Steven Bingler Credit: Concordia

Twenty years ago I asked a friend, a prominent Wall Street investment banker, if he ever came across deals that might benefit New Orleans. His answer was blunt. “I would not suggest investing in New Orleans,” he said. “Everyone knows that New Orleans is a politically corrupt and risky place to do business.”

It was an embarrassing moment. I didn’t have a good response.

In the post-Katrina era, we have made strides pushing back against that culture of cronyism and corruption. Citizen groups and community leaders across the city deserve credit, as does Mayor Mitch Landrieu for supporting and furthering the progress we’ve made. The question is whether the momentum will be sustained as the Landrieu team leaves City Hall.

During the 1970’s and early 1980’s I worked for a large architecture firm that was very well connected politically. It wasn’t hard to see that these connections came at a cost, both financially and ethically. The money flowed out the door in the form of campaign donations to mayors and the City Council. The bacon brought home was in the form of large design commissions with little oversight.

In 1983 I left to start my own firm. Soon after, I had a conversation at an Uptown cocktail party with a prominent insurance broker. He asked me whom I would be supporting for the upcoming City Council elections. When I told him that as a matter of principle I would not be making contributions to anyone’s campaign, he seemed puzzled: “How will you stay in business?” he asked. “You know how the game is played.”

The game, of course, was “pay to play.” Whether you were an architect, an engineer, an attorney or accountant, the rules were the same. During the election season you were expected to “pay” by making campaign contributions, and then, if your candidate got elected, you could expect to “play” as your firm was awarded government contracts.

In some cases the elected official was free to designate who would get the work; in others, the quid pro quo was camouflaged by a rigged request for qualifications (RFQ) process, in which potential consultants were asked to submit their credentials to a preselected committee of political appointees.

The intent was to bring down the curtain on the bad old days when zoning variances and building permits went to developers and contractors who had tendered the largest campaign donations or outright bribes.

I remember participating in such a process in St. Tammany Parish many years ago. We were one of about 20 architecture firms from across the region that had been invited to make five-minute presentations of our qualifications to the local school board. In the waiting room, I sat next to a politically connected colleague. When he asked what project I would be getting, I naively responded that I had just been invited to present my credentials. ‘Well, I guess you ain’t got one then,” he responded.

Partially because of this unsavory ethical climate, many local professionals like me chose to look for work in places where campaign contributions from professional consultants were, at the very least, frowned upon, and in many jurisdictions illegal.

A colleague who moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina put it this way: “I am originally from Wisconsin, a very Germanic culture where such practices are unheard of and definitely frowned upon and illegal. Sadly, cronyism is a fact of the business world, which transcends any locality or subset of society. The difference in the New Orleans area seems to be the systemic nature of the practice – the cultural acceptance of it, if you will.”

Local professionals are not the only New Orleanians put at a disadvantage by sleazy politics. My investment banker friend’s distaste for New Orleans’ heavily politicized business environment has been shared for decades by corporate leaders and financiers all across America.

The upshot is a key factor in our municipal economy’s over-dependence on tourism. The failure to diversify our economy has doomed too many New Orleanians to low-paying jobs in the hospitality industry.

Since the oil crash of the 1980s, more hotels and restaurants have opened, with hundreds more beds to be made and meals to be served by low paid New Orleans residents. Meanwhile, major corporations have packed up and moved away — the oil companies to Houston, Freeport McMoRan to Phoenix, Avondale shipyard operations to Pascagoula, and so on.

As contracting practices become more orderly and transparent, perhaps major corporations will reconsider New Orleans. I know I have.

Although the majority of my firm’s public work is still in other cities, over the past six years we have been selected to design several New Orleans projects, including the renovation of two public libraries, a new police station and a community playground. All of this in spite of our never having contributed a dime to Landrieu or any other politician currently running for office.

Am I suggesting that all campaign donations from prospective government contractors be outlawed? Some of my colleagues argue that they must be free to make such contributions, not because they want to wield political influence, but because it is their duty in a democracy to support the candidate of their choice.

I faced a similar dilemma in the notorious gubernatorial election of 1991, when Edwin Edwards, a former Louisiana governor of dubious ethical instincts, took on Ku Klux Klan zealot David Duke. When it looked like Duke was surging, I donated $1,000 to Edwards, but with a stipulation that were Edwards to win, as he did, I would take my firm out of the bidding for any state projects in Louisiana. I have no regrets for making that sacrifice.

The future of our city is at stake, and a skeptical world is watching to see if we can pull it off.

Should exemption from government contracts be mandatory when they’re controlled by a candidate favored with a contractor’s donation? I’m not a lawyer or a legislator, but such a policy might be worth a look.

The city’s economy is healthier than in the pay-to-play days, and I see a connection.

Since Hurricane Katrina, our community has had an opportunity to reorganize and reboot some of our most critical and visible public agencies and institutions. We voted by referendum to imbue our Master Plan with force of law. The intent was to bring down the curtain on the bad old days when zoning variances and building permits went to developers and contractors who had tendered the largest campaign donations or outright bribes.

After Hurricane Katrina, the state also took over our corrupt and failing school system, two of whose recent presidents have been jailed, and redirected much of the decision-making to citizen-run charter school boards. After a lot of wrangling, most decision-making authority was recently passed back to the elected school board. The jury is still out on whether the anti-corruption reforms will endure.

Efforts to reverse or simply ignore some of the changes are being led by politicians who either don’t understand the importance of the reforms or who are hungry for the slush money that flowed their way under the old regime.

I’m worried. The Landrieu years are over. New Orleans could easily slip back into the ethical swamp from which it has only recently emerged.

The price of clean and functioning governance is eternal vigilance. As the campaign season comes to a head on Election Day and a new mayor and council members are installed, I would urge New Orleanians to pay close attention to any erosion of standards that suggests we’re reverting to the corrupt system called pay to play. We need to demand confirmation from the candidates that there won’t be any backsliding. And after the winners take office, we need to watch them closely.

In the interest of our children and grandchildren we must continue our post-Katrina quest for higher ground. The future of our city is at stake, and a skeptical world is watching to see if we can pull it off.

Steven Bingler is the founder and chief executive of Concordia, a New Orleans firm specializing in architecture, planning and community engagement.

Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.