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.