But there’s a related question of whether the city and its elected leaders rely on BRAF as a crutch as the go-to solver of every problem.
“We’ve helped in a small way to advance a progressive agenda for Baton Rouge,” Davies told Advocate reporters Rebekah Allen and Andrea Gallo in their wide-ranging balls-and-strikes report on BRAF’s initiatives. “I do believe we’ve done that. People are hopeful that this community is a progressive Southern community and not sleepy.”
That BRAF has a seat at the leadership table is undeniable. It was particularly striking in the heyday of Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration. A breakfast table with Holden and Walter Monsour for the city-parish government, Davies and John Spain for BRAF, Stephen Moret for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber — that was a lot of clout over scrambled eggs.
Other communities in Louisiana admired, particularly in the post-Katrina chaos, how much Baton Rouge’s leadership appeared to have its act together.
Those were the days. If there is a similar table today, it might resemble a sullen couple fondling the bread knives over the breakfast toast, contemplating the latest occasions when things didn’t work out.
The intellectual capacity of Davies and the energy of Spain aren’t played out, but, as The Advocate story indicated, there are limits to ways that a community foundation — any foundation — can operate effectively in the political realm. BRAF can be, in the current cliché, a thought leader, but it can’t do much about political cowardice and cranky voters.
That was demonstrated in the balkiness of both the Metro Council and of voters on major bond issues that reflect years of pent-up demand for infrastructure, as well as the much-criticized riverfront attraction dubbed “Alive!” that ended up dead at the polls in 2009. It’s difficult to mobilize support for taxes, and, ultimately, that’s not BRAF’s job but that of political leadership.
Nor did BRAF win for its earnest support of a “fairness ordinance” involving gay rights. The deep-seated prejudice against gay people isn’t easy to overcome politically. That would be true if BRAF had a billion dollars to give away every year. It doesn’t; grantmaking by the foundation is a tiny fraction of that.
What BRAF provides that others ought to envy is not clout, for that is limited, but brainpower. BRAF looked around the country and found in San Antonio a great model for diverting the mentally ill out of emergency rooms and jails, at a vast savings. BRAF can help sell the concepts; it is funding visits to Baton Rouge by experts and providing analysis that is invaluable. Ultimately, it will take political spadework by elected leaders and tax investments from voters to make the visions into reality.
Baton Rouge is particularly fortunate to have had Davies — thank you, John and Virginia Noland, who recruited him a generation ago — but even BRAF’s policy acumen isn’t up to solving every problem. That BRAF is called in when a difficult situation comes up — such as the closure of the Mid City emergency room, about which BRAF’s knowledge is probably limited — is not a measure of BRAF’s clout.
It’s an indicator that the political leadership is splintered, and no central figure or institution has sufficient credibility as broker of the larger community’s interests.
Attaboy, BRAF. Davies’ studied modesty is not only politically wise but reflects the reality of governance in a growing and increasingly diverse community.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.