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9.9.06

Talk now is cheap; next year Jindal will best Blanco

Tentative discussions have begun on who will run for governor of Louisiana next year. Chatter is fine, but it’s unlikely to change the basic scenario: Republican U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal defeating Democrat incumbent Gov. Kathleen Blanco in a general election runoff.

Other names are mentioned, but in the end they either will be smart enough not to run or even if they did it wouldn’t change anything. Democrat State Rep. Cedric Richmond may talk about how blacks are disappointed enough in Blanco to support a run by the likes of him, but he knows he’s a relatively little-known figure outside New Orleans with next to no racial crossover appeal. Besides, in the shrunken New Orleans that will lose legislative districts in the 2011 reapportionment, for him to have any political future in that coming legiscide he needs to have an elective office as a result of the 2007 elections, and for now his current seat is safe.

Republican State Sen. Walter Boasso has only been in politics three years and in the statewide spotlight just a matter of months. Dummies don’t get to head large corporations and CEO Boasso can see the last thing he needs is to oppose a juggernaut like Jindal in Boasso's current politically unseasoned condition when so many other appealing alternatives exist. He can confirm his safe seat reelection in 2007 and, if impatient, can take a free shot at the U.S. Third District if current Rep. Charlie Melancon manages to hang on this year in 2008 whose Democrats may well put at the top of the ticket a guaranteed vote-getter for Republican candidates everywhere – or perhaps even aim higher at the seat of the lite version of this person, Sen. Mary Landrieu. If patient, he waits one or two state election cycles with plenty of time to establish himself as the Republican heir-apparent to the governorship.

Marginalized in the state Senate, Democrat Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell successfully but narrowly escaped to his current position. However, surely he knows the swap that he calls for of income (both personal and corporate) and severance taxes for a processing tax on oil flowing into the state neither is practical nor would enough voters trust the state legislature to follow through on it. Populism may live on more vigorously in Louisiana than anywhere else, but you simply cannot win a statewide race now based on it, especially when you have opponents like Jindal with far more credible platforms. Campbell will need to save his funds to try to hold onto his PSC seat the year after.

However, Campbell is proving an irritant for Blanco because his rhetoric, even if he doesn’t run, tempts her to veer even more sharply to the left to squeeze him out. This literally plays right into Jindal’s hands, who couldn’t quite convince enough voters last time that Blanco was a liberal in moderate’s clothing. Her tenure in office has opened a number of eyes on that account, and her dismal performance during and after Louisiana’s hurricane disasters of 2005 did so even more. Add to that her winning margin against Jindal in 2003 basically has left the state courtesy of the disasters, and with opinion of her down a more than a dozen points in the past 15 months well below the 50 percent positive rating that connotes any chance of winning reelection at all, says she’s in deep trouble.

Blanco said she is running and has nowhere to go but down if she doesn’t so she’ll want to go out swinging. Jindal says he hasn’t decided yet, meaning he’s only 99.44 percent sure that he will. Unless weird things happen, nobody else will matter by this time next year, and Jindal will just have to avoid doing anything stupid to become the youngest governor since … Huey P. Long.

7.9.06

Louisiana political culture helps stymie minor candidates

It’s never a lot of fun to rain on somebody’s parade, to dampen their enthusiasm, but … people not running as Democrats or Republicans in Louisiana really have no chance of winning an election, or even getting close, and here’s why. (Stop. Before anyone can point out about this guy or this guy [District 2], read below and you will understand why anomalies like them can appear – but never beyond anything than what we could consider a locally-oriented office in this state.)

Paradoxically, it’s mainly because political parties are so weak in this state in the first place. Louisiana’s political culture has placed more emphasis on personalistic, rather than institutionalized, politics, than those we see elsewhere. In other words, political power is disproportionately vested within the individual politician relative to institutions when compared to other states. An oft-quoted example is the relatively weak formal powers of the Louisiana governor, but a long history of legislative kowtowing to her. (If this sounds a lot like the rule of strongmen or juntas or caudillos reminiscent in less developed countries, well, if the shoe fits …).

Parties are one of the casualties of this cultural strain. Historically (which means mostly the Democrats), individual politicians, usually governors, have dominated their parties even more than they do the Legislature. This style has created the weakest state political parties in America and explains why they couldn’t fire a shot when former Gov. Edwin Edwards pushed through the nonpartisan blanket primary system which reinforced their weakness (P.S. earlier this week a federal appeals court declared unconstitutional its version in Washington – stay tuned for this developing story).

Louisiana’s election system outside of federal offices illustrates the little value party labels traditionally have had in its elections. Simply, parties have no control over which candidates get their labels, period – no party primary where party affiliates, either wholly (closed primaries) or partially (open primaries) can choose the party’s nominee. Thus, potential aspirants to offices can choose whatever labels they want and the party can do nothing about it (remember this guy?).

Therefore, as long as you have a solid campaign organization and enthusiastic supporters (usually built around yourself or with another powerful political figure as your patron), as a candidate you can appropriate whatever label you like on your way to being a competitive candidate. And the more powerful you are, the easier it is to take a major party label and define it around yourself because the party apparatus can’t do much to resist.

One reason why we have seen more people run as “other” in contests (technically, one does not run as an “independent” in Louisiana) in recent years is part of long-term secular changes in American politics that have increased the number of self-identified independents and reduced the proportion of major party self-identifiers; as there are more non-Democrats/non-Republicans out there, more turn up in contests. But an “independent” label has next to no meaning; even if the major parties are weak in Louisiana, “Republican” and “Democrat” are labels with considerable content, are strongly defined labels, and have remained relatively stable in meaning for decades. Since these labels convey useful information to voters about candidates, even most of those who register as “no party” will prefer one of these candidates, given what the labels tell them (presumably) about the candidates.

Having a minor party label such as “Libertarian” will improve the fortunes of those candidates who shun the major party labels because it also conveys substantive information about a candidate – but not much improvement. Simply, at this point in time, the vast majority of Americans are comfortable with one (or both) of the broad coalitions, ideologically fuzzily-defined, that represent the two major parties, and will wish to vote for candidates with those labels. Until things happen politically that cause that to change, candidates unable or unwilling to use those labels in a general election will be disadvantaged.

This is especially true in Louisiana. Much is being made of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s battle to win reelection as an independent in Connecticut. Note that this never would have been an issue were that state not a closed primary state that lacks a “sore loser” law (about half the states prohibit losers of party primaries from running in the general election). But if Lieberman wins, it will be because of a personal following he has built, plus strategic defections from Republicans from their official nominee, and the fact Connecticut has a history much more amenable to accepting “maverick” politicians than does Louisiana (who in its history the best it can do is guys like the one above and this one – hardly a credit anyone sensible wants to acknowledge.)

As a result, to be honest, this fall’s slate, and likely next fall’s for statewide offices, of independent or minor party candidates doesn’t have a 10 percent, or 2 percent, chance of winning – it’s zero barring incredible circumstances extremely likely never to occur. But that doesn’t mean they ought not to try, because more choices in elections always are better, and I give credit to them for trying.

6.9.06

Bus drivers concern them, but does educational quality?

The incident involving a school bus driver who had black children sit at the back of the bus is not likely to go away given the agitation dozens seemed to have over the Red River Parish School Board’s decision to accept her resignation and to leave it at that. Without the bus driver to kick around, many now blame the School Board and top system employees for allowing the driver to “escape” punishment and have called for their replacement.

To gain perspective on this situation, it’s useful to review the demographic and academic statistics of the parish, which have shown the same basic trend over the past several years. Using the latest statistics available:

  • On the LEAP tests, only fourth graders begin to approach the level where at least half the students are classified as “basic and above,” meaning at least the other half comprise the two lowest categories. It gets worse for eighth graders and worst of all for those in high school (Graduate Exit Exam). The Iowa Basic Test shows all tested grade levels well below the national averages. Dropout rates double those of the state average. The average ACT score at 17.2 was so low that the typical graduate could not get into any selective-admission college in the state.
  • All three district schools (two others are excluded because one is alternative, the other correctional) are rated in the second-lowest category on the accountability scale (although two are showing demonstrable improvement, even as that is not difficult when they are so far down to begin with, one was a “school in decline”). This means they can be punished by the state if they don’t improve soon.
  • The parish’s school-age population is roughly even in terms of black and white children, but black students outnumber whites two-to-one. This is because 16 percent of the school-age population attends private schools, all but two of these students being white. Given performance indicators above, it’s no surprise families of one-sixth of the children would opt out of the district’s public schools.
  • Meanwhile, in the parish the percentage of persons living in poverty, about 30 percent, is more than twice that of the national average, while the proportion of children living in poverty at about 40 percent is 2.5 times that of the national average, perhaps due to the fact that 14 percent of households are headed by single females (over twice the national average) and the teenage birth rate at about 20 percent is also more than twice the national average.
  • Simultaneously, the average revenue per student is well over the state average, over 25 percent, while the expenditure per pupil is 18 percent higher. Given that the state runs a slight deficit in its averages that means that Red River Parish’s revenues outstrip its expenditures on a per student basis by 17 percent.

    Dozens of parents marched to the school board meeting over an alleged, unproven instance of racial discrimination. But where were they every year when statistics like this were coming out with certainty about the performance of their schools? Why no marches designed to pressure the School Board and system to improve its district’s shoddy educational performance? Was this the first time many of these parents even bothered to attend a School Board meeting? How many of them even voted in the last School Board contests? And is this the first time some of them even bothered to involve themselves in any meaningful way in supporting their children’s education?

    The bus driver problem has been solved, but many don’t want to leave it at that. The academic performance problem has not been solved, but many never seemed to have cared about that. Misplaced priorities such as these probably explain why these parents continue to tolerate the substandard education of their children.
  • 5.9.06

    Commitment to free markets will kickstart N.O. recovery

    In a recent analysis of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s performance in spurring recovery in the city, the author curiously proposes that he cure the disease by giving the patient the same medicine that has been killing it.

    Stephanie Grace argues that Nagin isn’t doing enough to stimulate recovery efforts by doing too little, because he believes in a market-driven solution whereas Grace thinks it’s a “reluctance to exert a heavy hand” which is causing slow development. In doing so, she displays ignorance about economics and human psychology.

    What Grace doesn’t seem to realize is recovery, if we define that as people returning to and enterprise spreading in New Orleans, will occur only when people wish to invest their time and efforts in it. And that is dependent not on anything that government does, including planning, but is on what it doesn’t do.

    Government that spends efficiently and wisely will attract development; government that doesn’t will not. Government that runs with a minimum of corruption will attract development; government that doesn’t will not. Government that slashes regulation will attract development; government that doesn’t will not. Government that understands it’s not there to redistribute wealth will attract development; government that doesn’t will not. And nobody with a straight face can argue over the past few decades that government in New Orleans (and, in fact, Louisiana) hasn’t done the things necessary to attract development – planning didn’t help then, and it certainly won’t help now.

    It may be news to Grace, but no plan in the world can stimulate New Orleans’ recovery, nor can government, especially one known by reputation by potential investors and intimately by its residents as such a poorly run, intrusive one. Free markets cause growth; government solely causes problems when it interferes with them (except in the case of extensive public works projects such as, in this case, levee building). Only free markets with any reasonable anticipation of how government intends to meddle, and minimally so, with them have any hope of bringing the progress Grace would like to see to the city – totally at odds with its recent policy history.

    At least she unconsciously stumbled upon the proper course of action. It’s not that Nagin and the city haven’t come up with a five-year plan or whatever which has delayed things, it’s that Nagin has done too little to reassure citizens and investors that government won’t interfere with their individual desires (and that the Army Corps of Engineers can’t yet completely guarantee a minimal level of flood protection, but hopefully that will be resolved by next hurricane season). Simply, he needs to follow the advice I gave months ago: declare which parts of the city will receive a normal (for New Orleans; to the rest of the world, inadequate) level of service, and which areas will face relative underprovision, then get city government otherwise out of the way.

    That’s all markets need to know to make investment decisions and for citizens “looking for signs of progress and guidance on how they can come home.” Whether Grace wishes to admit it, conservative principles, long abandoned in the city’s governance, exemplified by reliance on the market, promise to make New Orleans better than it ever was. Any government intervention beyond the above suggestion will keep it the backwater it had become long before Katrina hit.

    4.9.06

    Upcoming most meaningful Secretary of State race ever?

    Even if the Secretary of State is the third-ranking executive official in Louisiana, the citizenry typically has little interest in a position which, under normal circumstances, consists of shuffling a lot of paper (although in these times perhaps more accurately a lot of electronic files) and overseeing many of the states’ museums. But with the hurricane disasters striking in 2005, suddenly this contest has taken on a much greater importance, and not only because it is a special election.

    Republicans have two strong candidates in former party chief Mike Francis and current state Sen. Jay Dardenne. Only one Democrat eventually settled on the contest, state Sen. Francis Heitmeier. It’s difficult to come up with three more contrasting major candidates. Francis is known as a bedrock conservative but has no elective experience. Dardenne has reformist credentials but on some social and spending issues deviates from conservatism. Heitmeier is a liberal taxer-and-spender who engages in populist rhetoric and resides in the inner circle of good-old-boy politics that have dragged Louisiana to the bottom of quality-of-life state rankings.

    Heitmeier is almost certain to make the general election runoff, given his resources. Dardenne and Francis will fight for the other spot, with the former perhaps having the edge because of superior monetary resources to date (both he and Heitmeier bump up against senatorial term limits next year, but they can use cash raised for that office for this race, and they both have a lot). Regardless of who is in there with Heitmeier, who wins subsequently will tell us much about the state of Louisiana politics going forward.

    The potential importance of the office became obvious when current unelected Secretary of State Al Ater committed to a wasteful voter outreach program of information dissemination, and supported relaxation of standards to prevent fraudulent voting and creation of satellite voting centers – all of which cost state taxpayers millions of dollars with very little impact. Francis indicated he opposed all of this while Dardenne voted against loosening standards but for satellite voting and Heitmeier voted to parrot Ater’s waste and lowering of standards.

    The contest also serves as a harbinger of 2007 fortunes. With at least a couple of hundred thousand voters still displaced out of state, disproportionately Democrats and black, accentuating the continuing Republican realignment in the state, a GOP winner would confirm an accelerating trend and be only the third instance that a Republican not elected prior as a Democrat won a statewide state-level office as a Republican for an initial term (Gov. Dave Treen – incidentally, an ex-States’ Right partisan – being in 1979 and Suzanne Terrell as the lame duck Elections Commissioner in 1999). Heitmeier is the archetypical officeholder that has plagued Louisiana for much of the twentieth century, so to keep his ilk out of power would send a major signal that the electorate finally is ready to get serious in the 2007 state contests by potentially creating GOP majorities in all branches of state government.

    The importance of this office in Louisiana’s electoral history may never have been as high as it will be in this particular race.

    3.9.06

    Lee film public relations disaster for Louisiana

    Never mistake the vast majority of movie critics for sophisticated critical thinkers (although there are exceptions to that rule, one present, one past), which is why Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center drew jeers and Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke garnered applause at the Venice Film Festival – while the sensible American public probably is reacting in the opposite fashion.

    In almost a self-parody of their lack of intelligence, many critics thought Stone’s effort too emotionally-laden (and too pro-American) while they heaped praise on Lee’s effort which was nothing but an intellectually-void screed based on one long emotional whine that lacked utterly any real critical, sophisticated analysis of the politics surrounding Hurricane Katrina’s destructive visitation a year ago. And the punch line is it was Stone’s film that is fiction based on fact, while Lee took a story of fact and turned it into fiction.

    I haven’t seen World Trade Center but the public certainly has been blessing it at the box office. However, I have seen When the Levees Broke and can tell you that, among the American public, it’s probably going to do more harm than good if its goal was to arouse sympathy that produces a political payoff of more and quicker aid to New Orleans.

    This is because Lee, in his quest to argue that the response to the hurricane was conditioned by a callous conservative Bush Administration and racist America, has to highlight the most insipid arguments and whiniest people in order to sell that ridiculous thesis. Just to give some examples from the film:

  • A number of people criticized the rescuers' response, mainly led by the federal government, some casting aspersions that poverty and race had something to do with it. But turning on the History Channel later after the second part of the Lee film aired, one could watch a (genuine) documentary on the tremendous efforts made by federal troops to rescue people, and after that you would have to conclude the Lee film must have been about some other disaster, given the truth you had just seen compared to the people he put on camera describing it.
  • Others whined about how they were cooped up for days then sent to distant locations, oblivious to the fact that the American taxpayer were coughing up all the money to pay for this and first responders from all over the country were putting their lives on the line to help them out. Do these people even know the meaning of the word “gratitude?”
  • Still others were pictured standing around, carping about all the things they had lost (a couple drinking beer in the process), not truly realizing that that was all they had lost, just things. They had their lives, if they had common sense they had had insurance, and, while they were waiting around for others to help them after their $2,000 blank check courtesy of the American taxpayer (assuming it wasn’t spent fraudulently with other bogus claims), others were taking matters into their own hands and pulling themselves up from bad luck (curious that Lee never obviously showed any of the destruction – or steady rebuilding by residents – in mostly-white hard-hit Lakeview). Lee never bothered to put the latter on camera.
  • After a pedestrian media career, liberal radio talk show host Garland Robinette transformed himself from drive-by talking head, corporate shill, and occasional concealed weapon-carrier to be everybody’s angry man after the storm, and in the film pugnaciously and obnoxiously carried out his wild man act, accusing the federal government/Bush Administration of slighting Louisiana – despite the fact that the slow pace of recovery has been almost entirely attributable to the actions of state and local politicians. Viewers probably don’t know that Robinette largely has been AWOL in substantive (as opposed to easy shots, admittedly numerously provided by Louisiana politicians) criticism of those politicians before and after the storm.
  • Perhaps the most asinine comment of all came from Tulane professor of history and frustrated wannabe Kerry Administration member Douglas Brinkley, author of an entirely simplistic, inadequate tome on the disaster, who said more explicitly than even Robinette that the feds/Bush were shortchanging Louisiana on relief money. So he’s telling us that the lion’s share of the recovery money which is going to Louisiana provided by the Bush Administration/Congress totaling $110 billion isn’t enough? That the typical American taxpayer who has paid $2,000 each for this gift isn’t coughing up enough? (Actually, few taxpayers will pay that much; a small percentage, America’s higher-earners, will pay the majority of it.) How much is enough, $250 billion?

    Not all vignettes feature such crass people and attitudes. A few reinforce the idea that big government by its nature is inefficient, showing people with legitimate gripes and heroic struggles who acted much more gracefully. But what the casual viewer gets out of all of this is a highly-distorted picture of what Louisianans and New Orleanians are like. Through Lee’s prism, they come across as self-important claimers of victimhood who are entitled to impose on the generosity of America.

    Again, the people portrayed and commentators utilized no doubt represent the distinct minority of those affected by the hurricane, and, again, Lee needs these kinds of people to try to fob off his view on an American public which has become increasingly skeptical of the need to spend larger and larger sums on an area representing a half of a percent of the American population that has a well-deserved reputation for dysfunctionality in governing. But this film just manages to achieve the reverse: it only reinforces America’s impression of Louisiana as blaming others for problems it could lead in solving, preferring to waste its time by sticking its hand out demanding no-strings-attached charity.