With less than eight months to go before qualifying opens in the 2010 mayoral election, people all over New Orleans are once again asking the wrong question: Who is running? Who would make the best mayor? Who can lead us out of this mess?
Who? Who? Who?
No one knows the answer to that question, but that's OK ... because it's the wrong question to be asking right now. For generations, New Orleans politics has been personality driven. We keep waiting, hoping, praying for some political messiah to save us from ourselves.
Not gonna happen. Ever.
There are no messiahs, folks. No silver bullets, either. If we want a different outcome this time, we need to stop focusing on "who" and start asking some different questions: What? Where? How?
Specifically, what are our priorities as a city? What are our goals and aspirations? What do we want New Orleans to look like five years from now? Ten years from now? What are our strengths and assets? What are our weaknesses and liabilities? What resources can we muster to accomplish our goals?
That's just a start, but it's vitally important we start there and not with the "who" question. History teaches us if we start with the personalities, we'll never get to the important questions — we'll just keep running in place and wondering why the view never changes.
The next question is equally important: Where are we on this road to recovery, and where do we want this road to take us? If we don't know where we are, we'll never figure out where we're going.
Then comes perhaps the most difficult query: How are we going to get there? This quickly becomes a question of how much it will cost. As I said earlier, there are no silver bullets. Solving our problems and rebuilding our city will take sacrifice, single-mindedness and perseverance. Do we have that kind of will? Do we even have the discipline to focus on those questions without getting prematurely distracted by "who"?
To answer all those questions, we need honest dialogue across racial, geo-political, party and generational lines.
Now for the good news: recent history suggests we're up to the challenge. Consider the political reforms adopted since Katrina — all as a result of citizen-driven, private-sector initiatives:
• We merged area levee boards.
• We combined the city's seven assessors' offices into one.
• We are in the process of merging the civil and criminal courts, clerks and sheriffs.
• We established and funded a city Ethics Review Board and the Office of Inspector General, and the OIG already has exposed incompetence and corruption at City Hall.
• We pushed for greater transparency in city contracting and procurement practices — and more respect for public records laws. More work needs to be done here, but that will only provide fodder for the campaign ahead.
These post-Katrina accomplishments offer a partial answer to the "where" question. In many ways, we are on the right track. We just need to make sure we stay on course — and get the rest of the questions answered honestly and soon.
Once we do that, the question of "who" will be a lot easier to answer. At a minimum, when "whoever" shows up asking for our vote, we'll have a fine to-do list in hand. And woe to anyone "who" does not commit to getting it done.