Hurricane Katrina exposed a lot of ugly truths about our city and state, but the storm also brought a lot of things into focus. For all the damage, for all the heartbreak, for all the pain and death and loss that Katrina inflicted, she also left in her wake a profound sense of urgency among south Louisiana voters.
And that changed everything on the local political landscape. Consider the following:
• The storm ended the career of Gov. Kathleen Blanco and catapulted current Gov. Bobby Jindal into office. Before Katrina, Blanco was well positioned for a second term.
• It exposed Ray Nagin's incompetence and narcissism and forced him to become the "Chocolate City" mayor to get re-elected; but, ultimately, Nagin's monumental ego, pathological insecurity and political fecklessness prevented him from succeeding as a mayor.
• It laid bare the inability of the former Orleans Parish School Board to manage a broken system and spurred lawmakers and Gov. Blanco to take over more than 100 failing local schools. As a result, New Orleans for the past five years has been on the cutting edge of American educational reform, with more charter schools — and some of the most improved public schools — than any school district in the country.
• It inspired a citywide coalition of citizens to demand radical changes in the state's balkanized system of levee boards. A push to combine all levee boards failed to achieve that goal, but several did merge in southeast Louisiana.
• The single levee board movement spawned successful drives to merge the seven New Orleans assessors' offices into one and to combine the city's bifurcated judicial systems. As a result, New Orleans now has one sheriff and soon will have one clerk of court and one set of district court judges.
• With a lot of help from the U.S. Justice Department, voters threw out corrupt Congressman Bill Jefferson in 2008. Jefferson's venal abuse of his office was such a turnoff that voters replaced him with an obscure, soft-spoken, Vietnamese-American Republican named Joseph Cao. Today, two years after his upset win over Jefferson, Cao is fighting to retain his seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic 2nd Congressional District. No one is writing him off.
• A group of business and civic leaders convinced utterly incompetent District Attorney Eddie Jordan to resign in October 2007. Jordan's elected successor, former Judge Leon Cannizzaro, is now rebuilding the office.
• New Orleans voters, long accustomed to casting ballots along racial lines, have "crossed over" in record numbers since Katrina. Consequently, a city that is nearly two-thirds African-American has a white mayor, a white DA, a Vietnamese-American congressman, a majority-white school board and a majority-white City Council. It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a "white takeover," however. White voters helped elect Erroll Williams, a black incumbent assessor, as New Orleans' sole assessor, along with several black candidates for citywide judgeships.
I believe the seismic shift in local voting patterns reflects a generational shift. Young black voters in particular seem to reject the race-baiting tactics of the old-line black political establishment. In coming elections, look for a new generation of young professionals — black and white — to assert itself politically.
The institutional reforms of the last five years would never have happened but for Katrina. The storm was a terrible tragedy, but it inspired New Orleans voters to squeeze 40 years' worth of reforms into less than five.
And they're not done yet.