The Advocate Blog Network

Search
Banner image

Stacy Head’s secret weapon, on the campaign trail and at City Hall

If you watched Monday night’s PBS broadcast of “Getting Back to Abnormal,” you saw how effective an emissary New Orleans City Councilwoman Stacy Head had in Barbara Lacen-Keller during the 2010 election.

Lacen-Keller, a longtime neighborhood activist, member of the BOLD political organization and “Mayor of Central City,” as real mayor Marc Morial once dubbed her after she led the charge to build a new Sixth District police station, guided the sometimes impolitic Head across District B’s tricky racial terrain, vouched for boss’s good intentions and cajoled people into giving her a look.

The part that the film didn’t cover is that Lacen-Keller, Head’s director of constituent services, plays a similar role within City Hall.

In a joint interview before the documentary’s airing, Head said the two often work on “dual tracks” to make government more responsive. Head may be all about studying spreadsheets, researching best practices and holding administration officials’ feet to the fire, but it’s Lacen-Keller who has City Hall wired.

“I do things a certain way to try to fix the department. Meanwhile, Barbara goes over there and says, ‘Oh, honey, can you just fix this street light?’ She knows everybody in every department. She goes with a list,” Head said. “So while you’re trying to fix the structure, you have to acknowledge that it’s not going to be fixed tomorrow, and people that are relying on you want their pothole filled.”

In fact, Head credits Lacen-Keller for breaking through numerous bureaucratic logjams and helping new businesses like the Restaurant Depot on S. Claiborne Ave. get their doors open.

One side benefit to the approach? Recon.

“It also helps to know who’s really doing their job,” Head said.

Lacen-Keller brings just as personal a touch to her relationship with Head. She said she feels “protective” of the sharp-tongued councilwoman, and has been known shut the door and coach her boss on what she tactfully called her “delivery.”

During council meetings, Head said, Lacen-Keller sometimes sends her notes or Bible verses, and “sometimes she comes down to the council chamber when she thinks it’s going to be a hot button issue, and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to get mad.’ ”

Lacen-Keller said she wishes she’d intervened when Head had one of her storied showdowns, this one with civil rights icon and Treme Community Center director Jerome Smith back in 2008, still relatively early in her council tenure (there’s a brief reference to the incident in an early scene in the film, when a caller to WBOK brings it up).

Smith had come to the council to protest the actions of two police officers, one of whom had brandished a gun in front of dozens of children attending camp at the center, and one of whom allegedly did nothing in response to the 911 call. Smith argued that officers outside the Jewish Community Center would have behaved differently, and Head cited what she called his “blatantly racist statements” in threatening to cut off the camp’s city funding. She also wrote that she felt physically threatened, although Smith said he’d only vowed to unseat her through political protest.

If she’d been present that day, Lacen-Keller said, “I would have said, ‘Don’t go there.’ I would have said to her, ‘He wrong, I know he wrong, but don’t go there.’ ”

As with many of the councilwoman’s early critics, Lacen-Keller said, Head and Smith have long since buried the hatchet.

_______

Did you miss the show? You can catch it online starting Tuesday at pov.org.

And speaking of Edwin Edwards…

Are you one of those people who heard about Edwin Edwards’ post-prison, late-in-life attempted political comeback and thought, “Only in Louisiana?”

If so, maybe you’ve never heard of Buddy Cianci or ventured up north to Providence, Rhode Island.

Long before he embarked on his current quest to win a seat in Congress, Edwards set Louisiana records by serving 16 years over three separate runs as governor — and enduring four criminal trials, one of which ended in conviction for gambling-related corruption. After he got out of prison in 2011, Edwards, who will soon turn 87, went right back to living large; he married a woman 50 years his junior, starred in a doomed reality television show, and fathered a child using his 20-year-old “baby gravy,” as wife Trina put it, all before heading back out on the campaign trail.

For sheer audacity, staying power, and entertainment value, though, the Prince of Providence could give the Silver Fox a run for his money.

Cianci served as mayor of the small New England city twice for a total of 21 years, and presided over an urban renaissance. And like Edwards, he earned his share of black marks. His first stint at City Hall ended when he was convicted of using a fireplace log and lit cigarette to attack a man he believed to be romantically involved with his estranged wife. Six years later he stormed back into office, only to be targeted by federal investigators in the fabulously titled “Operation Plunder Dome” and convicted of racketeering conspiracy (one of the lead FBI agents on the case had actually asked to be assigned to “the Louisiana of the North,” according to Mike Stanton’s book, “The Prince of Providence”).

Now, at age 73 and on chemotherapy for cancer, Cianci, like Edwards, is back in the game. After whipping the local media and political establishment into a frenzy of speculation and anticipation, Cianci signed up Wednesday to seek a third stint in office.

‘‘If the people don’t want me, they don’t have to vote for me. I realize I have baggage,’’ he said after announcing his intentions on his popular radio show. ‘‘They know who I am. They know what I am. And they know what I’ve accomplished.’’

For a whole lot more on Cianci, check out this juicy profile from the Daily Beast.

Parish presidents for Graves

The roster of hosts for Republican Congressional candidate Garret Graves‘ Thursday fundraiser is eye-catching on several fronts.

For one thing, Graves, who left his job as head of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Office of Coastal Activities to seek the open seat, has clearly wrapped up the parish president vote — among those who can vote for him, at least. The list includes a dozen chief executives from a dozen parishes, both inside the 6th District and way outside, all the way down to the mouth of the Mississippi. In alphabetical order, they are: Pat Brister of St. Tammany, Michel Claudet of Terrebone, Guy Cormier of St. Martin, Tommy Martinez of Ascension, Paul Naquin of St. Mary, Billy Nungesser of Plaquemines, Mitchell Ourso of Iberville, Charlotte Randolph of Lafourche, Natalie Robottom of St. John the Baptist, Timmy Roussel of St. James, V.J. St. Pierre of St. Charles and John Young of Jefferson.

While Graves made headlines last year for vociferously opposing the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East’s lawsuit versus 97 oil and gas companies, his supporters point to a much longer record. Several sponsors attribute the strong showing to his work on coastal issues, and his prior experience as a Congressional staffer for former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin and U.S. Sens. John Breaux and David Vitter.

Young, who serves on the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority that Graves chaired until earlier this year, said he’s had a “great working relationship” with parishes dating back to Katrina and on through the BP spill.

St. Pierre, who organized the $500-a-head breakfast fundraiser ($2,600 for VIPs), concurred.

“Every time there was an issue, for drainage, for coastal erosion, he was side by side with us,” St. Pierre said. “He’s just been a great advocate for the coastal parishes.”

St. Pierre’s nod, along with those from several of his peers, is noteworthy for another reason. He’s a Democrat, and as we all know, there’s already a very prominent Democrat in the crowded field, a guy named Edwin Edwards.

So why would a Democratic elected official bypass a former Democratic governor for someone from the opposing party?

“You know, Gov. Edwards did a lot of good for this state,” St. Pierre sighed. “I just think his time has passed. It’s time to move on.”

At LABI, Common Core lets former Jindal aide show his independence

Stephen Waguespack’s appointment as the new president of the Louisiana Association and Business and Industry last year set off immediate speculation, and concern, that the influential business lobby might be overly cozy with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.

After all, Waguespack was a former top Jindal aide, and LABI a strong ally until that spring — when, under retiring president Dan Juneau, it helped torpedo the governor’s hopes of eliminating the state income tax and raising sales taxes.

On at least on one key issue, consider those concerns unfounded.

Jindal may have renounced his prior support for the Common Core education standards, but LABI remains all in. In fact, right after Jindal announced last week that he’d seek a way to pull Louisiana out of PARCC testing consortium and try once more to convince lawmakers to abandon the standards, Waguespack joined several teachers and parents in an online video in support of the status quo.

“We’ve got to raise our game, and that’s why these new standards are so important,” Waguespack says in the video. “I think Louisiana’s coming to terms with the same reality that most states are on the verge of coming to terms with. We now compete in a global economy.”

Actually, Waguespack’s position shouldn’t surprise anyone. Common Core has created a genuine schism in Republican politics, with tea party sympathizers raising raise alarms over federal control and a national curriculum, and corporate types insisting states are in charge and American workers need better training.

Jindal is obviously playing to the former, but Waguespack’s new bosses, LABI’s members, are largely in the latter camp. Lane Grigsby, a LABI member who in 2011 helped Jindal elect sympathetic members to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (which remains pro-Common Core), recently explained to LaPolitics writer Jeremy Alford just how far apart the former allies have grown.

“The business community has denounced Bobby Jindal,” said Grigsby, founder and chairman of Cajun Contractors. “We’re not turning our backs on him. That would suggest that we’ll forget about him. Business will not forget. I will not forget. I don’t intend to give up on it because young Jindal wanted to have national ambitions and screw over our children.”

Landrieu, Cassidy on fracking, St. Tammany

The unexpected challenge to Louisiana’s oil and gas orthodoxy in St. Tammany Parish presents a unique political dilemma for candidates in the tight U.S. Senate race. Should they stick to their usual, more industry-friendly-than-thou rhetoric? Or should they side with concerned (and extremely vocal) residents, as local politicians have done?

I recently had the chance to ask the two leading contenders their thoughts on the subject. And, not surprisingly, Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu and Republican challenger Bill Cassidy did their best to have it both ways.

Both started off by saying that they weren’t following the story all that closely. Both went on to restate their advocacy for fracking, the controversial procedure under consideration by developers of the site near Covington, and vouch for the procedure’s safety. Both also tempered their enthusiasm with nods to the idea of local control.

That last part is the rub, of course. Residents have been protesting the plan by Helis Oil & Gas for months now, raising concerns over, among other things, the health of the area’s main aquifer (if the project has any local supporters, they’re doing a great job of keeping it to themselves). But it’s not at all clear that local officials have any say over the matter.

In desperate search of an angle that would give it jurisdiction, the parish recently asked a judge to block the state Department of Natural Resources from permitting the project, on the grounds that it violates zoning laws. The legal filing also pointed to a recent legislative auditor report, which found that DNR was negligent in overseeing many of Louisiana’s abandoned wells.

Given the uproar, not to mention the plentiful votes up for grabs in the normally pro-industry parish, it’s no wonder Landrieu and Cassidy don’t seem at all eager to get involved.

Here, for the record, is what they had to say.

Landrieu: “I’m a supporter of fracking, and it can be done safely, and it can be done everywhere safety. But you do have to look at the individual drilling plans. And if the people of St. Tammany are concerned about their individual drilling plans, they’re doing the right thing by bringing it to the attention of their leadership, and, you know, the chemicals used in the process used should be fully disclosed and explained. But we’ve been doing fracking safely for decades, and it’s really the only way to reach the unconventional sources of oil and gas that the country needs.”

Cassidy: “Clearly communities have the right to decide what happens in their borders. We can be reassured, there’s lots of evidence showing that you don’t endanger aquifers with fracking. And I think that’s the big concern. There are other issues though… Communities have to be invested in it. Otherwise it will work against communities as opposed to for them. That’s not an issue that I have followed closely. I do know that (Parish President) Pat Brister is very much engaged in this, and that is the appropriate level where it should be.”

Is there a local angle to the Eric Cantor story? Of course there is.

As Congressional Republicans start sorting out just what happened to cause House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to be voted out of office by his own GOP constituents — not to mention what will happen next — one member to watch is 1st District U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise.

Scalise isn’t the Louisiana rep who’s most closely associated with the Tea Party sentiments that drove Cantor’s ouster; that honor goes to John Fleming. But he’s the most influential and best-connected true blue conservative in the delegation, and arguably in the entire House.

The longtime state legislator had to wait a while to get to DC. He deferred his ambitions in 1999 to support the party’s elder statesman, former Gov. Dave Treen — only to watch one of his peers, David Vitter, win the seat. After Vitter was elected to the Senate in 2004, Scalise again stepped aside in the face of a formidable groundswell for Bobby Jindal, who was fresh off an impressive but losing bid for governor. Of the three, Scalise was always the most natural legislator, and the most likely to stick around and work his way up.

Finally elected after Jindal became governor in 2008, Scalise quickly made up for lost time. He won his current position as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the caucus of more than 170 members dedicated to pulling the GOP agenda to the right, after organizing a grassroots campaign against the RSC’s founders’ anointed candidate. As chair, he’s brought a focus on energy and a willingness to forge alliances with business leaders put off by some of the Tea Party’s tactics, as well as with the party’s leadership.

Even before Cantor’s shocking defeat, Scalise was reportedly putting together a campaign for whip, the No. 3 post in the party’s hierarchy. Just hours after the polls in Virginia closed, he decided to go for it, according to a report in the National Journal.

He’ll likely have plenty of competition, but if he wins, Scalise will be the first local member to earn a high leadership post since yet another former 1st District representative, Bob Livingston, was chosen to be Speaker of the House more than 15 years ago. Livingston, of course, never assumed the speakership; instead, he resigned on the day of the Clinton impeachment amid reports that he too had strayed.

There’s another somewhat local angle to watch as the jockeying gets underway. One likely candidate to take Cantor’s place is banking committee chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas. It was Hensarling who fought so hard against fixing the Biggert-Waters flood insurance act to keep rates affordable that the leadership had to bypass his committee and take the measure straight to the House floor. Among those who maneuvered around Hensarling were Scalise and Bill Cassidy on the Republican side, Cedric Richmond and Maxine Waters, one of the bill’s original sponsors, on the Democratic side — and, of course, Cantor.

Maybe it’s just as well that New Orleans didn’t get the Super Bowl

It’s no secret that cities hoping to host the big game are expected to offer some big enticements. Still, a report over the weekend by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, home paper to the city that beat out New Orleans and Indianapolis for the honor of staging Super Bowl LII, contained a pretty eye-opening account of the league’s expectations.

The paper obtained a 153-page list of what it expected local governments and host committees to provide, including a shocking number of freebies.

The NFL asked for 35,000 free parking spaces, free billboards, free fancy hotel suites. The wish list included free access to three “top quality” golf courses in the months leading up to the game and two “top quality bowling venues” for the Super Bowl Celebrity Bowling Classic. The league also sought a waiver from licensing fees for up to 450 courtesy cars and buses.

Had New Orleans won hosting rights, what might have rankled locals most is the demand for hours upon hours of uncompensated police work. The league asked police to secure the venue and surrounding areas, as well as the NFL Experience, Media Day, and the official tailgating area, at no cost. It also wanted locals to develop an emergency plan encompassing not just police but EMS, public health, and fire — again, for free. Oh, and it asked for free police escorts for the league’s owners, who happen to include some of the wealthiest people in the country.

The process is extremely secretive and the paper could not determine exactly what the host committee agreed to, although a committee member said it had agreed to the majority of requested concessions. Nor could reporters determine how much of the cost is expected to be shouldered by taxpayers as opposed to private donors.

In fact, the mayor’s office says she hasn’t even seen the bid, “so we don’t know what was agreed to.” The host committee claims to have lined up $30 million in private pledges, which are probably a lot easier to secure in a city with a larger corporate base than New Orleans.

As they do in every place that competes for these big events, organizers in Minnesota say the exposure and economic activity makes the investment well worth it.

After Katrina, nobody in Mississippi would have complained about Thad Cochran

The slight majority of Mississippi Republicans who opposed U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran Tuesday — enough to push the six-term incumbent into a runoff with tea party favorite Chris McDaniel — may not get how lucky they were to have had Cochran in office after Hurricane Katrina struck the state’s coast.

Lots of people in Louisiana do.

Cochran, who chaired the Appropriations Committee at the time, initially stuck it to Mississippi’s harder-hit neighbor, ensuring that no state would get more than 54 percent of the initial $29 billion relief package — even though Louisiana suffered far more damage, proportionally, from Katrina, Rita and the levee failures.

On the other hand, Cochran also played a major role in convincing his skeptical GOP colleagues to loosen the purse strings in the first place, and on several subsequent occasions. That made him something of an indirect advocate for Louisiana, which had little of its own seniority and clout among the Republicans who controlled both chambers when the storm hit in 2005. Remember that the House Speaker at the time was Dennis Hastert, who questioned whether New Orleans should even be rebuilt (of course, things would have been far different had local U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston assumed the speakership in 1999 as planned, rather than resigning in the face of a sex scandal).

McDaniel portrayed Cochran’s brand of politics as a negative, and clearly lots of voters agreed, or didn’t vehemently disagree, anyway.

While there are huge differences between the two states and the two contests, that fact might be causing some discomfort for Louisiana U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who’s running on a similar record of bringing home the bacon, including billions in recovery money once the Democrats took over the Senate in 2007. Still, given how much harder Louisiana had to fight for everything it got from Washington, Landrieu may be able to count on voters here having longer memories.

Remembering John Maginnis

When I first started covering Louisiana politics twenty long years ago, a co-worker pointed me toward one book I simply had to read. It wasn’t “All the King’s Men,” “Huey Long” or “The Earl of Louisiana” or any other famous tome. It was John Maginnis’ epic romp through the 1991 gubernatorial campaign — the infamous “Race from Hell” — and it rocked my world.

“Cross to Bear” turned out to be a can’t-put-down introduction to the carnival of Louisiana politics, and one of those books that proves, yet again, that you just can’t make this stuff up. At once hilarious and infuriating, it burst with characters who were larger than life. John would give the credit to his cast — and yes, he had an enviable roster headed by Edwin Edwards, David Duke and Buddy Roemer — but he’s the one who made them jump off the page.

Once I’d gotten to know some of the people involved in that race, I picked it up again, and this time it amazed me for a different reason: Everything in it rang true. John didn’t exaggerate or embellish. He just understood the people he wrote about and captured them to a tee. No wonder they trusted him and kept talking to him, even after he’d shown them for what they were.

I wanted to pick up the book again this weekend, after hearing the sad news of John’s death, but I couldn’t find it. I’d loaned it out so many times that I suppose it was inevitable that it would go AWOL.

By now several other longtime colleagues have penned lovely tributes to John, so I won’t repeat what they said. I’ll just note that there’s a reason so many of the people who worked alongside him have so much to say.

For those of us who write about Louisiana politics, he was a north star. The best way to tell whether we were on the right path was to check whether we were following him. But he had no pretensions. He was approachable, generous, and eager to dish; talking politics always brought a glint to his eye and an ear-to-ear smile to his face. I don’t think I realized how much I hung on his ever word until I was forced to ponder watching Edwards’ comeback attempt and David Vitter’s gubernatorial quest and Bobby Jindal’s possible presidential run without John’s running commentary.

John died way too soon, but he was a lucky man to have enjoyed his life’s work as much as he clearly did. The rest of us were just lucky to have been along for the ride.

Old mayor, meet new city council

Last fall, when New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recruited Jackie Clarkson out of imminent retirement and introduced her as his choice for her old District C City Council seat, he made his intent perfectly clear: He wanted voters to return him to office, and he also wanted them to give him a council fully stocked with allies.

Well, one out of two ain’t bad.

The new council that was sworn in Monday and hold its first full meeting Thursday will likely be more independent, perhaps even skeptical, than compliant.

Three members won handily without the mayor’s backing: The two at-large members, new council president Stacy Head and vice president Jason Williams, as well as Nadine Ramsey, who cleaned Clarkson’s clock. Three, returning members Susan Guidry and James Gray and newcomer Jared Brossett, won with Landrieu’s support. The seventh councilmember, LaToya Cantrell, faced no opposition. She beat Landrieu’s endorsed candidate in 2012, but he was prepared to support her this time had she attracted a rival.

So give him three allies or four, depending on how you count, but not the five he’d need to sustain a mayoral veto.

Another sign of the times comes from the new committee assignments doled out earlier this week.

Head, long a leader of the loyal opposition, will take over the Budget Committee from Clarkson, which means she’ll have plenty of opportunities to get into the weeds and ask tough questions about the administration’s priorities. Head also now leads the Governmental Affairs Committee, so she’ll get a big say over whether his board appointees are confirmed and other matters.

Brossett, meanwhile, promises to be a friend of the mayor, but that friendship could end up coming at a price. In order to take city office, he had to resign his state House seat just as several contentious Landrieu-backed tax proposals started working their way through the legislative process.

Landrieu will surely enjoy having Brossett on the council, but up in Baton Rouge, this is one ally he might not be able to afford to lose.