Government & Politics

What is the 'shadow government?'

In a joint appearance on WBOK-AM radio today, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Superintendent Warren Riley alluded once again to a conspiratorial “shadow government” that has aligned to tarnish their reputations. A caller asked them to name names.

Nagin and Riley demurred, saying it would be “un-P.C.” —  never mind that they’d just alleged a wide-ranging conspiracy to undermine them. One might think that leveling such a serious charge without naming names would be the “un-P.C.” thing to do, rather than to confront your enemies like men. But I digress.

Without judging the extent to which the mayor and his police chief themselves reflect or refract the values of a “shadow government,” the term is bandied about often in New Orleans politics.

There is no denying that many New Orleanians, especially in the African-American community, believe that to some degree the levers of government are not pulled by elected officials out in the open, but behind the scenes by a vaguely defined coterie of powerful interests in the white community.

Those New Orleanians are basically correct.

The political system in New Orleans over-represents the views of wealthy citizens and the city’s bigger industries. The city’s universities, the Port of New Orleans, chain hotels, local banks, construction companies, and law firms generate most of the wealth in the city and employ many of its wealthiest residents. The city also has historically provided conditions conducive to shelter what the French call rentier class, referring to those who earn income from property or through family holdings.  Those conditions include not just low property taxes, but low property tax assessments and the off-the-books tradition of never adjusting assessments for properties that stay in one family.

These big institutions and wealthy individuals do not simply press a button to make a politician talk the way they want them to talk or to keep a certain policy idea from gaining traction. There isn’t even necessarily an explicit agenda.

There are, however, well-defined social networks and business associations where shared ideology is formed and shared. That’s not different from how anybody else operates. As a civically engaged liberal, I get together with friends and discuss politics. I ask my friends to help me in the things that I care about, such as calling my council member about a certain issue. The difference is that when groups of elite business associates and wealthy families get together and do similar political favors for one another, it has a much greater impact.

If a City Council member hears from me and three of my service-industry friends about one side of an issue but then hears from the president of a university, the brother-in-law of another elected official, and a wealthy heir to the Coca-Cola fortune about the other side of an issue, who would you suppose generally wins? More than some might think, the esteem with which people with “important” titles and familiar relationships are generally held can be enough by itself to sway an important policy debate.

That politicians so often act on their electoral self-preservation instincts only compounds the matter. If one wants to get elected to office in the city of New Orleans, one must have money. Even a well-managed insurgent campaign that emphasizes community organizing rather than expensive television and radio advertising requires significant cash. To be even mildly competitive in a City Council district race, one must strive to approach $100,000 in campaign contributions. To run citywide, it’s far more than that.

The entry barrier requires candidates to either be independently wealthy themselves or willing to go to wealthy people for contributions. Few people in New Orleans can donate significant capital toward a local political campaign. Those who do have that financial wherewithal generally participate to some degree in this larger group of social, familial, and professional networks that comprise what many would classify as the shadow government. Thus, even candidates claiming to represent the viewpoints of low-income African Americans and others must still fight for campaign contributions from wealthy industrial and business leaders, their families and friends.

Make no mistake: The political interests of the different networks that comprise what I’m defining as the “shadow government” do not always align. In fact, they often diverge. There are many cleavages and divisions to sew among wealthy elites, just as there are within the African-American community or the Jewish community, or any other network that brings together different people. That is why you might find some wealthy real estate interests supporting John Georges while other wealthy real estate interests support Mitch Landrieu and others still once supported Ed Murray. That is why you might find one historically wealthy family supporting Claude Mauberret for tax assessor while another supports Janis Lemle. (Full disclosure: I briefly was a consultant for the Lemle campaign on some technical matters).

If you don’t have the financial wherewithal to support politicians or the familial and social connections to get their ear, an ordinary citizen will struggle to make their individual voice mean as much. Inherently, citizens know this. That is why there is so much mistrust of politicians and the processes of governance. This is especially true when it comes to matters of planning and development, as evidenced by the popular revolt against the post-Katrina proposals to shrink the footprint in the Bring New Orleans Back Plan, which was primarily composed by “civic leaders” from this wide social and business community. It has even manifested itself in the more recent push to create a clearer and more utilitarian process to guide development through the adoption of a master plan.

One of the more public examples of the “shadow government” in action occurred when former District Attorney Eddie Jordan resigned from his post in 2007 amid widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of his office. Rather than using a clear process to remove a clearly ineffective public servant, Jordan’s resignation was contingent on a salaried position at the Police and Justice Foundation. It was negotiated in secret meetings between elected officials and individuals in the business community.

“It is part of the package that was developed,” said Robert Stellingworth, executive director of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, a nonprofit group. The business community will pay for Jordan’s consultancy, Stellingworth said.

Jordan’s resignation was not contingent on his job performance, his popularity, or the machinations of the City Council. It occurred when unidentified business leaders decided to negotiate it.

Nagin and Riley find “the shadow government” to be aligned against them but are afraid to name names. Perhaps their private sector futures are similarly dependent on unidentified business leaders.

Perhaps it is only politically helpful to simply claim that the shadow government exists without describing what it is, how it works, and how to dismantle it.

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  • Superdeformed

    Has anyone just flat out asked them if they are part of the “shadow government” themselves?

  • alan

    This sounds about right. While I think the term “shadow government” probably sounds pretty ‘Jack Bauer’ to an American audience, I think this could describe the political process in many major American cities. Why does it seem worse here? Off the cuff, I would posit a few factors; 1) There are less wealthy actors and they are concentrated in comparatively few industries, allowing for coalitions to among the wealthy to be more stable 2) The agenda of wealthy interests across the country is fairly well received by stable middle class population, and resisted strongly by relatively small populations in poverty. In high poverty communities such as New Orleans, the number of citizens whose interested the agenda of the wealthy works against more directly is probably much higher; 3) The racial demographics of the wealthy class in New Orleans are probably roughly inverse to the demographics of the city at large; 4) Because of that demographic situation, the issue has been used to galvanize black voters over the years; and finally 5) the economy of New Orleans has not been perceived to be booming since the late 1970s. Once the pie starts growing again, people in the “shadow government” will be less protective of their slice, and more willing to invest in the community and take financial risks that are in the mutual interest of the city and the broader population.

  • alan

    typos typos

  • Eli Ackerman

    I actually think the biggest factor that makes the situation in New Orleans especially different from most other cities, in addition to those you list, is the strength of voluntary associations that keep historic social networks incredibly vibrant – namely, Mardi Gras krewes.

  • Francine

    I agree with SuperD. Sometimes the shadiest strings are pulled from the highest ranking elected and appointed officials. Think Dollar Bill – whose shadow and real government has been has been largely dismantled and may reach complete obsolescence once Nagin is out of office. It’s pathetic to hear these two continuously attempt to deflect their failures on anyone but themselves.

  • Will

    Here’s one possibility: the “shadow government” is one facet of an organized attempt by Nagin to stoke race-based fear and mistrust in aid of getting Troy Henry elected. Nagin’s a shrewd enough politician to know that a Henry – Landreiu runoff is too close to call, once Henry’s racially-divisive rhetoric is ramped up to full volume. Nagin is doing all he can to stoke that fire.

    Why? Nagin may have a strong vested interest in Henry’s election, as he knows that Henry will not conduct an audit to see where city money has been going (in no small part because so much of it has been going to him). Nagin may have many good reasons be very, very keen to see that the city finances over the past few years are not audited.

  • Sr. Luncheon

    Anybody heard this ad mentioned on NOLA?:

    Mayor Ray Nagin jumped on the early-voting bandwagon last week, cutting a radio ad that hints at the most emotional subtext of the race: For the first time in 30 years, a white candidate has a solid chance of capturing the highest office in a city where two-thirds of residents are African-American. Among the leading candidates, Landrieu and Georges are white, while Henry is black.

    In the spot on WBOK, which caters to a black audience, Nagin makes a pair of references that play on fears among some African-American community leaders that black voters will lose their hold on the so-called “franchise” of the mayor’s office, a hard-fought prize that symbolizes the defeat of decades of systemic disenfranchisement at the voting booth and in public contracting.

    “Your vote can help ensure that our city has leadership that is representative of its citizens so it’s true government of the people, by the people,” Nagin says.

    I mean, really? Nagin did this? Really? Really?…. I don’t always trust NOLA to “word” things properly and I listen to WBOK as much as I can stomach… but I have not heard that ad. Really? That is out there? Really?

  • jimmy

    I agree that these small groups of wealthy individuals hold a lot of sway, but that being said, I feel as though the majority of the city council members elected since 2006 are very responsive even to the small guys. When I see names like Jay Batt slipping back in, and briefly Eddie Sapir, I do worry that the old guard and “shadow government” are trying to regain some power.

    I view the shadow government to be both white and black groups who liked the way things were pre-k and want to regain the system we used to have.

  • Sr. Luncheon

    I heard that add by Nagin… It really wasn’t as “bad” as had reported. Frack. Maybe I’m back in Henry’s Meatwad Head camp. Or I fire a shot in the air for _____.