City Elections: Council District C

 

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I might lose some friends here, but I didn’t get into this blog game for diplomacy or flattery.

It should be operatic.

Nadine Ramsey beat Jackie Clarkson to replace Kristin Gisleson Palmer, to use her full sonorous trochaic/dactylic brand name. when she opted out of the last election, citing family reasons. Clarkson was termed out for her At-Large incumbency, and in the opinion of the majority of voters, fortunately, sold out and termed-out in general; nevertheless, she jumped into the District C race on a Mel Brooks-worthy quest to challenge her sell-by, with the support of the  gentrificationist gangs then financed and driven by Stuart Smith, who used them to more or less manage Clarkson in office. Some said it was the would-be neighborhood tyrant’s descent into criminality that made Ms Palmer think the safest option was to sit that one out.

Last Thursday evening, Nadine Ramsey and Kristin Palmer sat next to each other at a table at the front of the St Roch Community Church. I sat in the back, waiting for fireworks. They seemed too friendly. Would there be a third act?

The format was something like the stage shows they call “debates” in presidential elections, which don’t look much like anything that should properly be called a debate. The leader or “moderator” asked a question to be answered by both candidates – in this case also projected onto a screen, which was useful for keeping a check on whether the answers tracked near the questions. For the most part, they did. Give them their due: our council candidates do a much better job than the presidential comedians did in their shows last year.

The two candidates took turns to answer first, with a supposed two minute countdown on each answer, not strictly observed. The format was fair.

I’m not going to do a news report. The T-P and the Advocate have it hard enough already without me helping put them out of business. Just some points of particular interest.

Competition

This campaign should sharpen up. Answers had their edges sanded and smoothed, varnished and polished. After you, Alphonse. Challenges from the other candidate were rare. I want to see and hear policies and commitments in high relief and strong lighting. This campaign should have more red meat and white bone showing. It’s too much tuna salad for me so far.

Kristin Palmer is a strong campaigner. Good reflexes, fast-access memory, good at lists of things proving how wonderful she is, accomplished at leaving out anything that does not support her campaign persona as a tough, street-smart angel of the city. I felt like shouting out, “Come on, Nadine! Counterpunch! Step in. Challenge something. Kristin is shoveling some stuff here.”

More appropriate for McGregor-Mayweather, but you know – you can’t take me anywhere.

Then again, sometimes CM Ramsey did some whitewashing too, and while Kristin didn’t let everything by, challenges were few and ripostes to challenges fewer.

Housing

Asked about affordable housing, both candidates diverted the topic into expanding home ownership. Ms Ramsey wanted to make mortgages more accessible. I didn’t hear a lot of clarity about guarantees for people with no home ownership experience and jobs with low security, but it must be in there somewhere, because let’s remember something from 2007/8: let banks and mortgage hustlers get their unregulated hooks into relatively low income mortgagees, and you are setting the scene for increasing debt peonage and a land grab. Homeowner empowerment can turn to victimization with the tweak of an interest rate, and with neoliberalism still in the national saddle, care should be advised.

Kristin Palmer also did home ownership, adding in a fairly lengthy exposition of what she had done to make more houses available by acquiring properties in bad shape or blighted, fixing them up and returning them to the habitable market. I believe aspects of this refer to her time in office, and others to her time since.

Sorry, Kristin and voters, that sounds more like a small business to me than a serious approach to large-scale alleviation of a housing problem. Not to put the effort down, either as a private business or public effort, but the impact on New Orleans’ affordable housing market as a result of the work of one person of medium means is statistically hard to see with my political microscope. It is probably not even comparable to the tokenist position of some of our downriver neighborhood associations, who passionately espouse zoning rules that require ten percent of new market-rent residential buildings to be means-tested affordable, while sliding over the real numbers: a building with 90 apartments would have nine “affordable”; five buildings would have 45. Not 4,500 or 450. Forty five.

Tokenism can make the problem worse. While having little impact on the income/rent problem, it allows middle class advocates to feel like they have done something and politicians to have something to tout for their next campaign.

It is wryly amusing that while vocally advocating ten per cent affordable, the conservative neighbor-hoodies generally oppose permitting the building.

City government has to think and act bigger than this.

The candidates cited home ownership as somehow teaching or inculcating responsibility. Even if there is something in that, housing crises should not be converted into morality lessons. I am sure council would want to avoid another Desire or St Thomas, but the answer should not be to just give in. Tokenism is just whitewashing despair. Work toward a way to provide substantial numbers of subsidized rental apartments that work. If it’s hard, best get started.

Kristin Palmer touted her record on affordable housing advocacy during her term as CM for District C, before she pulled out of the 2014 election. Maybe. But let’s poke around in that time.

The Old Council

I’m not implying that it was her fault, but the Council in Ms Palmer’s term was a silly circus with a looney tunes tone set by the past-sell-by voice of Jackie Clarkson doing a parody of a Southern politician who could have played herself in a Carl Hiaasen satire. As an At Large CM, she was President of Council half the time.  Smarter members who knew they were dealing with a demented dinosaur went along with it anyway. Kristin Palmer was one of them. Like Trump’s accomplices when this nightmare is over, they should not be let off the hook for it.

One of that Council’s trends was to enable a particularly ugly brand of snobbish gentrification. The neighborhood clubs backed by campaign donors were pushing policies whose outcome would be higher residential property prices and increased residential segregation. VCPORA, the sharpest tack in that unlovely box, was dropping ordinances drafted by Smith’s interns on the desks of Clarkson and associates, with instructions to go out and get them passed. Smith, a lawyer gone crackpot, was trying to suppress music venues and bars, street players, restaurants near his or his friends’ houses – anything that might annoy him, and he showed symptoms of very high annoyability. I tried to make sure he was always annoyed, but probably didn’t have much effect.

As far as I could tell, the neighbor-hoodies’ position was that opposing building height and music they didn’t like – or more accurately, that Smith didn’t like – was the essence of historical preservation. For a while, they went on a toot against souvenir and T-shirt shops, during which they lowered themselves to the nostrils into cesspools of intentional injustice while reaching heights of operatic passion about ridiculous trivia of commercial zoning.

Smith seems to be out of the picture now, but VCPORA and FQC are still there. Their battlefield leader, Meg Lousteau, smart, capable and still in charge, has been generally reasonable since Smith left. But if Kristin Palmer wins the C seat, would we see the worst impulses of the gentrification mafia emerge again? NOLAscape recommends caution.

Some of you may remember that at one point in the FQ residentialists’ crusade of zoning fundamentalism, then-CM Palmer suggested – partly in jest but not enough – that Meg Lousteau should be deputized as French Quarter Sheriff to harass businesses that Safety and Permits was not prosecuting well enough to suit them.

The outcome of their policies is the creation of residential ghettos, generally segregated economically and culturally. Urban suburbs, the very opposite of the Master Plan that everybody claims to support.

I think Nadine Ramsey knows this better than I do. Why isn’t she saying so?

Everybody is too polite in this so far.

Police

And crime. The mainstreamers have to make a statement about more police, more policing money, more police technology – which might suggest some of the snazzy stuff with lots of screens rapidly locating serial killers by tracking their SIM cards that we see in movies about the CIA or the tech rooms in London. Don’t be confident: with the rear-view Trumpster occupation still barricaded inside the White House, cop tech is more likely to be street tanks, black armored suits and machine guns.

Ms Ramsey is way ahead on this one, but she says it too quietly. On crime prevention, she leads with youth, community and school programs and community relations policing. Palmer talks about more police, better retention, more recruits, better pay and conditions, fancier gear.

CM Ramsey probably walks softly on this even though she advocates the smart approach, because showboat policing plays to the gallery. Forceful policing, that Desirée Charbonnet and now possibly Kristin Palmer are pushing, probably works as a campaign ploy. But it is bunk.

Let’s try a thought experiment called “thinking.” It is not the same as outrage, backlash or reflex bouncing up from your preconceptions and prejudices. Scene: we are going to remember that this is the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated country in the world. In the world. Let’s remember that our prisons and jails are universities of felony and violence. To make it easy, we are going to envisage a black male teenager, brought up in a neighborhood and extended family where the cycle of police disrespect, brutality, arrest, plea deal and incarceration is everyday life. Now in our scientific experiment, we are going to ask ourselves: will NOPD having 1,500 instead of 1,100 police driving around in tough looking SUVs break the cycle and change that kid’s life? Will more machine guns and SWAT suits change our risk or get rid of the guns? Is that kid going to think, Wow, cops all over, Harassment even more than my brother told me about. I think I’ll just change my life and go to law school.

Police is post-crime action, not crime prevention. We need them, and we need them to be good, but get your expectations right. My observation: NOPD has been getting better. We have some fine commanders and good officers. Let’s not have some politicians show off by overriding development and improvement, trying to ditch the consent decree and inaugurate reform and revolution, as likely as not to turn into backlash.

Policing is like the medical and drug industries that afflict our healthcare. The action and the money in medicine is in sick people lingering long. You can’t sell a lot of prescriptions to healthy people or dead people. The money is in long-term illness. All the stents and bypasses and statin drugs churn many hundreds of millions of dollars of medical and pharmaceutical activity every year for post-diagnosis care, but they don’t prevent the diseases. Think of the police as your crime drug: radical symptom treatment.

Or think of it as territorial: moving crime around the map. Think of Sidney Torres’s French Quarter Patrol. Torres is unabashedly territorial. HIs FQ unit was wickedly effective. Street crime was under pressure in those blocks. But how many criminals took a look at Sidney’s rangers in their fast response beach buggies and decided to go straight? Get a good job at Wendy’s and pay 50% of their take-home for a small apartment? Compared, let’s say, to the number that simply moved away from the FQ patrol’s block?

I hope we are not collectively so reactive that any candidate wins an election based on the false crime/police equation. You don’t want that kind of mental limitation in senior management.

Homelessness 

Kristin Palmer advocated low barrier shelters. Good plan. Almost everybody of sound mind is for that, so at least a few of us, yet low-pressure, no-barrier shelters are still not there. The right question would have been: how are you going to make it happen?

Church and charity shelters frequently have early curfews and other restrictions, and subject the homeless to preaching and evangelism. I guess sometimes it gets cold enough outside.

Now I shamelessly segue to one of Ms Palmer’s more recent political interventions – problematical, interesting, deeply moving – and a disqualifier.

KGP, as she used to be tagged in the press, teamed up with Jim Kelly of Covenant House, a Catholic charity for troubled and homeless teenagers, to try to shut down a bunch of “adult” pole dancing and strip clubs, pushing legislation to block young women under 21 from working in the remaining ones. Her motivation is personal, and very moving, one of the great stories, undoubtedly well told in her sister Anne’s new brilliantly titled book, The Futilitarians.

But elections must be about public policy, not personal tragedy. Do we want council members legislating morality? Do we want the pulpit and the perpetually re-arising puritan revival pietizing inside City Hall? A gumbo version of the deep south and prairie culture wars? Another year or two of wasteful flap on private issues? Even if you are one of the piety persuasion that thinks city hall is the place to push church policy, where would you responsibly put a couple of pole dancing clubs on the priority list?

It can be great fun. At one point, FQMD got into trying to recommend legislation to regulate “doorway nudity” at the “adult” clubs. The motivation seemed to be that some delegates of the Convention of Minnesota Dentists said their wives were shocked and offended when they stepped out of the Sonesta into Bourbon Street and encountered the women either catching a break or hustling the club. And the children! What would happen to them if they saw that much female skin on one body. The committee tried to regulate permissible visibility by defining the number of inches allowable between armpit and bra strap. In one memorable episode, the Chairperson tried to get the director of the Vieux Carré Commission to serve as model for the measuring. Great deadpan humor, some of it inadvertent. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but it didn’t get any crimes prevented, homeless sheltered or housing available.

Clean up managements, stop some bad stuff, sure. But shut businesses down just because of the nature of the business they are in, put people out of work in the name of dubious morality, impose the policy of a religious institution – no. Think prohibition. With my deepest respect to the Gisleson family’s ordeal, Its politicization was an unrealistic, moralizing illusion. Let’s not revive its platform.

Back to the Future . . . .

Kristin Palmer is a strong, skillful candidate, but has been an unreliable council member.

Nadine Ramsey has so far been a less inspired campaigner, but a more reliable, realistic, thoughtful council member.

It is more than a little bit sickening that in coffee house and bar conversation some of this is attracting ugly racial rubbish. You hear people talking trash about the candidates’ supporters and sponsors – the black “mafia” v. the white power structure. Some I speak to want me to think that The Respectables of the riverside gentry are morally superior to Ike Spears and the Bourbon Street owners.

Crap. I have checked them out, face to face. Get over that fast. It’s a virus that will bloom into a sickness. If you are carrying that stuff in you, take something before it turns you zombie.

For moral values, I’ll take straightforward Bourbon Street and a few tough lawyers over the devious genteel and the pieties of the pulpit any day.

City Council

District C is big – too big. New Orleans does not have enough members on its council. Without studying it too closely, I’ll say Council should be expanded to at least nine immediately, and probably to 13 or 15 within two years. If this is the city of neighborhoods, let’s start acting like it.

Of course, that is unlikely to happen without some kind of intervention, because each council member has more clout as one of seven than as one of 15. Maybe we can find a way.

Sum Up

NOLAscape’s council recommendation: anyone who had any alliance with the dominant looniness of the Clarkson council should not be allowed back on that platform. Never.

Maybe James Gray can get a pass. CM Gray was on the Council when Clarkson was, but generally kept quiet and voted sensibly. Susan Guidry and Stacy Head came through it scarred and incompletely cured, but they will be termed out anyway, so no need for surgery.

Kristin is a capable, skillful politician. Let her run for state office, The bear pits of Baton Rouge will be more fun for her anyway.

Nadine Ramsey for District C.

© NOLAscape 2017

Reference: Who’s running, who’s not: http://www.nola.com/elections/index.ssf/2017/07/nola_votes_2017_qualifying_end.html

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