Either the city of New Orleans made tremendous progress in the last four years, or it has not really come as far as its leaders are saying. Or, is it going in the wrong direction entirely?
These were the three positions staked out by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Judge Michael Bagneris and NAACP President Danatus King in a debate before the Alliance for Good Government on Thursday evening. Landrieu, defending his first term, argued that his administration has made impressive strides in a city with both immediate and long-term problems. Bagneris accused Landrieu of misleading the public with distorted reports, and King argued that Landrieu has enacted policies that will ultimately weaken the city through the inequality they create.
Landrieu introduced himself to the audience in the Holy Name of Jesus School auditorium by summing up his campaign in a single paragraph.
“When my team took office four years ago, this city was on the precipice, getting ready to fall off,” Landrieu said. “We brought people together around the city, put our shoulder to the wheel, turned the city around and have made substantial progress in the last four years, but have a very, very long way to go. The challenge in the next four years is to make sure that nobody gets left behind, and that we continue the pace of the recovery as it exists today. This city’s on a roll. This city is working again, and the direction is good.”
Bagneris opened with a description of his working class upbringing, his Ivy League education, and his experience as a judge. While on the bench, he said, he was able to see clearly that the city’s condition is not as strong as Landrieu says.
“We are closer to that precipice that the mayor referred to than ever before,” Bagneris said. “We are on the brink of falling, and I thought I could use my experience and that service to prevent that fall.”
King spent his introduction stressing parts of his biography beyond his NAACP advocacy, such as serving as a Scoutmaster. He then received the first question — about the fight against blight — and used it to launch into his primary theme, that the city’s progress comes at the expense of its least fortunate.
“The problem comes down to who that adjudication is enforced against,” he said, suggesting that the politically connected avoid the code-enforcement sanctions. “You have a problem of unfair, inequitable enforcement.”
On that issue and others, a pattern emerged where Landrieu described success so far and challenges ahead, Bagneris said that more should have been done, while King rejected the premise of the question. On the blight question, for example, Bagneris suggested that a better system of notifying owners and moving properties through the system was needed. Without addressing King’s allegation, Landrieu seized the opportunity to tout the recent report that 10,000 blighted properties have been rectified during his first term. The city’s new BlightStat meetings are a “national model” for addressing blight quickly, the mayor said, inviting Bagneris to attend.
When asked about providing opportunities for at-risk young people, Landrieu said that the city’s “culture of violence” begins to affect children at a very young age, which explains why he dramatically increased the recreation-department budget and strives to provide more programs for preschool-age children. Bagneris, too, said that recreation programs will help occupy children, and said after-school tutoring programs should be added.
King took a different approach. To help at-risk youth, he said, the city should create an economy their parents can participate in with good-paying jobs, healthcare and education.
“I hate the term ‘culture of violence,’” King said. “New Orleans does not have a culture of violence. We are not people that a part of our culture is violence. That’s wrong. We need to quit saying that. The more we say that, the more we try to convince people that we ought to accept this because they can’t do any better and it’s in their culture — no, I reject that.”
Another area the candidates differed widely on was how to provide long-term housing opportunities for new young people moving into the city. Bagneris, who received the question first, said the city should give blighted homes to them on the condition that they will rehabilitate them with “sweat equity,” and that banks will provide them with low-interest loans to help get the work done.
Landrieu said that the new arrivals are a “great problem to have,” and noted that the city’s rising property values are a result of its strong economy. But King, again, rejected the question outright.
“I think it’s wrong to concentrate on attracting folks,” King said. “We have children here who are extremely talented. When we put processes in place to address their needs, that will take care of everyone else.”
‘Haves and have-nots’
The Alliance took up those themes of inequality directly in a question asking about whether New Orleans is a city of “haves and have-nots.” King said that if the entire city was given equal attention, well-off neighborhoods like the university district where Thursday’s debate was held would not have to worry about crime “spilling over” from poorer neighborhoods.
Bagneris said a division between haves and have-nots is a fair assessment of New Orleans, especially given the decline of its middle class.
“That’s what it is,” Bagneris said. “The reason why it’s determined to be a city of haves and have nots is that economically, that’s what it is.”
Landrieu responded that the widening income gap is a national problem, and that the wealthier neighborhoods were better able to bring themselves back, with the help of their insurance. The city’s job, however, should be to invest in all neighborhoods equally, Landrieu said.
“That didn’t start four years ago,” Landrieu said of the income disparities. He added, “It is a very serious problem that New Orleans should lead the way on.”
Points of agreement
The candidates did not disagree on everything — all said the city’s mental health services are inadequate, though Landrieu blamed the problem on cuts to state and federal healthcare dollars, and Bagneris said the city should lead the way on solving the problem. And a lightning round of yes-or-no questions uncovered a surprising amount of common ground:
- All said they supported the new noise ordinances in the French Quarter.
- On whether police and emergency workers should be allowed to live outside the city, Landrieu and King both said ‘no.’ Bagneris said ‘yes and no.’
- All said that contractors who do not comply with participation by women and minorities should have their contracts rebid.
- King and Bagneris both said they would support expanded hours and car service for the Algiers Ferry, and Landrieu said “not with car service.”
Landrieu used his closing remarks to reiterate the theme of his campaign, and of a number of recent news conferences, of good management leading to strong growth. “Where were we four years ago?” Landrieu asked, and said the city’s mood back then was flat and directionless. Now, a major hole in the budget has been turned into its first small surplus, crime is down, retail development is exploding across the city, and accolades for New Orleans top every desirable list of cities in the country.
In his closing, Bagneris brought his most direct challenge to Landrieu since his opening statement. He decided to run, he said, because he decided that “what was being said wasn’t what was happening.” The budget wasn’t balanced, he said; the city is still operating in a deficit. Meanwhile, this year’s reports of lower crimes are also unreliable.
“It wasn’t a decrease in crime. It was a decrease in crimes being reported,” Bagneris said. “We have cooked books.”
Finally, King described a shrinking police force, a fire department fighting cuts to its pension, and even the controversy over the control of the Wisner Fund, before closing with a question that most New Orleanians will have to answer at the polls Feb. 1.
“If you’re satisfied, stick with what you have,” King said. “If you’re not satisfied, then it’s time for a change.”
After length deliberations, the Alliance for Good Goverment chose to endorse Landrieu.
The first 20 minutes of the debate can be seen in the video below: