"A great deal of the responsibility for the decline of the New Orleans economy must be laid at the door of local officials who have failed to be creative and imaginative ... and who have been much too complacent in these times of adversity for our citizens. This mayoral election can be the dawn of a new day."
Are these words from Marc Morial just as true today as they were eight years ago, when he was a 35-year-old state senator making his first run for mayor? Morial, in 1993, was referring to his predecessor Sidney Barthelemy. If we were to put that question to New Orleans voters in the wake of the Oct. 20 "3T" referendum, the answer would be a qualified yes.
Voters soundly rejected Morial's bid for a third consecutive term by the same margin as in the 1985 third-term campaign of his late father, Mayor Dutch Morial -- 61-39 percent. The recent election was mostly about the issue of power and how best to limit those who wield it. Despite Morial's $1.1 million campaign fund, his legendary campaign machine and a last-minute pitch that experience counts in times of crisis, voters refused to give him a shot at a third term. When it was all over, one City Council staffer noted that "the City Charter is now as much a part of New Orleans as red beans and rice and Mardi Gras."
But voter rejection of 3T was not solely about protecting the charter. In some respects, it also was a rejection of Morial's second term.
Morial won a landslide re-election after running on the record of his first four years: plunging crime rates, reform of a corrupt police department and the appointment (and retention) of Richard Pennington as police chief. Based on that record, he clearly deserved a second term. But he could not win a third term based on the record of his first term. Moreover, he could not run and win on the sub-par record of his second term. So he promised to reform the Orleans Parish Public School system, which has an independent governing board. Voters saw through this ruse from the get-go; 3T went nowhere.
A top priority of Morial's second term was supposed to be business development, with a rejuvenated airport helping to re-boot the local economy. That was a good focus. In his 1994 "Program for Economic Progress" or "PEP for New Orleans," he warned: "New Orleans can no longer exist as an economic hostage to single industries [such as] the gaming industry." He urged us to broaden our vision and "think globally." He was right, but he fell short on execution.
By 1997, Mayor Morial professed surprise that failures in the local gaming industry left a gaping hole in the city budget. "We put our trust in various gaming entities that, by our best estimates, seemed to have had good strong, mutually beneficial plans laid out for themselves and the city of New Orleans," Morial wrote in his regular column for The Louisiana Weekly. Early on, Gambit Weekly warned Morial not to depend on gambling revenues. He failed to heed that warning, and New Orleans is still paying a heavy price.
As the rest of the country prospered under the unprecedented economic boom of the 1990s, New Orleans remained stagnant. And as the mayor became more preoccupied with the illusion of a third term, other issues facing the city got short shrift.
Through it all, Morial took care of his politics. As a candidate eight years ago, he railed against "the old, tired system of patronage politics that has ruled our city." Since then, however, he has imitated our oppressors. Unlike his predecessor, Morial did not lack for creativity, imagination or energy on the issues. He had a great vision for New Orleans, but in the pursuit of power, he lost his focus.
Graymond Martin, a lawyer who directed the pro-third term group, People for Continued Progress, insists that Morial enjoyed some notable successes in economic development. He cites the orchestrated land swap for Phase III of the Convention Center and the expansion promised in Phase IV; the revitalization of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City; and the refurbishing of the American Can factory in Mid-City. "There are a lot of small successes," Martin says.
We agree, but there could have been more -- and perhaps there still can be in the six months left in his term. Morial can start by giving the city a balanced budget by Dec. 1. He also must not "sabotage" the next mayor -- as his father did -- by overspending in the early months of 2002. The City Council can help the mayor in this regard by taking steps to escrow large parts of next year's budget.
Meanwhile, economic development will be the job of the next mayor. Hopefully, Feb. 2 will be the dawn of another new day.