The Commission on Presidential Debates came to town last week to take a close look at us. They should have been impressed. New Orleans is among 19 cities bidding for the honor of hosting one of the three 2008 presidential debates or the single vice-presidential debate. Like the others, New Orleans' bid includes a strong academic tie -- a collaboration between the nonpartisan civic group Women of the Storm and four local universities: Dillard, Loyola, Xavier and Tulane. Most if not all of the other cities vying to host one of the debates would hold the event at a university. In New Orleans, it would be at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which has been extensively refurbished to state-of-the-art standards after Hurricane Katrina.
Choosing New Orleans should be easy for the bi-partisan commission, for many reasons.
For starters, post-Katrina New Orleans remains at the top of every responsible presidential candidate's list of domestic priorities. That's a doubled-edged sword. Some are quick to note that our city was essentially abandoned by the federal government during and immediately after Katrina. For that reason, it's foreseeable that the Republican members of the commission will want to avoid New Orleans at all costs rather than hand the Democratic nominee a club with which to beat up the GOP nominee during a debate here. But it's equally true that America has never had to deal with a catastrophe of Katrina's proportions. As Mayor Ray Nagin is fond of saying, there was no playbook for this one -- not on the local, state or federal levels. Moreover, southeast Louisiana is in the throes of recovery, thanks in large measure to federal aid. Holding a debate in New Orleans, therefore, should not serve as a reminder of past failures, but rather of future possibilities. "There simply is no other place in the United States to encapsulate all the issues for America's future leaders to address," wrote Dillard president Marvalene Hughes in a Times-Picayune op-ed column last week. "We are New Orleans. We are Louisiana. We are America."
Tulane president Scott Cowen sounded a similar note in his op-ed: "In many ways, New Orleans, a city renowned for its frivolity and carefree ways, grew up over the past two years as it faced the myriad challenges of Katrina. Now, we find ourselves at the nexus of many pressing issues that impact the lives of every American citizen and should be among the core concerns of those contesting to lead our country. Can you think of a better place for the leading candidates to debate the role of government in responding to human need, the importance of the environment, the balance of domestic and foreign priorities, education, health care, energy policy, trade issues, crime and matters of race and poverty?"
Another reason to hold a debate in New Orleans is the unique alliance among four outstanding universities -- plus Women of the Storm -- that forms the basis of our city's bid. Other cities will no doubt put forth offers based on a single campus, as has been done in the past. Here, however, a diverse array of students and faculty members from four universities will join forces to work with commission staff, media and the campaigns to make sure the event unfolds flawlessly. "By joining together with a grass-roots organization like Women of the Storm to have a cooperative bid, we hope that the site selection team will be inspired by our level of unity and commitment to the future of our city," says Xavier University president Dr. Norman Francis, a nationally acclaimed educator who also chairs the Louisiana Recovery Authority. "We have a great city to offer and our combined student populations represent a diverse array of cultures and interests where learning together is a very important message to send."
Then, of course, there's the venue: the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The site of so much suffering in the immediate aftermath of Katrina has reopened stronger than ever as a meeting and convention site. The commission got a chance to see firsthand last week that the convention center would make an absolutely perfect setting for a presidential debate. It is pre-wired for live broadcasts -- indeed, such telecasts are routine during big conventions and medium-sized corporate meetings there -- and there is abundant room for parking and staging areas in and around the center. It's also in the heart of New Orleans' robust downtown, offering media ample opportunities for "live shots" and "cutaways" before and after the debate. From a purely technical standpoint, New Orleans should be the hands-down favorite for televising a live presidential debate.
Finally, there's the city itself, with its legendary cachet as the world's greatest host. As New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau president Steve Perry noted, accommodating visitors is "our core business." It's what we do, and we do it better than anyone else.
"This historic American city is renowned for its hospitality but, in our bid to the commission, we focused on our future and not the past because that's what a presidential debate is all about," says Women of the Storm founder, Anne Milling. "We have upgraded facilities, technical capabilities and the logistical power to host world-class events like Super Bowls and the world's largest conferences. This know-how will lead to a flawless hosting of a 2008 presidential debate."
The commission will announce the debate sites in the fall. For many reasons, New Orleans should be in that number.