New Orleans just had a municipal election. Only 28% of registered voters cast ballots in the mayor’s race, that’s a mere 75,325 out of 267,217 eligible voters. An astounding 191,892 citizens didn’t vote.
While Mayor LaToya Cantrell won a hefty 65% of votes cast, she received fewer actual votes (48,750) than any mayor since T. Semmes Walmsley, when he was elected 87 years ago.
By staying home, did New Orleans residents vote with their feet? Did they opt out because they’ve lost hope? Have they given up on City Hall’s capacity to function? Was frustration so deep that 72% of the electorate turned its back on the democratic process itself?
These are brutal questions, but they are questions city officials must answer.
In this year’s campaign for mayor and the City Council, too few candidates addressed pressing issues with anything more than shallow slogans. That’s nothing new; most political campaigns are lousy forums for substantive debate. But at what point does a vision come together? When is there a coordinated plan to implement?
As Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
There has been little serious discussion in this election of specific, fair and effective ways to fight crime. Not many candidates took well-thought-out stands on how to use hundreds of millions of dollars available for one-time public works projects.
Where were the plans to rebuild confidence in the Sewerage & Water Board? To recruit more police officers? To reduce car thefts and break-ins? To increase neighborhood patrols? What about civil service — should it be reformed? What about budget transparency — should the public know where their money will be spent and why?
What about basic priorities and principles?
The mayor and City Council need to make critical decisions as they enter a new term: What is the role and scope of city government? What are its primary responsibilities to the citizenry? How will core functions — public safety, garbage collection, drainage, water quality, street and sidewalk maintenance — be prioritized? How will program results be measured?
Serious stuff, indeed.
An example of an important issue the city now faces is whether property taxes will be raised to fund a new $21 million-a-year initiative called the “New Orleans Early Education Network City Seats Program.” In simpler language, this means day care for about 1,000 children of low-income families.
Day care is an important need nationally, and local supporters are well-intentioned in their pursuit of additional spending, but the central question for New Orleans is whether such an expansion of social services is appropriate to the scope and role of city government.
For a city that is short at least 300 police officers, that can’t send out accurate water bills, that can’t fix miles of broken streets and sidewalks, that can’t even pick up garbage twice a week — if ever — we must ask: Should this city government now expand its social welfare role? Should this city take on expensive new programs that will likely grow in cost over the years?
Moreover, we must ask: Should local government overlap federal and state social programs (i.e., Child Care Assistance Program, Head Start, Early Head Start, state-funded pre-K, GSA-managed child care facilities and military child care fee assistance) by adding new ones that must be funded by increased taxes?
Barn doors, once opened, are difficult to close. So are government programs, even the ones that fall short of expected results.
Politicians must be open-minded to new ideas, but they must have the courage to say "no" when necessary. And when they do, voters should back them up.
Citizens have responsibilities as well. For starters, they should vote at least once every four years for mayor, sheriff and the City Council. But until voters actually believe they can make a difference and the officials they elect will make a difference, expect most of them to remain tuned out.
What a waste this is for a great city — and what a time it is for new hope and real change.
Ron Faucheux is a nonpartisan political analyst based in New Orleans and publisher of LunchtimePolitics.com, a newsletter on polls.