There were so many big stories in 2007 that my list initially approached 20. Somehow, the 'Top 18 Political Stories" just didn't work, so I had to lump groups of semi-related stories together just to pare my list down to the traditional 10. A perfect example of that is the top story of the year " the statewide elections. It's really several stories rolled into one. Ditto for the second-place topic, the continuing slide of Congressman Bill Jefferson.
Through it all, things gradually seem to be getting better. Hey, at least we now have a DA who knows Louisiana criminal law.
So, without further ado, let's take a look back at the top political stories of this amazing year.
1. The Statewide Elections " The election season officially kicked off when Gov. Kathleen Blanco bowed out of the race in late February, leaving Democrats to scramble for candidates. Former U.S. Senator John Breaux flirted with the race, but his Maryland voter registration knocked him out of contention. In the end, the Bobby Jindal juggernaut proved too much for other Republicans as well as the old and new Democratic hopefuls. His two main GOP rivals both bolted from the party, then failed to muster enough to keep Jindal from winning in the primary. Other big news in the primary was the defeat of incumbent Democratic Attorney General Charles Foti, whose iron-fisted handling of the Memorial Medical Center case earned him the ire of medical professionals and many others. Democratic DA Buddy Caldwell won the runoff for Foti's job, but elsewhere, the GOP scored big gains by capturing five of the seven statewide offices " after winning just one in 2003. Perhaps the biggest GOP gain outside the governor's race was state Rep. Mike Strain's victory over seven-term Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, a veteran Democratic kingpin (and king maker). The big question now is which Bobby Jindal will show up to govern " the right-wing Christian conservative who wants public schools to teach Creationism as a scientific 'alternative" to evolution, or the wonkish wunderkind who wants to focus on economic development, ethics reform, coastal restoration and post-storm recovery?
2. Bill Jefferson's Slide Continues " His indictment on 16 counts of federal racketeering and corruption charges in June was just the beginning of a really bad year for Bill Jefferson. New Orleans DA Eddie Jordan's resignation and Jalila Jefferson's trouncing at the hands of Cheryl Gray in the race for the state Senate seat that launched Dollar Bill's career showed that the Jefferson magic is gone. Things will only get worse if Jefferson goes to trial in February.
3. Eddie Jordan Resigns " Jordan will go down as the worst district attorney in the city's history, and deservedly so. He was incompetent both as a prosecutor and as a manager, and his office pretty much fell on its ass at every turn. He failed to pay a $3.7 million federal civil rights judgment (which his office incurred because he was either too lazy or too beholden to Bill Jefferson to make personnel decisions himself upon taking office in 2003), and then a suspected armed robber sought refuge at his home in Algiers " and Jordan, thinking the alleged robber was actually a victim (he was, after all, an acquaintance of Jordan's girlfriend), sent the guy on his merry way. As a DA, this guy couldn't find his rear end in the dark with both hands. Good riddance!
4. David Vitter Outed " As if Louisiana needed another national embarrassment. News that U.S. Sen. David Vitter's phone number showed up at least five times on the so-called D.C. Madam's phone records exposed the self-righteous Republican 'family values" champion as a hypocrite of the highest order. After admitting a 'very serious sin" but otherwise not answering any lingering questions about his integrity, his ability to serve, his lies during his 2004 Senate campaign, or his violations of criminal law (paying for sex from prostitutes is a crime), Vitter is hoping to duck, bob and weave until his re-election in 2010. Meanwhile, Louisiana effectively has only one U.S. senator, despite Vitter's prodigious output of press releases claiming (falsely, of course) that he's getting things done or that his presence in Washington matters. On second thought, his presence does matter: he and the other GOP 'family values" bookend, U.S. Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho (of bathroom toe-tapping notoriety), give the Democrats a slam-dunk issue in the 2008 national elections. Attaboy, Dave!
5. The Federal Dragnet Widens " Oliver Thomas' resignation after admitting that he took bribes was the blockbuster of the year, but it wasn't the only big political news to come out of the federal courthouse in 2007. More of Marc Morial's cronies either pleaded guilty to corruption charges or started serving prison terms for various crimes and misdemeanors " including Morial's uncle, former RTA contractor Glenn Haydel. Elsewhere, state Sen. Derrick Shepherd now finds himself in the cross hairs of a money-laundering probe, and former School Board member Ellenese Brooks-Simms admitted taking more than $100,000 in bribes, allegedly from Mose Jefferson, the congressman's brother. Meanwhile, onetime Morial confidant Stan 'Pampy" Barre continues to cooperate with the feds. As FBI Special Agent in Charge Jim Bernazzani said, 'Don't cancel your newspaper subscription."
6. Legislative Turnover " Legislative term limits, which kicked in for the first time this election season, combined with voter frustration after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to form a perfect political storm. The end result: 59 new state House members. Although legislative term limits forced many state senators out of office, most were replaced by term-limited House members who moved up. The historic disconnect between the House and Senate may become worse than ever as a result.
7. The 'New" New Orleans City Council " The real significance of the council's new white majority is not that it's white, but rather that the council as a body is clearly anti-Nagin " to the point of being veto-proof on many votes. We saw the first sign of things to come right after Jackie Clarkson won the special election to succeed Oliver Thomas, when the council unanimously funded the Office of Inspector General over Mayor Ray Nagin's refusal to find the money without a tax increase. Look for the council's independent streak to become more pronounced in 2008 " and for Nagin to become less relevant.
8. Harry Lee's Passing " Jefferson Parish saw the end of an era when longtime Sheriff Harry Lee died in the late stages of his campaign for re-election. When qualifying reopened, Lee's handpicked successor and veteran right-hand man Newell Normand stepped up and won in the rescheduled primary with 91 percent of the vote " a lopsided margin that even Lee never posted in his seven campaigns for sheriff. As pollster Ed Renwick noted, 'There will never be another Harry Lee." Look for Normand to put his own stamp on the office.
9. Nagin's Ongoing "Blips' " From the city's horrendous violent crime rate being labeled part of the 'New Orleans brand" to his own failure to vote (four times this year!) after exhorting New Orleanians to take just a few minutes out of their day to cast ballots, Ray Nagin continues to show that if you fake it often enough, you can almost pass hypocrisy off as 'leadership." Take heart, New Orleans: as you read this, there are only about 860 days left in Nagin's term unless he's recalled first!
10. The Recovery " It was slow going in Louisiana as the Road Home moved at a glacial pace and Dr. Ed Blakely's 'cranes in the sky" failed to appear as announced, but there was good news on Capitol Hill as U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu parlayed her seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee into mo' betta' money for Louisiana: the WRDA Override, the $3 billion for Road Home in the federal defense budget, and billions more in federal recovery money. Also, at year's end, New Orleans finally got authorization from the LRA for most of the $1.2 billion that Blakely wants to spur his 17 target zones. Now all we need is some traction on the home front.
Hopefully, that will be the top story of 2008. Happy Holidays!
In last week's column, I incorrectly stated that state Rep. Tim Burns (R-Mandeville) was term-limited and could not seek re-election in October. Burns actually was re-elected without opposition and will begin his second term on Jan. 14. I apologize for the error.