Are we booming or bankrupt? Let’s keep the campaign conversation going

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Niels Christian Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard yearned to look forward as confidently as we look backwards.

Soren Kierkegaard yearned to look forward as confidently as we look backwards.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard observed that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” A nice turn of phrase, but most of us already grasp the concept: The lessons learned from the past don’t remove future risk from present choices. Nothing’s guaranteed in the Casino of Life. We still have to place our bets and take our chances.

If we ever do learn how to understand “forwards” it would simplify decisions — especially those made in the voting booth. We wouldn’t get swept up in political campaigns that play on our hopes and fears. Instead we’d make logical choices among candidates whose futures were readily apparent.

Saturday’s elections seemed to reinforce Kierkegaard’s maxim. Mayor Mitch Landrieu captured nearly two-thirds of the vote and was decisively re-elected. Meanwhile, Landrieu’s predecessor, Ray Nagin, prepared to endure the second week of a corruption trial. News stories couldn’t resist the stark contrast between their respective fates.

Landrieu breezed to re-election with the same ease he came into office four years ago, when he won every precinct in the city save one.  That 2010 landslide was commonly seen as a buyers’ remorse election, because four years earlier — amid the ungodly mess after Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood — New Orleanians gave Nagin another term on the job. He beat Landrieu by four percent in a runoff.  We didn’t know then what we know now.

Testimony at Nagin’s corruption trial suggests that his alleged malfeasance was worse than most suspected. Federal prosecutors paint Nagin as a criminal who obtained payoffs for city contracts and leveraged his public office to secure funds for the granite countertop business he owned with his sons. This is far removed from the Nagin we thought we knew at the time: unpredictable but easy-going, bold but ineffectual. Prosecutors have presented evidence that shows Nagin making overtures for contracts to Home Depot executives.  Daily trial coverage describes Nagin offering to help the company ease out of an arrangement that would have required it to guarantee high-paying jobs for community residents.

If that’s true it means Nagin wasn’t clueless. He was actively selling us out.

Well, much has changed since the Nagin era. We hope. Under Nagin, we wondered if the mayor was too lackadaisical to ever follow through on his policy ideas. Now, under Landrieu, the concern is over-implementation. There’s no question about engagement, or who’s in charge, or the will to follow through. The problem now is whether the results of the mayor’s policies match his rhetoric.  And if they don’t, will Landrieu listen to critics who point out the disparity, or try to steamroll them?

The election might have been a lost opportunity for a vigorous public re-examination of the “discontent” over the city’s current trajectory. Both of Landrieu’s challengers, former judge Michael Bagneris and Danatus King, president of the local NAACP chapter, appealed to the notion that New Orleans is two cities— one blighted and languishing, the other ”new” and prosperous. The Dickensian scene they painted dovetails with an increasingly charged debate over gentrification — waves of new residents coming into historic neighborhoods. Ballooning housing prices (and property taxes) have meant rent increases for many longtime residents.

Instead of being “sold out” by a Nagin, focused on feathering his nest, allegedly through bribery and kickbacks, are we being “priced out” by Landrieu administration policies that favor an upper-crust influx that’s crowding out the poor? And if so, why?

At various intervals, we’ve seen the Landrieu administration freak out for fear that the city’s recovery will collapse due to ineluctable fiscal obligations that run into the billions. They include: flood protection upkeep, a sewerage system overhaul, federal consent decree expenses for the city jail and police department, and the firefighter’s pension bailout. Federal disaster-recovery dollars have dried up, and most residents who planned to return have already done so. Therefore, the city’s tax base must quickly expand to pay for these additional burdens or else … doom, apparently.

This summer, Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin rang the alarm in an op-ed that claimed “tough decisions” are necessary if New Orleans is to avoid Detroit-style bankruptcy. I wonder to what extent those decisions have already been made. Notwithstanding all their rhetoric about city unity, does Landrieu’s team essentially believe that the fiscal situation is so dire rapid expansion of the tax base is the only antidote to urban collapse? Is it gentrify now or go bust?

As higher-income people move in, will we see an exodus of low-income natives who are forced to move out of their suddenly “cool” neighborhoods? Where will they go? To the languishing areas that are affordable but still blighted and depressed? Will these neighborhoods, in effect, become the city’s “sacrifice zones”— collections of displaced locals who have to “sit tight” while the influx of taxpayers pays off the city’s debts and infrastructure expenses?

We’ll revisit these questions, because they will persist, but don’t worry: In five or 10 years, we’ll have a better understanding of the answers. Of course, by then we’ll have already voted in a new administration and be living (if we’re that lucky) with new problems. In the meantime, let’s interpret Landrieu’s re-election as the continuation of a conversation — not the end of one.

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