Thursday, June 01, 2006
On this, the first day of Hurricane Season, and the day of the inauguration of Ray Nagin--just over a week after Simon and I were married and voted, together, for hope and for change--I'd like to express my extreme sense of embarrassment at the re-election of our mayoral clown. Many of my friends at www.nolafugees.com supported this mayor, for reasons that I wholly disagree with. Here's an outline of what I believe to be the popular beliefs that drove Nagin and Landrieu voters to the polls, and a description of the political climate during the past several weeks.
On the night of the primary, Simon and I gathered at Handsome Willy's--a bar in the grim hospital district that regularly hosts Nolafugees events. By the time we arrived, the returns were already in. Our woman, Boulet, received just 4% of the vote--a little less than we had expected but not surprising, nevertheless. We voted our conscience during the primary, but we knew that an educated woman touting moving UNO downtown and universal healthcare had no chance.
As expected, Nagin and Landrieu were headed for a runoff, and for whatever reason I thought that surely my friends would agree with me. It was time for a change, I thought. Nagin had lost all credibility in the eyes of preceisely the people we would need most to help us rebuild: the national audience. While he had fussed up a storm during the aftermath of Katrina, eliciting "Amens" from all of us New Orleanians, myself included, his poor choice of words in his "Chocolate City" speech, along with his defensive and dismissive rhetoric that reminded me Dubya-talk, AND the fact that he had become the butt of jokes on the late shows and the subject of skits on Saturday Night Live, were SURE signs that this man had become a laughing stock.
What we needed, I believed (and I still believe) was someone with credibility. Someone who understood realpolitik--the need to participate in the legislative process in order to get things done. Someone liberal (Nagin supported Bush and Jindall). Someone who would demonstrate to the nation that we, the people of New Orleans, WANT to be takem seriously--and that we WANT to have a mayor who prepares for the inevitable Next Big Storm.
But that night I heard my friends saying things like, "I just can't bring myself to vote for a white mayor," and, "I won't vote for someone who belongs to a political dynasty." I could relate, to a certain extent, to the former content. It has been decades since New Orleans had a white mayor--and it's important, yes, that we have a mayor who represents the interests black majority.
But Nagin is a businessman. And practically a republican. And here he was, post-Katrina, pandering to the same black consituents whose needs he had NEGLECTED (resulting in DEATH). To neglect to provide for the needs of the poor during the evacuation was a TOTAL FAILURE, as they say, of the imagination. A fatal error. The scenario that we watched on television was NOT an unexpected one. In fact, if you read the Times-Picayune's "Washing Away" series, you will see the scenarios of desperation, suffering, and death, described with frightening accuracy. Nagin's failure to plan for this eventuality is a disgrace, however difficult it would have been for "whoever was in office," as so many are keen to point out. Nagin, who seemed to be touting himself as a populist candidate (his horrific and incredibly ironic "Re-elect Our Mayor, Re-unite Our City" billboards come to mind) had betrayed the same people whose behalf he claims now to be acting upon. Hmph.
As to the former comment, that my friends could not vote for Landrieu because he belongs to a political dynasty--, I too, can relate to that feeling. It's like my brother's voting for the Green Party in the 2000 election. He believed that if we supported the two-party system, a third party would never be created. Similarly, my friends believe that supporting Landrieu is saying that we are pleased with--and support--and often-flawed political process. I am not pleased with the shortcomings of the political process--with the often-unethical goings-on it seems to require. But...
But what we NEEDED to do was to vote in accordance with Realpolitik (as my brother did when he voted for Kerry in he 2004 runoff). Our idealistic intentions did not and do not matter, and if we are to survive in this city--if this city, itself, is to survive, we need the help of people whose PERCEPTION of our mayor drives the monies that will (or will not) now come our way. Landrieu--the real liberal candidate who, yes, is part of a well-connected political family--is perceived as an articulate, credible, and conscientious leader. Electing him would have demonstrated to outsiders that we understand the importance of outside help--that we understand that our local election has national implications that we are not ignorant of, that we cannot, realistically, simply thumb our nose at.
But a third argument, still, complicated these two arguments.
As I sat on the Mid-City porch of a friend's during Jazz Fest, Jarret of Nolafugees explained that he would vote for Nagin not because he was "the lesser of two evils," but because he was, in fact, more likely to fail than Landrieu. Landrieu's campaign had at its center a call for New Orleans to me a major American city in "the New South." His vision would have New Orleans competing with cities like Atlanta and Houston. One can imagine loft apartments taking over the projects, their former contents scattered to other projects--who cares? One can envision the kinds of rents we are now seeing in the city--rents like those in New York and San Francisco--for years and years to come. One can picture wider roads, bigger cars, fatter wallets, and less--much less-soul.
As someone from the capital of the New South, Atlanta, I can imagine this perhaps more vividly than Jarret or other young gentrifying whites like us who want the gentrification buck to stop here, with us. (Talk about privilege!)
I remember one night, during one of many blackouts (like the one we had again, just this morning), Simon and I were walking home from Mimi's, and in the moonlight the roof damage on my neighbor, Terrence's, home appeared cristalline, somehow; ragged. His home remains empty while Terrence lives in a small Houston apartment and calls me regularly, crying because he wants to come back to New Orleans. His landlord is a slumlord, and people like his parents, Gaynelle and Ronald, lack the resources to return. I looked at his house in the moonlight, and cried. I said to Simon, "There won't be any black people in our neighborhood anymore." Even now it makes my heart ache to think of--even as it comes true (much to the delight of many of my white neighbors.)
It is no wonder, then, that people like Jarret--and like me--would fear a New Orleans like Houston and like Atlanta--where money and privilege have bled the cities of their souls, have displaced their poor. But out of sight, out of mind, right? Oh, vapid, vapid Atlanta and Houston. Why would we want that here?
We don't. And I think, in fact, that Jarret's is the strongest argument in favor of Nagin. But still... To vote for FAILURE? Haven't we SEEN what the consequences of Nagin's failure? To vote for THIS?!
To be sure, Nagin has THE SAME vision as Landrieu. One need only read the report by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission to see that he, too, has a New South New Orleans in his sight.
And so, I guess, as we enter the next Hurricane Season--as we confront the possibility of a New South New Orleans--as we confront the probability of the poor and resourceless being once again, neglected--we must hope for a version of success that I cannot name. We must hope that this season is not a "When" season, but one of, "if, if, if." And we must resign ourselves, as I do, to a an uncertain future led by a man who has certainly failed us. We must, I suppose, hope for the f-ing best, and again, again, again, prepare for the f-ing worst.