Stephanie Grace: Confederate monument debate gives Bobby Jindal, David Vitter chance to take sudden interest in New Orleans _lowres

U.S. Senator David Vitter and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. (Advocate file photo by Arthur D. Lauck)

When, exactly, did Bobby Jindal and David Vitter become so concerned about New Orleans?

The lame-duck governor and the senator who wants his job, both conservative Republicans, rarely focus on local matters in the most Democratic city they represent, and it’s safe to say that the indifference is mutual.

Yet suddenly, both are all over the biggest municipal controversy of the day, the debate over whether to remove three Jim Crow-era statues of Confederate heroes and a monument to a long-ago white supremacist uprising from the majority African-American city’s streets. And some of Vitter’s opponents for governor have followed their lead.

It was the instinctively confrontational senator who got the ball rolling by picking a fight with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is spearheading the drive to declare the monuments offensive remnants that conflict with the city’s values. “Focus on murders, not monuments,” Vitter said at a recent law enforcement forum.

The senator soon escalated the effort, under the guise of an unrelated conversation over who’s responsible for the city’s rising crime rate. On the evening of last week’s two big public hearings over the monuments’ future, he even launched a robocall urging monument supporters to show up and speak out, according to Jeremy Alford, of lapolitics.com. His campaign took on the issue after seeing polling data showing it would resonate with voters outside the city, Alford reported.

Fellow Republican gubernatorial candidate and public service commissioner Scott Angelle soon chimed in, going so far as to argue that the anti-monument drive, which has drawn plenty of support from city residents, was basically manufactured by a handful of troublemakers.

“It’s appalling that political correctness has gone so far out of bounds here,” Angelle said. “I can’t believe that we are now at a point where we are trying to rewrite history to appease a few and do good for none.”

The third Republican contender, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, also came out against removing the monuments but acknowledged that the decision is local one.

“Localism is an important conservative tenet,” he said on Twitter. “We may not always agree, but we have to put faith in the government closest to people.”

Still, Dardenne’s office is looking into whether the state might have a role, and noted that the statue of P.G.T. Beauregard may actually belong to City Park, a state entity under his office’s jurisdiction but with an independent board.

Only the Democratic candidate, State Rep. John Bel Edwards, has declined to express an opinion. He said he’d leave it to the “sound judgment” of the people in New Orleans.

Jindal issued his own verdict late Thursday, as the city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission and its Human Relations Commission took public comment and ultimately voted overwhelmingly to declare the four monuments public nuisances.

“Gov. Jindal opposes the tearing down of these historical statues and he has instructed his staff to look into the Heritage Act to determine the legal authority he has as governor to stop it,” his office said in a statement.

Of course, Jindal too is focused on an election, which may explain why he and his aides didn’t bother to research whether such a law exists. Turns out it doesn’t, but then, actually acting wasn’t the idea. Jindal’s all about scoring political points these days, and his opposition fits right in with the argument he’s pushing on the presidential campaign trail.

“I don’t know about you, (but) I’m tired of the hyphenated Americans. No more ‘African-Americans.’ No more ‘Indian-Americans.’ No more ‘Asian-Americans,’ ” Jindal said in one of many speeches to that effect.

The line is something of a mash-up between his takes on immigration and radical Islam on U.S. shores. Yet it also manages to send a stunningly dismissive message to those grappling with the legacy of our country’s uglier history and who are trying to get at the roots of a stubborn, persistent inequality that more and more Americans are recognizing as reality.

This is an important, painful discussion that’s happening all over the country, and encompasses fresh looks at everything from police practices to Confederate symbols, from the battle flag on down. It’s certainly happening in cities like New Orleans, whether or not the state’s current and possible future officials want to hear it.

Of course, they’re welcome to take part in the conversation, too. To listen with respect to what the people who live in New Orleans have to say about how the presence of these monuments makes them feel, what they wish to honor or not honor and what face they want to present to the world — and only then to weigh in. That’s what many of the people who spoke at Thursday’s public hearings did, including some who argued for keeping the statues in place.

And that’s how those watching from the outside can play a constructive role. That is, unless they only care about appealing to voters who have as little interest in the underlying issues as they do.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.