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Hightower, looking to future, left Shreveport worse off

Shreveport ex-Mayor Keith Hightower left office last month after eight tumultuous years. And while it’s true that the long-term impact of some of his decisions will define how his reign is evaluated in the future, not to understand the motive behind those decisions misses a complete understanding of his tenure, and of his future in politics.

Odds are pretty good that, to some degree, the city’s convention center (actually envisioned by his predecessor Bo Williams) but especially its accompanying hotel will be albatrosses around Shreveport’s neck for decades to come, siphoning valuable tax revenues for their subsidization, retarding the city’s progress. In isolation, the poor decisions made by Hightower to implement these would seem to constitute merely an error in bad judgment.

But there’s another piece to the puzzle, and that is Hightower’s insistence on practicing an ideology formed by the political culture in Louisiana that sees governing as an exercise in putting government first and people second in order to reward friends and to punish enemies. The liberal populism that has infected the state argues that government is to be used against any individual liberty that does not maximize rewards to certain interests. Thus, he entertains an exclusive, divisive ideology that, rather than aiming to create an environment that maximizes all people’s chances of achieving individual ends, instead deliberately rewards certain interests at the expense of the people.

Hightower, through his penchant of making public policy decisions that appeared to favor certain elites (his so-called “circle of friends” and supporters whose political muscle was needed to keep him in office) at the expense of good judgment (such as with the hotel deal), epitomized this good-old-boy trait in the state. It started almost from the beginning of his first term and lasted until the very final days of his second term.

So, the failure of Hightower’s leadership that will increasingly become manifest as the years roll by, stemming not from only poor decision-making, but from a wanton disregard of the entire public weal that caused those decisions to be suboptimal. That characteristic of Hightower’s mayoral run itself will become more obvious as time advances.

Which is why if he is to have any future career in electoral politics, he needs to act sooner rather than later. A number of people at present, those either who have profited from Hightower’s time in city government, or who share his liberal populism, or whom prefer symbolism over substance, or whom simply aren’t adequately informed, would continue to support Hightower’s future ambitions. It’s the latter group whose support will erode over time, and the rest cannot provide enough political punch to keep him elected.

Their support will fall off when they know the real Hightower record. Hightower spent tremendous sums of money on projects that promise to weigh down the city rather than to preserve its infrastructure (the costs of which were then passed on to ratepayers), giving it a crushing debt with a declining capacity to pay for it, allowed spending to spiral out of control, and had crime increase from 18,510 offenses reported in 1998 to 30,440 in 2005. Given all of that, the best his supporters can come up with in pointing to any substantial contributions of his was that he made for a more “positive” attitude. This, of course, is belied by the fact that the city’s population decreased about 8 percent in his years, both well behind the miniscule gain made statewide and much larger population gain nationally.

Salesmanship, as Hightower has implied, may be useful in generating a perception whether it corresponds to reality and to persuade people to vote for you, but it will go only so far in light of an inferior record opponents are willing to publicize. As time passes, fewer will believe his conjuring and the warts of his decisions will become more apparent. That’s why a 2008 run for the U.S. House may be the only chance for the continued shelf life of a politician whose governance style has no place in a progressive Louisiana searching for self-improvement.

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