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A look at the 2014 mayoral candidates, in their own words, Part I

21st January 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Six weeks ago, virtually no political prognosticator would have predicted such a fiery and competitive race for Mayor of New Orleans. Incumbent Mitch Land­rieu faces two capable challengers, retired Civil District Court Judge Mic­hael Bagneris and local NAACP Presi­dent Danatus King.

The temper of the contest shows Landrieu attempting to convince a majority-Black electorate, 40 percent of which backed him four years ago, that they should vote for him once more thanks to a city whose metrics have advanced under his tenure.

Conversely, King and Bagneris, argue that many local citizens have seen little improvement, and in fact, a steady decline. The challengers actively tap into frustrations within the African-American community craving a minority mayor for a majority-minority city, and at the same time, deriding Landrieu over the perception of an autocratic style and a blind eye to the less traveled parts of the Crescent City.

Landrieu points to the city’s advances, and glowing stories in Forbes, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal highlighting New Orleans’ Renaissance under his administration. Murders are down; business starts are up; public confidence polls are high. With Election Day on February 1, and early voting continuing through this Saturday, January 25, at City Hall, the Voting Machine Warehouse in New Orleans East, and (on Saturday alone) the Motor Vehicle Center at West End in Lakeview, The Louisiana Weekly convened a debate of its own.

So with the intent to inform the voters, this newspaper’s Editorial Board sent the same questions to each candidate. Over the next two editions, leading up to Election Day, we will print Bagneris’, King’s, and Landrieu’s responses — unedited and unabridged – so the electorate can draw its own conclusions for whom to support in the voting booth.

1. Why do you seek re-elec­tion/election as Mayor?

Michael Bagneris: I liked being a judge. I really liked being a judge. But, I love my city more. Our city is in peril. Our citizens are suffering from soaring crime rates, spiraling poverty rates, joblessness and economic inequality. Quality-of-life conditions are deteriorating. I was witnessing the rich culture of our City disappearing. We were becoming homogenous. My hometown was galloping at a rapid pace to become Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. I could not sit idly by and watch the City I love fall into the trash bin of metropolitan has-beens. After sitting on the bench for 20 years, I perfected the art of listening. I heard the frustrated voices of the citizens. Further, I learned a great deal about how to operate an effective government under the mentorship of Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial when I served as his executive counsel. I am a consensus builder. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s also a truism. Listening and learning taught me what to do, but more importantly, I know I can’t do it all alone.

Danatus King: I seek election as Mayor because it is an extension of the community work I have been doing for more than 30 years, the last nine years as president of the New Orleans Branch NAACP. I also seek election because many neighborhoods have been neglected and have not recovered more than eight years after Hurricane Katrina. Neighborhoods like the 9th, 8th and 7th Wards, New Orleans East, Central City and parts of Algiers. Those areas deserve the attention and resources needed to allow the residents of those areas to have an increased quality of life. I do promise to complete the entire four year term.

Mitch Landrieu: I love being the mayor of the City of New Orleans. I have run for this office three times, now four. I’ve worked hard to unify our city in the effort to rebuild New Orleans. Together, we’ve been able to put New Orleans on the right track. But there is more work to be done. Our problems won’t be solved overnight, but I want to continue to serve as Mayor because if we remain united — one team, one voice, one fight, one city — we can continue to keep our city moving forward. In 2018, our city will celebrate her 300th anniversary, and I dream about what we can accomplish by then.

2. What uniquely qualifies you for the job?

Michael Bagneris: My unique experiences as someone born in Tremé and raised in the Desire Housing Development who went on to be educated at St. Augustine High School, Yale University, and Tulane Law School, have allowed me to know firsthand what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck. I know what it’s like to live in a neighborhood that lacks basic city services. In my private practice as an attorney, I learned how laws help to shape our society. As Executive Counsel to Mayor Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, I learned how an effective government can help to address the issues that affect all of the City’s citizens. As a judge, I have learned that it is important to get all of the facts from the interested parties before making a decision. I believe that the skills and experiences that I have had uniquely qualify me to be Mayor of New Orleans because I can relate to all of our people, I have worked directly with one of the best mayors our city has ever had, and I can effectively collaborate with all of the other elected officials and stakeholders to address our city’s many serious issues.

Mitch Landrieu: I love New Orleans. Growing up one of nine children in the Broadmoor neighborhood, my commitment to our city grew from an early age. Now, my wife Cheryl and I have raised five kids of our own here in New Orleans.

I could not look my kids in the eye, or yours, if I didn’t wake up every day and work hard to rebuild our great city. Through-out my career in public service, I have sought to bring people together to get things done. For the last three and a half years, I have had the honor of serving as your Mayor. In that time, we have made great progress.

New Orleans is now on a roll, and our recovery is back on track. Overall crime and violent crime are trending down and murder is at a historic 30-year low. Our schools are improving. And our economy is getting stronger – 4,500 jobs in three and a half years. We’re now the fastest-growing major American city. But we have more work to do. I want to ensure that the recovery touches everyone and that we leave no one behind.

Prior to becoming mayor, I served as Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor, leading the effort after Hurricane Katrina to rebuild the tourism industry and the tens of thousands of jobs it creates. Before becoming Lieutenant Governor, I had the honor to represent the Broadmoor neighborhood in the Louisiana House of Represen­tatives for 16 years, where I built a strong record as a reformer. I also had a successful law practice for 15 years and became an expert mediator, focusing on alternative dispute resolution.

I have a strong record of bringing people together and making progress. I have the experience needed to get the job done — to create jobs, improve schools and make our city safer. As a long time mediator, I learned how to listen and bring people together to find common ground. Through growing up in Broadmoor and my Jesuit education (Jesuit High School, Catholic University and Loyola University), I learned the values of community service.

Danatus King: You can tell what a person will do by looking at what they have already done. My work in the community is documented.

Google my name and you will see the work I have done as a volunteer for the past 30 years. My work shows that I have the betterment of our City in my heart, the intelligence to identify solutions and the tenacity to stick to it until the work is done.

3. What are your top three campaign planks?

Michael Bagneris: CRIME: Our ability to combat crime has been seriously compromised by the substantial reduction in police levels, the lowest in over 40 years. The New Orleans Police Depart­ment had 1,537 commissioned police officers when the current Administration took office. Now, we have less than 1,200 and the number is continuing to decrease. We have been losing over 100 officers per year under the current administration. We must first address this problem by stopping the “blue hemorrhage” on the police force so that we can retain our current officers and recruit some of the experienced officers who left the force because they were dissatisfied with the leadership and direction of the force. This will be a top priority for my administration.

The Louisiana State Legislative Auditor and the New Orleans Inspector General have both recently issued reports finding gross under reporting or failure to report crime by the current Administration. Specifically, state auditors reviewed 1,000 NOPD incident calls from 2012. They found that 319 of them should have been counted among the most serious classification of crimes such as murder, rape and assault, but were not (see Louisiana Legislative Auditor Report on Crime Data of the City of New Orleans dated October 23, 2013). We must be honest about the real extent of our major crime problems in New Orleans.

Even the current Administra­tion’s claim for credit for a reduction in the number of murders in 2013 is misleading. First, the coroner’s office reported 164 homicides in 2013, but the NOPD only counted 155 murders. We are not given any information on the other nine homicides so we could determine whether they should have been counted as murders. Even with the numbers used by the NOPD, New Orleans has one of the highest murder rates in the country, more than 8 times higher than the national average.

Moreover, the real measure of violent crime is the number of people that are the victims of shootings or other aggravated assaults. In 2013, we had nearly the same number of shooting victims (over 700) as in 2012. The fact that less shooting victims died is in no way indicative of a reduction in crime. Additionally, the Metropolitan Crime Commission recently reported a 13 percent increase in “person crimes” which include robberies, assaults and rapes. There was also a 15 percent reduction in the number of arrests as a result of the much smaller number of police officers. As the President of the Metropolitan Crime Commission correctly observed, these numbers show that our City is not getting any safer.

In order to address this crisis, we must first change the leadership at the NOPD, and change the policies that are driving our experienced officers away from the NOPD. Such policies include attempts by the current administration to take away pensions from police officers, circumvent civil service rules by implementing a Human Resources Division for the NOPD, and a revised paid detail system that does not work for officers or the businesses that want to provide additional protection for their employees and customers. We then need to mount an aggressive campaign to hire experienced officers through an expedited program for lateral officers that are already post certified. Our targeted recruiting efforts would include returning military veterans and former NOPD officers who elected early retirement. As a temporary measure to supplement our diminished police force, my administration would seek assistance from the State Police, and possibly the National Guard until we are able to rebuild our police department to at least 1600 officers.

In addition to rebuilding the police force, we need to invest in quality after-school programs that help kids achieve better performance in school. Access to jobs is also a critical component to effectively addressing our crime problem. Until we can prepare our kids and our unemployed citizens for jobs, we will not be able to address the underlying causes of much of the crime in our city. I truly believe we can only move forward as ONE community with a common destiny — Black, white, His­panic, Asian, rich, middle-class and working-class. We must build a safer City for every neighborhood; every man, every woman and every child. PERIOD.

Economic Recovery and Development: Imagine a New Orleans that has a better quality of life for all, safer neighborhoods and a stronger economic foundation for a vibrant future. This is my dream for our city and the reason why I stepped down from the bench to seek the office of Mayor. Instead of building one city, we are developing a tale of two Cities. Certain segments of our city are improving, but others continue to struggle to recover. Too many of our citizens suffer from soaring poverty rates, high rents, underemployment, joblessness and economic inequality.

The City of New Orleans has made progress in revitalizing the tourism economy and re-establishing itself as an ideal destination for tourism, special events and conventions. However, the workers in that industry need to make a living wage. We will strongly advocate for an increase in the minimum wage for all of our workers. Based on 2012 Census data and a report by Greater New Orleans Comm­unity Data Center, a number of economic indicators show that there are significant deficiencies in Orleans Parish as compared to neighboring parishes. Although the City of New Orleans receives millions more in revenue from tourism than our neighboring parishes, the unemployment rate for the City of New Orleans is 7.6 percent — 30 percent higher than the neighboring parishes. The Median House­hold Income is the lowest in the tri-parish area. The poverty rate for Orleans Parish has increased to 29 percent — double the rate of surrounding parishes. The number of children in poverty increased to 41 percent, almost double the rate of neighboring parishes. Orleans Parish also has the lowest homeownership rates and the highest percentage of population with severe housing cost burdens (50 percent or more of pre-tax income on housing).

The trends in unemployment and cost of living increases show that we are heading in the wrong direction for many of our citizens. In 2013, Loyola University found that 52 percent of African-Ameri­can men are unemployed or have given up looking for work altogether. This is a huge problem for our city. We must train folks to do the jobs we anticipate having here. We cannot solely rely on tourism as the economic engine for our future prosperity.

I will focus on career pathway programs and community benefit agreements, with a dedicated focus on enhancing the skills of local workers to fill these jobs. We need to work with our City’s pension funds to encourage investments into local job-creating opportunities like affordable housing and infrastructure. The collateral benefit will be a reduction in crime and an increase in the local tax base. Further, I will drive home the importance of harnessing jobs in the film, construction, energy and medical industries for local, sustainable jobs. We must leverage our construction contracts to promote workforce development and job placement for our citizens. While the film industry has benefited from tax credits, we have not realized the local employment impacts that were anticipated. I will use my office to stress the need for local crews for sound, set building and lighting. The burgeoning Medical District must employ local, skilled labor trained for lab techs, medical assistants and related paraprofessionals. We cannot afford to import more talent while failing to invest in our homegrown community members.

The best way to grow our economy is to create more opportunities for our local and small businesses. Particularly in the construction industry, we need to provide financial assistance (through working capital lines of credit), bonding assistance and real monitoring and enforcement of the local and DBE participation ordinances.

We cannot develop segments of our city to the exclusion of others. My Administration will deal collaboratively with all the stakeholders. Much of New Orleans’ uniqueness and quality of life is tied to vibrant, strong neighborhoods with active engaged residents. I will make civic engage ment a cornerstone of my administration, and my policies and procedures. I will start by having my Economic Development Director work closely with each District Councilmember in creating development plans tailored to the specialized needs of their individual districts, their diverse neighborhoods, and “Communities of Interest” – individuals and organizations that come together around specific interests and affinities (such as health care advocates, environmental groups, education advocates, etc.). We will then coordinate those plans with our citywide economic development programs and the New Orleans Business Alliance to ensure an equitable distribution of resources that’s responsive to localized needs.

Quality of Life Issues: Education, housing, blight elimination and violence reduction are all issues that affect environmental quality. Specifically they weigh heavily on the psychological and economic health of an area. They are critical quality of life issues that in many instances are outcome determinative of the success of not only neighborhoods – but its inhabitants as well. In the area of blight eradication, we can benefit from another great push of civic involvement. Much of what has been accomplished is the result of efforts and resources garnered by neighborhood organizations, individual property owners and investors. The recovery progress would not be apparent without the involvement and collaboration of these stakeholders.

Blight elimination will be a major priority. Blight attracts rodents and drug users, all of which are detrimental to the overall health and security of our neighborhoods. One of our blight-reduction and crime reduction strategies is to work with a consortium of banks to provide low-interest mortgages to our police officers, firefighters and teachers to assist them in obtaining and rehabilitating blighted properties, which would be transferred at a minimum cost from NORA or the City. Such strategies work to reduce blight, increase homeownership, and enhance our neighborhoods. My vision of a healthy New Orleans will insure that our families can live in safe, decent, “livable” homes, including those converted from the blighted stock in our city. We would also explore the option of creating a “sweat equity program” (if you are below a certain income level and you commit to rehab a property, after completion of same, the property will be transferred to you at a minimum cost.). We would also explore public/private partnerships for the rehabilitation of additional blighted housing stock.

We will simultaneously train a new job corps, staffed by our unemployed/underemployed young adults – particularly African-American males. We will encourage them to earn their high school equivalency degrees while empowering them with a technical/rebuilding trade in construction. Thus prepared, they will be a critical part of rebuilding our blighted housing stock for themselves, their families, and the greater good of the community as a whole.

Our City deserves a more responsive and transparent street maintenance system. A Bagneris Admini­stration would work to­wards employing a repair system similar to the one used in Seattle, Washington. The City of Seattle’s goal is to repair potholes within three business days of receiving a report. Seattle has employed a Pot Hole reporting page that displays: 1) Pending Requests; 2) Work in Progress; 3) Potholes filed in the last 90 days and 4) Pothole repair history. While the work of the two Pothole Killers is never done, I believe our citizens would appreciate instant real-time information that could be gleaned from a Pothole Status Map on the City’s website rather than calling 311 to get an update on the status of a repair.

In the 21st century, our understanding of streets has changed. Now we know that people on the streets not only create more interesting places to be, but also help trigger economic growth and spur development. My Administration would support the creation of a Great Streets Development Pro­gram, similar to programs offered in Austin, Texas and San Fran­cisco, California. In Austin, the Great Streets Development Pro­gram has created a process to improve the quality of downtown streets and sidewalks while transforming the public right-of-ways into great public spaces. This program provides financial assistance to private developers with the cost of implementing streetscape standards that exceed the City’s minimum requirements. The program allows Austin to leverage needed [above and below ground] streetscape improvements from private developments by sharing the cost of implementing Great Streets enhancements. In San Francisco, these enhancements have included “Parklets.” Parklets are a new type of Pavement to Parks Project. Instead of reclaiming a piece of underutilized roadway at an intersection, Parklets repurpose two to three parking stalls along a block as a space for people to relax, drink a cup of coffee, and enjoy the city around them. The platform can include some combination of benches, planters, landscaping, bike parking and tables and chairs (in certain locations) all coming together to provide a welcoming new public space.

We also need to involve neighborhood residents in allocating infrastructure improvement re­sour­ces according to their own perceived needs. For example, during the Dutch Morial Administration, the Mayor gave the same percentage of street funds to each district to spend as they deemed appropriate on street repairs. The remaining percentage was used by the Mayor to address the major thoroughfares. Ultimately, all of these initiatives must be coordinated. My administration will work in partnership with our schools, the federal government, and private found­ations/donors to leverage all possible funding to make this city prosperous and safe for everyone.

Danatus King: 1. Hire a new Police Superintendent that can reduce the murders, robberies and other violent crimes.

2. Invest resources into the recovery of the 9th, 8th and 7th Wards , New Orleans East, Central City and parts of Algiers.

3. Enforce the DBE and local contractors ordinance to ensure the City’s contracting money stays in the city and helps our city.

Mitch Landrieu: Public Safety – Continue NOLA FOR LIFE’s focus on targeting violent gangs and investing in prevention and enforcement. Hire 150 new officers in 2014 with the goal of having 1,600 NOPD officers by 2018. Implement consent-decree reforms and go further by outfitting every officer with a body camera.

Jobs – Ensure that the people of New Orleans rebuild New Orleans through job training initiatives and strong DBE programs. Create tens of thousands of new jobs with historic investments in a new airport and S&WB infrastructure. Con­tinue the retail boom. Continue to attract and grow incentives for small businesses.

Keep the Recovery Going – Continue the $1 billion-plus building blitz across the city with more investments in streets, streetlights, park, playgrounds, and police and fire stations. Build on the success of eliminating over 10,000 blighted properties.

Schools and Opportunities for Kids – Champion ongoing efforts to improve schools, so that high school graduation rates and test scores continue to rise. Continue to improve the Summer Jobs Pro­gram for young people. Continue to increase funding for recreation, strengthen the public private partnership, and improve programming and facilities at NORD.

Unity – If we are united — one team, one fight, one voice, one city — we can overcome our challenges and rebuild New Orleans, not as she was, but as the city we’ve always wanted it to be.

Next week, Part II of the mayoral candidates responses.

This article originally published in the January 20, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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