On the morning of July 19, New Orleanians opened the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate to receive another slap in the face from conservative Louisiana. Baton Rouge Republican Eddie Rispone, who is running for governor, paid for a full page ad to ridicule New Orleans’ solidarity with the immigrants that Republicans love to publicly abuse. Knowing full well that Trump lost New Orleans miserably in the 2016 election, he must also know that the ad’s big letters proclaiming ‘DONALD TRUMP IS RIGHT’ could only be viewed as an insult by the people of New Orleans.
But the ad is not meant to persuade New Orleanians. In the political race to the bottom led by President Donald Trump, Louisiana conservatives have determined that New Orleans can play a role in the endless divisiveness that they thrive on. They intend to maximize their white suburban voter turnout by demonizing New Orleans and promising to punish the degenerate people who live here.
Rispone’s letter is a reminder of how hostile the Louisiana Republican party is toward the people of New Orleans. But the fact that he ran the ad in the local daily newspaper is evidence that the suburbs of New Orleans—where many T.P./Advocate subscribers reside— are also way out of step with the values cherished by the vast majority of New Orleanians. Trump has poisoned a lot of relationships in our country—between people of different races, different religions, different regions of the country, different levels of educational attainment, genders (by preaching the pseudo-masculine gospel that being an obnoxious jerk is manly), and between cities and their closest neighbors.
The support for Donald Trump in the immediate environs of New Orleans is a reminder of the roots of many suburban residents in New Orleans itself, and the conditions under which they left. The general view of the ‘white flight’ suburban exodus of the 1960s-1980s, here as in other cities, is tragic. People point to the loss of a prosperous tax base (now returned) and to growing segregation of greater metropolitan areas. But there’s also a great silver lining to the wrenching process of white flight: as the most racist white residents fled for the suburbs, American cities became more liberal and more committed to anti-racism as a defining feature of their identity.
This does not mean that all people who migrated to sprawling suburbs did so out of racial animus, nor that today’s suburban communities are homogeneous enclaves of white racists. Indeed, as cities become more expensive, the polyglot immigrant metropolis that used to be an urban phenomenon is now much more common in suburbs. The city of Kenner is a prime example. I personally know lots of left-leaning residents of Jefferson Parish, in particular, where Hillary Clinton earned a far greater share of votes in 2016 (40%) than Trump got in Orleans Parish (14%).
But the political leadership of suburban parishes of New Orleans, more than suburbs of larger cities like Chicago, New York, L.A., etc, remains in the grip of white conservatives with deep resentments of the city where their ancestors used to reside. The problem for New Orleans is in the way that white flight suburbanites continue to feel a sense of ownership over the city they abandoned decades ago. In many cases, the ownership is tangible, as many suburban residents continue to own property in New Orleans. This is another factor that exacerbates the division, since absentee landlords rarely have the same interest in a community that residents do. We saw this irreconcilable tension in the state legislature last session, when Kenner Republican state senator Danny Martiny promoted a bill that would prevent the people of New Orleans from requiring developers to include affordable housing units. When Democratic governor John Bel Edwards vetoed the bill, he did so at the behest of New Orleanians. Martiny, on the other hand, was representing his own constituents, who do not live in New Orleans and could care less about the quality of life here. Their main concern is the return on their real estate investments, which might be less lucrative if the people of New Orleans insist on affordable housing. They view New Orleans as something like a coal mine—a dangerous, dirty place that you don’t want to live in but that can make money for you, as long as someone else does the dirty work of living and working there.
For many other white flight suburbanites, their sense of ownership over New Orleans is more cultural. Advocate columnist Dan Fagan is the perfect voice for this kind of suburban conservative. His columns are obsessed with New Orleans and what’s wrong with it, even though he chooses not to live here. When he’s not heaping disdain on the poor choices of New Orleans voters, he’s praising Louisiana for being one of the most pro-Trump states in the country. Though most of his columns are the usual talk-radio right-wing boiler plate, he wrote one a couple of years ago that shed light on the identity of white flight suburbanites who can’t shed a sentimental attachment to the cities that their ancestors called home. “If you do live in Metairie, you can always do like me when you travel. Tell people you are from New Orleans. Then, when you get home, your house will be dry, you won’t get shot or mugged, and people elsewhere will still think you are cool.”
The problem is that New Orleanians definitely do not want white flight pro-Trump conservatives telling people they’re from New Orleans. They do not live here because they despise the values that we expect our own elected leaders to embrace. This is why we need to try extra hard, wherever we go, to let people know that New Orleans is not Trump country and wants nothing to do with Trump country.
Though Louisiana Republicans like to demonize New Orleans when addressing a Louisiana audience, they take a very different tack when addressing national audiences. Then the trick is to falsely suggest that New Orleans supports their views. That’s what Jefferson Republican Congressman Steve Scalise tried to do when he rudely injected himself between the City of New Orleans and our treasured guests at this year’s Essence Festival. He took it upon himself to lecture the Democratic presidential candidates who came to a Democratic city to pitch their proposals. He said he hoped the Dems would learn some “Louisiana values” while they were in New Orleans. But how can they do that when New Orleans values are clearly so different from what he calls “Louisiana values?”
Metairie State Senator Conrad Appel, speaking to a local audience on his Facebook page, dropped Scalise’s veneer of hospitality and called Essence Fest goers and New Orleanians idiots for holding the political views that we do, especially regarding immigration. Dan Fagan, of course, agreed with Appel that black people, like New Orleanians, are unable to represent their own interests. Like Scalise, Appel and Fagan are apparently deeply bothered that America’s largest national convocation of African-American women happens in New Orleans, though New Orleanians are rightly proud of this honor.
New Orleans’ elected leaders promote values that are antithetical to the ones spouted by Trump, Dan Fagan, and most of the elected leaders of New Orleans’ suburbs. If John Bel Edwards does lose in November, it won’t be because of threats from Eddie Rispone and other Republicans. It will be because too many New Orleanians will not be able to vote for a man who signed a law forcing women to have their rapists’ babies. It’s going to be a tough choice for New Orleans voters, but the specter of a Trump wannabe like Rispone or Congressman Ralph Abraham (R-Monroe) in Baton Rouge will be a great motivator.
I’m happy, however, that our city council made the position of the people of New Orleans clear in their unanimous repudiation of the draconian abortion law that Governor Edwards signed, even though their statement has no legal effect. We have an election for district attorney coming up in 2020. At-large councilman Jason Williams has announced plans to run, though current D.A. Leon Cannizaro has not announced yet. I’m pleased that Williams was so vocal in his opposition to the recent state abortion ban, saying “let’s stop doubting women.” I hope he will go further and promise, as D.A., not to prosecute safe abortion providers, just as forty other district attorneys across America have done.
The July 19 threat letter from GOP gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone is offensive also in the way it denies the agency of the people of New Orleans, just like Conrad Appel’s comments suggest that black people are unable to make decisions for themselves. Rispone promises that no one in Baton Rouge can protect us when John Bel is gone. That may be true, but the letter claims that New Orleans is a sanctuary city only because John Bel Edwards wants it to be, as if New Orleanians themselves have nothing to do with that decision. (For the record, the city does not acknowledge the ‘sanctuary city’ label). Again, a Louisiana Republican is unable to accept the choices made by the New Orleans’ electorate. While Republicans love to talk about “states’ rights” in opposition to the federal government, they’re not big on local rights in opposition to the state government. Again and again, the State of Louisiana seeks to prevent the people of New Orleans from governing themselves as they see fit. Sometimes they win, as when they once again blocked municipalities from raising their minimum wages. And sometimes they lose, as when they failed to stop us from taking down our Confederate monuments in 2017.
That was a particularly stinging loss for them, because it was such a visible act of separation between New Orleans and the politically conservative surrounding area, especially since the Republican Party has so unapologetically taken up the banner of white supremacy in the Trump era.
Trump has made the local divide so much worse just because Louisiana Republicans are among the Trump movement’s most dedicated enablers. While some Republican-leaning suburban districts in the United States are ambivalent about Trump, the elected representatives of New Orleans’ suburbs are gung-ho for the new dawn of white supremacy heralded by their party’s standard-bearer. There’s no way that New Orleans, a city that proudly promotes its “gumbo” culture of mixed ancestry, can ever get on board with the white nationalism that the Trump movement represents. Louisiana Republicans need to know that their celebration of Louisiana as “Trump Country” bespeaks a Louisiana that does not include its great city. The closer the suburbs get to Trump, the further they get from New Orleans.
C.W. Cannon is a native New Orleanian and the author of four novels, including “French Quarter Beautification Project” and “Sleepytime Down South.”
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