City Councilwoman Susan Guidry stands by her record as she seeks a second term, but challenger Jason Coleman thinks New Orleans should be doing better. David Capasso would focus on raising workers’ wages, Stephen Gordon wants city government to run more like a small business, and Drew Ward thinks that New Orleans is being rebuilt in the wrong way.
These were the pitches the five candidates for the District A seat on the City Council made to the Alliance for Good Government this week, as they also debated issues such as how to fix the streets in Lakeview, a proposed railroad through Hollygrove and Mid-City, the behavior of corner stores and, of course, crime.
Capasso, a labor and civil-rights attorney, described himself to the Alliance as a “progressive Democrat with a capital ‘D’” with a “passion for social justice.” The state has dismantled a number of important government entities, he said, and his election would “send a message for a progressive agenda.” Advocacy for living wages has been central to his campaign, and Capasso said he is frustrated that with so much economic growth in the city, workers are still being paid so little.
“People can come up through the middle class through good wages and good jobs,” Capasso said.
Gordon, a Lakeview resident and entrepreneur running as an independent, conceded that the city’s progress in eight years since Hurricane Katrina has been impressive. But city government continues to try the same failed strategies on major issues of infrastructure and crime, and he is concerned that the progress won’t continue. The city, he said, should function more like a small business.
“In small business, most people take a common sense approach. If it doesn’t work very quickly, you try something different,” Gordon said. “… Small government is the best type of government.”
Coleman, part of the Coleman Cab Company family, agreed that the city budget should look more like a business’s financial statement, so that money can be more wisely managed to ensure that all streets are free of potholes. He pointed to attrition in the New Orleans Police Department as evidence that the City Council is not providing strong enough oversight. To improve the economy and create more jobs, the city should be trying to attract more large businesses to New Orleans, Coleman said.
“We love the city and we want it to love us back,” Coleman said.
Guidry, a Democrat running for her second term on the Council, said that fighting violent crime remains her top priority, noting that she brought stronger review of law-enforcement budgets on the City Council criminal justice committee. Creating more opportunities for at-risk children is a key challenge for the city moving forward, she said. She described the growth of the tax base in District A through developments such as Costco and Mid-City Market, and said her “door is always open to small businesses as well as our residents.”
“I have no agenda except what is best for our city,” Guidry said.
The Alliance’s first questioned concerned the notorious state of the streets in Lakeview, particularly the many closed routes.
“The streets in Lakeview, some of them look like a war zone,” Guidry agreed. Their condition predates Hurricane Katrina, and is related to the fact that they are on top of reclaimed swampland, Guidry said. Most of the large thoroughfares have been repaved in the past four years, however, and the city is now beginning to work on smaller neighborhood streets, she said.
“Neglect, neglect, neglect — that’s why the streets look like that,” Coleman shot back. No one has come up with any new ideas to fund street improvements, Coleman said, and the lack of progress comes at a particularly high cost to his industry, the transportation business. He suggested tying traffic-camera revenue to street improvements, satisfying residents that their money is being well spent.
Gordon — for whom the streets in Lakeview have been a central campaign issue — agreed that the condition of the streets predates Hurricane Katrina. But that, Gordon said, shows the extent of the problem with city government — especially since Lakeview residents pay more in property taxes than other neighborhoods.
“That right there shows that government is not working,” Gordon said, adding that if Lakeview seriously threatened to incorporate out of New Orleans, the streets would get fixed quickly.
Capasso said the issue illustrates that Americans are willing to pay taxes when they see the results of their money. Streets are bad all over the city, however, he said.
“I like that idea where the neighborhood gets involved directly with their street improvement.”
The Alliance also asked about a proposal to re-route freight trains from Old Metairie into the city of New Orleans. Guidry said this idea has been around in some form since World War II, but reiterated her opposition to increasing the number of freight trains through Hollygrove and Mid-City.
“The bottom line is that this is something that cannot happen without New Orleans’s support,” Guidry said. “We are in the driver’s seat.”
Capasso said that, “of course,” he opposed it, and said it was typical of an out-of-area corporation or government to try to create this kind of environmental injustice, harkening back to earlier days when railroads wouldn’t even build crossings in poor neighborhoods.
“This clearly this is a grab to think that low-income communities in this area are not going to complain as much as Jefferson Parish and Metairie Road,” Capasso said.
Aside from the fact that the residents in the affected neighborhoods oppose it, Gordon said, the city has much more important priorities.
“If anything to do with infrastructure is so bad in parts of the city, then why are we even discussing anything else?” Gordon asked.
There are numerous other transportation projects that should be priorities instead, Coleman agreed.
“I can think of a million ways to spend those dollars,” Coleman said.
The Alliance also asked about the decline of neighborhood corner stores, from vital sources of local groceries in the past to quick stops for liquor and cigarettes that attract crime.
Capasso said that he has been connecting with these businesses for years, and noted that they are largely run by hardworking immigrants from across the world. Further, they still fill an important role in low-income neighborhoods, accepting food stamps so that poor families can eat.
“I want to educate a lot of the owners on better health-care choices for food, better ways they can service their areas, better protection, and yeah, eliminate the issues of cigarettes and alcohol. Make them respectable like any other grocery store,” Capasso said.
Gordon noted that his grandfather owned a small grocery in Lakeview decades ago, but that large businesses are making it harder for those businesses to survive. If you are going to restrict what they are going to sell, you have to support them in other ways, he said.
“You have to give them a reason to stay in business,” Gordon said.
Coleman said the stores are simply responding to supply and demand in the city, and compared the issue to the new regulations on the taxicab industry. Without new ways to increase revenue, the expensive new requirements are pricing the cab drivers out of business, he said.
“You can tell the owner of a store, do not sell this,” Coleman said. “I hate being overregulated.”
Guidry said the master plan will help bring back corner businesses by creating special zoning allowances for historic corner-store structures that still exist. The city also encourages groceries to provide fresh food, by tying it to the conditional uses they need, she said.
In the lightning round, although all four candidates agreed that crime is not being properly reported, Guidry disagreed sharply with her challengers on how to address it. She said she believed crime and murder are going down — unlike Capasso, Coleman and Gordon — and was the only one on stage to say the city does not need a new police chief. She did say the requirement that police officers have to live in the city should be lifted, unlike the other three who would keep it in place.
Ward, a Carrollton neighborhood activist and the lone Republican on the city ballot, had been meeting with local Republican party officials (who ultimately declined to endorse him) and was late to the forum. Although Ward arrived during the first question after opening statements, he was not allowed to take the stage until closing, when he gave a few minutes’ monologue on his views. The core of his platform, he said, is addressing the cycle of poverty in the city.
“The disease at the core of all this is poverty. … True abject poverty, generation after generation, that’s where your crime comes from, all that stuff,” Ward said. “You deal with that, and you deal with everything.”
Property taxes are charged on too few parcels, and too many workers are making around or even below the minimum wage.
He said raises can be safely waged in some sectors without losing jobs — the French Quarter, for example, will not move.
Ward also criticized the emphasis on entrepreneurship and attracting new residents that the city so frequently touts.
“Did you actually feel like a spectator, relegated to that role, while somebody else rebuilds New Orleans into a city that’s not New Orleans for someone else who doesn’t even live here yet?” Ward asked.
Ultimately, Ward concluded, in the last four years on the City Council, the job wasn’t done.
The Alliance for Good Government chose not to make an endorsement in the race.