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(DV) Flaherty: Elections Fever







Elections Fever 
by Jordan Flaherty
April 18, 2006

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The coming days will bring another step towards the new New Orleans. On April 22, voters in the city (Absentee and in-state satellite voting began last week) will choose between 22 mayoral candidates, as well as sheriff, city council, and other positions.  If no candidate in a race receives more than 50%, there will be a run-off between the two highest vote-getters on May 20. Elections have always been a big deal here in the state that gave the nation Clinton campaign manager James Carville and Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, but this election feels more weighted with significance. 

While local media has made a division between the “serious” candidates and less likely contenders such as Manny “Chevrolet” Bruno  (“A troubled man for troubled times”), the truth is that in New Orleans politics, even the front runners are, if nothing else, uncensored. “Early on, the media sorted based on name recognition and financial backing,” says community organizer and mayoral candidate Greta Gladney. “But they haven’t presented the full picture. Yes, we have some crazy people who qualified. But there are also some important messages from candidates that aren’t receiving attention.  And among the main contenders, you have some crazy people running too.” 
In a city where the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow-era racist laws are still alive and well, where former Klansman David Duke received alarmingly high percentages of the vote in the city’s white neighborhoods when he ran for governor, where Mardi Gras parades were desegregated just over 10 years ago, and most schools and neighborhoods remain deeply segregated, themes of race are bound to dominate the mayoral contest. 
Peggy Wilson -- a white former city councilwoman who is seen as one of the leading candidates -- so obviously represents white racist New Orleans, it’s almost refreshing.  Phrases other white politicians might say in an unguarded moment are her talking points. With her relentless racially coded attacks on public housing residents and “welfare queens,” she sends a clear message about the real themes of this election, and what’s at stake. 
Wilson clearly feels that the Black vote will be suppressed. "I figured the demographics might have changed now and I could run,” she told the Times-Picayune in a recent interview. Wilson’s political future, and that of the other candidates, will ride on the answer to a question everyone is asking: how many of New Orleans’ former residents will be able to vote. 
Everyone expects far less African Americans to vote in this election than anytime in decades.  Congressman John Conyers has called it “the largest disenfranchisement in the history of this nation.” According to a local voting rights coalition that includes the ACLU of Louisiana, NAACP, ACORN and others, the guidelines for absentee voting “are unclear, complicated, and conflicting.” Looking at the hurdles placed in the way of potential voters, I have no doubt that if I were displaced and attempting to vote, I would give up. As one advocate told me, “you practically need a legal consultation to figure out how to vote. It would be easier if they just instituted a poll tax.” 
The changed demographics of the city, brought about by the forced expulsion of most of the population, has complicated surveying. Ron Forman, who in recent surveys pulls one percent of the Black vote, is seen as one of the front-runners, and received the endorsement of the Times-Picayune, our daily paper. 
The paper’s enthusiastic endorsement of Forman is indicative of the city’s divisions. The Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer today for its breaking news reporting and its public service, and while their reporting in the months post-Katrina was breathtaking, excellent and vital, many Black residents question what public the paper actually serves. “There is an historic disconnect between the community and the paper,” one former Times-Picayune reporter told me. “I don’t think they reflect the city and I think most people inside, working at the paper, would agree with me… I know 50% more about the city now than I ever did when I worked as a reporter.” 
“There was a moment, post-Katrina, where all of us in the city had the same interests and concerns,” a long-time community activist confirmed.  “During that time, the Picayune finally became the newspaper of the whole city. That time has ended, unfortunately, and they’ve gone back to their old ways.” 
At a debate last month sponsored by the African American Leadership Project, issues of race were front and center. Before candidates spoke, community organizers, including Steve Bradberry of ACORN, Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and Khalil Shahyd of the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, gave powerful commentary on the racial contours of the disaster and aftermath. During the debate, candidates often spoke candidly about race in the city, such as when mayoral candidate Tom Watson, a community leader and outspoken advocate for evacuees and criminal justice reform, said “I live in a mixed neighborhood uptown, and white people won’t talk to me. I walk my dog, and they’ll talk to my dog and not to me.” 
Mayor Nagin, who was elected four years ago with a minority of the Black vote, is now seen by many as their only chance to keep Black control of city government. “People of color think if they don’t vote for Nagin they’ll be completely cut out of the process,” Gladney tells me. 
“I’m not confident any of the front-runners will do anything to help African Americans and in particular the lower 9,” says Gladney, referring to her neighborhood, the lower ninth ward. “I’m seeing a reluctance towards bringing Black people back.” 
I recently visited Renaissance Village, an evacuee community of over 500 trailers located North of Baton Rouge on land owned by a youth prison.  Residents I spoke to were aching to come home.  “Last year I was a middle income American, a homeowner -- I never imagined I’d come to this,” said Hillary Moore Jr., a former city employee and New Orleans property owner exiled in a small trailer in the middle of the complex. Living alone, Moore barely fits in his trailer. When he talks about the family of five living next door, I can’t imagine how they could possibly squeeze in. 
As with all of the residents I spoke with, Moore was unhappy in his trailer home. “Why would they buy this for as much money as they paid?  This thing is designed for a weekend -- can you imagine someone trying to live in here for 6 or 7 months?” he asked. 
I asked him why he agreed to move in. “When you’ve been living in a gymnasium with 100 plus people, a travel trailer sounds like a mansion to you, and when they tell you sign here so you can end standing in line to get a shower, you don’t question anything, you sign and you jump at the opportunity.” An over-capacity housing market from Baton Rouge to New Orleans makes other options scarce. 
On the day I visited, residents voiced some of their recent complaints, most involving the logistics of living in this isolated, underserved community: the cafeteria serving the complex is scheduled to be closed; and management had threatened to stop fixing the washing machines, which were being vandalized. Many of the occupants had no means of transportation in and out, and the only bus service was to Wal-Mart and back. 
Residents, displaced from their own neighborhoods, are attempting to form new community in the camp, but there are obstacles, high among them being the stress and pressures of living in such close and uncomfortable conditions. “Living here, you meet people under unusual circumstances,” Moore explains politely. Many people I spoke with complained about children running wild in the camp. Imagining the youth, already traumatized from the disaster and evacuation, trying to adapt to life in these prison-like conditions (we had to be signed in by security guards, and press are not permitted), behavior problems seem inevitable. 
Not long after moving in, Moore and others organized a resident’s council. “We got tired of a lot of things Keta (the contractor company managing the park) was doing and we decided to organize because we realized there is strength in numbers,” he tells me. The residents’ council has an elected board and open meetings every week. 
Despite all obstacles, New Orleans’ survivors keep organizing and fighting, whether exiled in FEMA-paid trailer parks, or internally displaced within the city. Two weeks ago at the St. Bernard housing development, located just a few blocks from where Jazz Fest happens every year, former residents and supporters confronted the police and broke through the fence surrounding their former homes. For some, it was the first time in months they’d been able to see their apartments. 
Terry Scott, a Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) employee working in the complex was sympathetic. “We want them back. Without them living here, we don’t have jobs.” However, Scott told me, at the current pace, it would be years before most residents would be allowed back. “It’s been seven months, and they’re still working on Iberville (the smallest and least damaged complex). Every corner of New Orleans, you have HANO housing, but they haven’t even started on the Lafitte,” he said, referring to another mostly-undamaged complex, second in line for repair. For now, thousands of livable units, including those at St Bernard, sit empty, with fencing around them and guards patrolling. 
“We’ve been having mold, mildew and backed up sewers for years,” Pamela Mahogany, a St Bernard resident told me. “I’ve been here 42 years and it’s been a hazard the whole time. They never cared before. This is part of their goal to tear our development down.” 
For residents like Mahogany, community is what they miss most about their homes at St Bernard. “They say it’s unsafe here. When I lived here I didn’t have a burglar alarm. Now I have one, ‘cause I don’t know the people around me. They say people here didn’t have jobs. Guess what. I’m a nurse. I go to work every day.” 
Terry Scott, the HANO employee, agreed. “People say this is a high crime area.  The truth is you could’ve walked right through here any time and be fine.” 
These elections are vital. But the truth is, what’s really going to bring people back to our city are the people themselves, fighting on the front lines to come home. In hundreds of small struggles, in grassroots organizing and demonstrations around the city, the fight continues. As Beverly Wright, director of Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice said during the African American Leadership Project’s mayoral forum, “they’ve underestimated the determination of people like me to fight to our last breath” 
Jordan Flaherty is a resident of New Orleans, an organizer with New Orleans Network and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. His previous articles from New Orleans are archived here.

* Grassroots, People of Color-Led Gulf Coast Organizations to Donate to

Other Resources for information and action


* Reconstruction Watch

* Common Ground

* People's Hurricane Fund

* Justice for New Orleans

* Black Commentator 

* New Orleans Network 

* Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children 

* Four Directions Solidarity Network 

* Color Of Change

* Critical Resistance: Comprehensive info and action related to prisoners in New Orleans

Other Articles by Jordan Flaherty

* Guantanamo on the Mississippi
* Nothing Stops Mardi Gras
* Imprisoned in New Orleans with Tamika Middleton
* Privatizing New Orleans
* Loss and Displacement at the Calliope with Jennifer Vitry