Finally, the state is starting to play a productive role in the New Orleans monument mess.
Not the Louisiana Legislature, where a bill prompted by the city's settled decision to remove four Confederate-themed structures was approved by the House this week. The measure doesn't limit itself to Civil War and post-Reconstruction icons like the ones in New Orleans, instead calling for a public referendum before any military commemoration is removed, but its underlying inspiration is obvious.
Debate over a bill that protects Confederate monuments has scratched open a raw nerve for ma…
Even if it were to become law — and that' s a big if — House Bill 71 by Shreveport Republican Thomas Carmody wouldn't affect what's happening on the ground in New Orleans, although it could affect localities' ability to make such decisions in the future. In the Senate, it will face an unfriendly committee, and in the unlikely possibility that it's approved, Gov. John Bel Edwards hinted this week that he's not disposed to sign it.
Instead, the House action amounted to an unnecessarily divisive statement vote, one that directly endorsed an improper usurpation of local authority by the state and implicitly endorsed Carmody's discredited claim that the Civil War did not grow out of a desire to preserve slavery. It also provoked hard feelings from African-American lawmakers who spoke for two hours about how such monuments and their colleagues' attitudes toward them made them feel disrespected. Even though no supporters other than Carmody spoke out on the bill's behalf, the Legislative Black Caucus members got the message loud and clear after the votes were tallied, and they walked out of the chamber in anger.
With the vote as the backdrop, it was good to hear Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser finally start to engage in some problem-solving.
Until now, Nungesser has been a loud critic of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's drive, supported by a 6-1 City Council votes and upheld in both state and federal court, to remove monuments to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and a bloody white supremacist uprising against the Reconstruction government. He's searched for a legal basis on which to block the move, even appealing to President Donald Trump for support.
But he hasn't tried to be part of the solution often pitched by those who insist the monuments should be displayed for those who still want to see them, with historical context added — even though, as official custodians of the state's parks and museums, he's better positioned than just about anyone to make that happen.
That appears to be changing. Last week, Nungesser sent an email to Landrieu asking that the city work together to "find a location in Louisiana befitting (the statues), which people interested in history and culture can view and decide for themselves their history and meaning." It's the first sign that the Republican lieutenant governor and the Democratic mayor might be able to work together to ease the tension that's built up over the nearly two years since the discussion started, and a welcome one.
Also welcome were Edwards' words this week. The governor, also a Democrat, has mostly steered clear of the subject until now. But when he was asked directly whether he'd sign Carmody's bill if it crossed his desk, he didn't say yes or no but did add his voice to those hoping to get past the controversy.
Edwards first raised some practical concerns over the bill, pointing out that it would impinge on representative democracy and local control, and arguing that it would complicate local land use decisions. As an example, he said the bill would have forced a referendum over the decision to tear down the old Alex Box stadium on LSU's campus because it was named for a student-athlete who was killed in World War II.
With the all-night process of removing the statue of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard from…
And then the governor got philosophical. As a former House member and political ally of the black caucus members who walked out, he bemoaned the distraction and pain the vote had prompted. He finished by carefully seeking to reframe the issue, and posing what really should have been the central question all along.
"I understand passion runs high," he said. But "while it is certainly a part of our history, can we say it's the best part?"