In The News › Half-full, half-empty, or plain broken?

Apr 6, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Half-full, half-empty, or plain broken?

Half-full, half-empty, or plain broken?
Candidates all have ideas on city’s budget
Thursday, April 06, 2006
By Gordon Russell and Brian Thevenot

In the fourth debate of the campaign season, six mayoral candidates stuck to
their scripts Wednesday night, with two Republicans hammering at what they
called a crippling entitlement mentality and four Democrats touting their
experience and proposals for leading the city out of its post-Katrina shambles.

Perhaps the most interesting, and telling, exchanges came in response to a
couple of pointed questions from reporter Dave McNamara of WWL-TV, which
hosted the debate. McNamara first asked each candidate how they intended to
pay for city programs in the face of predictions that City Hall is nearly broke.

Former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson, a Republican, answered the question
— as she has answered most posed during the four debates — by saying that her
signature proposal, a “tax-free city,” would provide the relief. When pressed on
how she would pay the city’s bills, she said the money would come from
federally guaranteed bonds — a giant loan.

Mayor Ray Nagin, a Democrat, said Washington would never buy into Wilson’s
idea, and shot down his earlier proposal for a even a 50-percent tax break.
Nagin also claimed that the city’s fiscal woes aren’t as dire as some claim, and
said he plans to meet with officials from 10 banks today in hopes of landing a
$150 million line of credit.

Businessman and lawyer Rob Couhig, a Republican, chided his opponents for
promoting a “fantasy” that the city can continue operating on a budget meant for
nearly half a million people when less than half that many remain. He said he
would warn people in sparsely populated areas that police protection and other
services would be minimal.

Lawyer Virginia Boulet, a Democrat, said she believes the city should consider
going through a bankruptcy reorganization to jettison some of its debt, a course
laid out in a report issued Wednesday by two watchdog groups, the Bureau of
Governmental Research and the Public Affairs Research Council.

Audubon Insatiate CEO Ron Forman, also a Democrat, said he would try to
access federal block grants to help the city escape its monetary doldrums.
And Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, also a Democrat, said the city needs a “turnaround
specialist,” and said he was “surprised” Nagin hadn’t hired one. He also said
federal laws should be tweaked to allow disaster aid to be spent on government
operations — currently prohibited under FEMA rules — and said the mayor
should lobby the state to continue paying for New Orleans’ services based on
pre-Katrina population levels.

Advice to homeowners

But many of the candidates only vaguely answered McNamara’s question about
what advice they would give homeowners in areas of the city — including eastern
New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward — where the Army Corps of Engineers
has said it will be unable to certify levees without hundreds of millions of dollars
in additional money from Congress.

Couhig and Nagin, for instance, both noted that the area of the city between the
Industrial Canal and the 17th Street Canal was safe, and left the heart of the
question mostly unanswered.

Boulet, meanwhile, floated the idea of giving property in the heart of the city to
residents of those areas and telling them to hold onto their old properties with
the hope that those sections will be safer in the future.

Come together

The debate at times devolved into candidates shouting over one another, largely
due to an unusual “jump ball” format that the station used for the first half-hour.
That allowed one candidate to answer a question — but others to jump in
whenever they pleased, rhetorically elbowing one another for time at the
microphone.

Later in the debate, when the format became more structured, many candidates
often lapsed into vague campaign platitudes.

For instance, Forman throughout the night eschewed specific proposals in favor
of broad statements of belief. His theme in the debate seemed to be a need for
“coming together.” Indeed, he offered that as an answer to four different
questions.

Asked about trailers and related housing issues, Forman said, “People are
desperate for information. The first thing we have to do is come together as a
team,” referring to city, state and federal agencies.

On crime, Forman suggested the need to “work together” with the FBI and other
parishes. On evacuation plans, he said, “We need to all get together with one
plan, and we need to rehearse it.”

On healing the city’s racial divide, he said: “The city needs to come together,”
and noted that he had worked with many of the city’s past mayors “with one
Orleans residents.

Only once did Forman appear to offer a specific idea: when he spoke of passing
a bill that would require the signatures of at least two judges before a criminal
bond could be reduced.

Forman was by no means alone in his repetition. Wilson, for example, used
every question to hammer home her pet themes, including her idea for a “taxfree
city” and her contention that former Mayor Marc Morial’s administration
mired the city in corruption. She pointed out on two occasions that Landrieu and
Forman had supported Morial politically.

She further continued the use of racially charged buzzwords that have brought
her some criticism. She insisted that “gangbangers, pimps and welfare cheats”
not be allowed back into public housing, without specifying exactly how such
ne’er-do-wells would be identified.

Asked to heal the city’s racial divide, Landrieu asserted that he was the only
candidate in the race with substantial appeal to both black and white voters and
decried the use of racially charged code words such as “welfare queens,” which
Wilson has used previously.

“Bad comments about how we feel about each other, like ‘welfare queens,’ or
saying the city should be all black, or all white, that hurts us. The city’s never
been all black or all white. Our beauty comes from our richness.” Couhig agreed,
and also called out Nagin for his use of “chocolate city,” and adding candidates
“need to stop pandering for political gain.”

“We need to set an example by never discriminating against anyone on the
basis of race,” he said.

Nagin highlighted the fact that he’s taken fire from both black and white critics,
offering that as proof of his even-handed dealings on questions of race. Creating
a booming economy, he said, would ease racial problems by narrowing the gap
between haves and have-nots.

Wilson did not address the question directly, instead alleging that government
corruption created “the scenes at the Superdome.”

The root of all evil?

While many debates have included the Rev. Tom Watson, WWL chose not to
invite him. The station instead used a selection process that weighed fundraising
heavily, which prompted an angry response from the pastor.

“They didn’t want to see money I was putting into my campaign, they wanted to
see external funds,” he said Wednesday, “the kind you get from cutting deals
and the kind that has included nepotism and corruption in City Hall.”

. . . . . . .
Frank Donze contributed to this report. Gordon Russell can be reached at
grussell@timespicayune.com or at (504) 826-3347. Brian Thevenot can be
reached at bthevenot@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3482.

Apr 6, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

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