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9.7.09

Landrieu pass illustrates weakening political position

There are two reasons why Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu seems to have closed the door on pursuing in 2010 the office his father held and one he twice has run for and appears to prize heavily, mayor of New Orleans – he can’t win because he’s white and his last name is Landrieu. In doing so, he also reveals his uncertain political future.

A 1994 run produced little result, but in 2006 Landrieu made the runoff and many thought he would win with a voting population near black-white parity. Despite being the least mono-racial election for New Orleans mayor in decades – an estimated 20 percent of blacks voted for Landrieu – still he lost to a deeply flawed and weakened incumbent Ray Nagin.

Since then, white candidates have won what in effect are city-wide elections – Arnie Fielkow and Jackie Clarkson have grabbed at-large city council spots although the latter in a special election, and Leon Cannizaro got elected as District Attorney with President Barack Obama on the ballot just last year. But Landrieu’s problem is that his name is not so much associated with his father that might help him with black voters relative to stronger black candidates, but his own and his sister’s that will hurt him relative to white voters.

What Landrieu learned in 2006 is that his support was a mile wide but an inch deep. Even facing the likes of the ridiculed Nagin, he could not entice enough black voters to abandon the incumbent that more than offset his solid white support, but at the same time too many whites see him as too liberal, in part because of professed comfort with big government, in part because he is linked with his sister Sen. Mary Landrieu, for him to stimulate the disproportionate white turnout that would vote for him to beat a quality black opponent.

Being lieutenant governor provides a steady paycheck and it’s the kind of job where it’s difficult to knock off an incumbent, but it’s typically dead-end. Until former Gov. Kathleen Blanco made the leap in 2003, it had not happened electorally. Craven ambition will lead Landrieu to want to vacate his present post eventually, and it is unlikely that conditions ever will change for him to make the mayorality of New Orleans likely. Thus, governor would be the next logical step, but whether in 2011 is another matter.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has had a rough spot here and there but at this point – and two years is a long time politically – he should not have much trouble for reelection purposes and still enjoys high popularity. Landrieu may be wondering whether Jindal will make a stab at the presidency in 2012 which would really require for him to have any chance of success that Jindal stand down for 2011. Recent policy failures by Obama especially as the economy continues to deteriorate and the essential exclusion of two strong opponents, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin voluntarily and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford somewhat less so, may encourage such a Jindal run, but chances are still that Jindal will wait until 2016 for additional burnishment of his record and possibly facing no incumbent for the White House if he chooses to run for it.

Thus, Landrieu probably will have to wait until 2015, creating plenty of time for other contestants for the state’s top job to emerge. Therefore, the real lesson of this admission of Landrieu’s is he lacks strength to go after what he wants now, and needs to wait out and hope for favorable contingencies to advance his ageing political career.

8.7.09

Hypocritical, immature legislators react to Jindal vetoes

More vetoes were rung up by Gov. Bobby Jindal, and more wailing and gnashing of teeth from the comically hypocritical to the ignorantly profane were issued forth by his ideological opponents.

One Jindal bill victim was HB 785 which would have created a new political subdivision with sweeping regulatory powers, causing concern for the governor. Despite the reasonableness of the objection, this left the bill’s author state Rep. Sam Jones sputtering, “I fear that maybe it’s punitive … the reasons given to me certainly don’t wash.” Jones argued it was similar to an existing local government elsewhere – but just because it’s been done before doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, and Jindal’s veto certainly was appropriate.

However, it’s not surprising Jones would think in terms of vindictiveness; as a member of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s Administration, he likely had input into the “punitive” vetoes she used to cast. Jones’s selective and situational indignation is thereby duly noted and snickered at.

But another author of a bill that Jindal struck down, state Rep. Walker HinesHB 781, reacted in an immature way on many levels. This bill would have created a new salaried political appointee and a new board with political appointees to study ways to deal with “homelessness.” Jindal vetoed it because he thought that it wasn’t necessary to spend over $600,000 extra of the people’s money during the next five years for the Department of Social Services to do this. Hines thought the federal government might pay for some of this, but spending taxpayer money needlessly regardless of the source never is a good idea.

Hines’ reaction to the veto was akin to what one might have thought had he been told Jindal personally had gone door-to-door kicking people out into the street and repossessing their homes on a whim: “This is a political retribution – for what, I don’t know,” he whined, and followed up by asserting that Jindal would have to answer to his Catholic faith for the veto – presumably meaning that somehow the action was inconsistent with “Catholicism” as Hines desires to define it.

Yet if Hines truly believes adding one more bureaucrat and a commission on the taxpayer dime is going to do anything to address this “problem” to such an extent that to oppose it threatens Jindal’s soul, he clearly has lost touch with reality and knows little about Catholicism (despite his biographical claim that he practices it). Although he’s probably familiar with this document that instructs us to take care of some possible side-effects of homelessness (Ezekiel 18:16 declares as righteous he “who gives his food to the hungry and clothes the naked,” although also we are told in 2 Corinthians 5:1 “if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God”), it appears he may not be familiar with this one, but in neither case do they declare that it is a matter of doctrine for the faithful to have government use additional resources to address a social problem like homelessness, nor does failure to do so constitutes sin.

Hines also may not be aware of Pope Benedict’s recently released encyclical Caritas in Veritate and that nowhere in it does Benedict make such claims. In fact, the use of government to force a caritas out of its citizenry, the philosophy behind Hines’ statement about Jindal, is something of a contradiction to its entire meaning.

We, especially us Catholics, must lament the lack of maturity, intellect, and knowledge behind Hines’ comments, particularly when they come from one who holds himself out as Catholic, and depressingly consider that these traits may be more the norm than exception among politicians of all faiths or of none. But through communication and prayer, we can hope that they understand what it means that we are (as Mark 12:17 instructs) to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” when it comes to wise public policy.

7.7.09

LA legislator's excuse reminds of her insignificance

So state Rep. Pat Smith is all upset because Gov. Bobby Jindal cast a line item veto against a project she sponsored. For the second year in a row, Jindal vetoed appropriations for the Louisiana Art and Science Museum in Baton Rouge, and what particularly galls her is entities such as the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame in Winnfield and Sci-Port in Shreveport escaped Jindal’s pen.

But to say it is a form of “retaliation” concerning her voting record, especially on a bill concerning disclosure by the governor’s office, is pure fantasy on her part. Reasons abound to demonstrate why.

First, while Jindal is never going to say he “retaliated” against any legislator, at the same time he offers a plausible reason for the vetoes – no regional impact compared to something like Sci-Port. Second, Smith was just one of many legislators to vote against Jindal’s preferences on not just that bill but also many more, so if that were Jindal’s decision criterion, a whole host of measures from a wide array of legislators should have been struck by him. Third, even if Jindal seemed to decide things this way, Smith was by no means Jindal’s biggest critic or obstacle to his agenda.

State Sen. Lydia Jackson, for example, sponsored legislation very opposed by Jindal to reverse already-implemented tax deductions. When the initial try was ruled unconstitutional by House Speaker Jim Tucker and not dealt with in that chamber, she tried again by amending her bill onto a House bill. On the floor in debate of these bills she criticized Jindal, and even in committee on a bill dealing with disclaimers on state publications she ripped into the Jindal Administration. She took every chance great and small to harangue Jindal over their policy differences, so if Jindal was in a retaliatory mood Jackson should be his obvious target. And – you guessed it – Sci-Port is in Jackson’s district.

It’s possible that a Jindal line item veto here or there might be designed to send a message. However, Jindal seems to do what he says in terms of projects meeting criteria such as public submission and discussion and statewide or regional impact when viewing the totality of his choices to retain or snip. Certainly the Baton Rouge museum didn’t close down because it didn’t get state money last year, validating the decision then and now.

And if Jindal were going to punish a legislator, let’s be frank, evidence is Smith simply isn’t that important or worth it. So the proper interpretation of her remarks is not that they have any validity, but that they reflect a big ego spilling out of a puny politician simultaneously searching to be taken seriously and to try to make excuses as to why she can’t deliver the goods.

6.7.09

Caddo schools play politics despite charter success

As a pair of its schools have officially gone under state control as of last week, political pouting by Caddo Parish school administration is going to get just that little bit more difficult as a result of the recent releasing of standardized test scores that cast more doubt on the direction the district is heading.

The results showed that yet another Caddo school has fallen into the danger zone that culminated in two such schools being taken over by the state’s Recovery School District at the end of this month. Ridgewood Middle School became the 14th, or now about one-fifth of the total, of the district’s schools to be put on the warning list. If there was any silver lining to this, it was on the basis not of overall scores as the previous 13 had been nailed, but on sub-groups scores.

To date, the other schools that have spent too many years on the list have escaped state takeover because of individual operating agreements made with the state while others have been subsumed into the “Caddo Plan” which is an attempt to create themed schools, pump in some more money to them, and tinker with personnel. Unfortunately, the latter is unlikely to produce the kind of change needed to get these schools up to snuff because it does not change the system that produced low performances in the first place.

In order to accomplish this, the district needs to look at the dramatic improvements seen in Orleans Parish. Most of the schools there have been taken over by the state, but that’s not what has really caused some impressive progress. Rather, it has been that almost all of the schools left under the Orleans Parish School District, and many now in the RSD, have become charter schools.

By way of comparison (for the exact methodology, please refer to a previous posting) at the 4th grade level in the RSD charter school students outperformed their regular school peers by 28 percent, at the 8th grade level in the RSD by 41 percent and in the OPSD by 43 percent, and on the Graduate Exit Exam in the OPSD (excluding the magnet high school Benjamin Franklin) by 53 percent. Keep in mind that, overall, these schools draw from similar populations and the typical per student cost in a charter school there was substantially lower than in the regular schools.

In short, charter schools have done much better in the education mission using fewer resources, primarily because they can avoid some of the bureaucracy and regulations inherent to the remainder of the monopolistic one-size-fits-all public school system, especially in personnel matters without great union interference and political machinations that often accompany questions surrounding teachers and principals. It should be no accident this was the model chosen by the state for the two Caddo school taken over.

Yet not only did the Caddo Plan decisively turn its back on the charter school model for its own revamping, but district administrators, claim everybody save the district itself, seemed to go out of their way to impede the startups of the incipient Linwood Public Charter School and Linear Leadership Academy, requiring state intervention to facilitate the transition. This should not be unexpected since in the eyes of too many Caddo administrators and School Board members these are now “competitors” and casting their eyes south they know they are unlikely to win a battle of achievement against them if history (and theory) is any guide.

Which is a lamentable attitude because it puts politics ahead of children. If things play out as expected, in a few years noticeable improvement will have occurred at the two new charter schools and they will have significantly better performing students than in the academically unacceptable schools still in the grip of the CPSD, absent any significant change from the district’s current course. Only then with this evidence may the district finally decide to move from trying to make a better buggy whip to creating an automobile by moving genuinely and enthusiastically in the direction of charter schools.

Meanwhile, years will have been wasted and children will have missed a better chance to reach their potentials. The lesson already is there; no rational reason exists for the district not to embrace the charter concept for its worst performing schools at all levels, only reasons relating to the continued maintenance of power and privilege of existing special interests inside and outside of the district.