Nervous anticipation always accompanies the inauguration of a new governor, and all eyes are on Kathleen Blanco as she begins to fill key vacancies in her administration. The nervousness is justified, because it's not just a question of who gets a new job. The larger issue is the political and fiscal fallout after a changing of the guard.
Blanco is getting tugged in many directions these days with regard to key appointments, which is typical of a Democratic governor who owes his or her election to a diverse coalition. Among the major players in the unfolding political drama is the Legislative Black Caucus, which appears to have gotten the short end of the stick so far. African-American legislators have been grumbling for weeks about the paucity of black committee chairs in both the House and Senate -- particularly for New Orleans' black legislators.
Blanco supporters no doubt will point to Sen. Diana Bajoie's election as president pro tempore of the Upper Chamber, but that post is purely ceremonial. Moreover, the pro tem cannot serve as a committee chair, so Bajoie had to give up her chairmanship of the Senate's Local and Municipal Affairs Committee, one of the most influential posts a New Orleans lawmaker can hold.
Now that legislative chairs have been named, the discussion has turned to top-level administrative and Cabinet appointments. Here again, black legislators have voiced concerns about the direction (or apparent direction) that Blanco is taking. A major flashpoint is the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which oversees the state's sprawling prison system.
Most of those incarcerated in prisons across the state are African-American males, and Louisiana leads the nation in number of persons jailed per capita at more than 700 per 100,000 residents. We also lead the nation in number of persons incarcerated in local jails -- roughly 400 per 100,000. Moreover, jails have become big business in Louisiana in the past decade and a half.
The atrocities cited at the Tallulah juvenile prison, coupled with the high cost of incarcerating thousands of non-violent (and mostly African-American) prisoners, have thrust the Department of Public Safety and Corrections into the political and fiscal spotlight. The man who heads that department, Richard Stalder, has had the job for 12 years now. Stalder began his term, ironically, under now-incarcerated former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who at least enjoys the "benefits" of a Texas jail rather than one of the Louisiana dungeons built or authorized on his watch. Former Gov. Mike Foster reappointed Stalder in 1996.
In the wake of perceived slights from Blanco and her hand-picked Senate and House leadership, black lawmakers are drawing a line in the dirt over Stalder's job. A committee of Blanco transition team members sent up three names to lead the department, and Stalder's was not among them. Well, not initially, at least.
Stalder's name has since been added to the short list, reportedly after political pressure from sheriffs, who are his biggest supporters. Sheriffs have as many reasons to back Stalder as black leaders have to oppose him. As head of corrections, Stalder has authority to place state prisoners in local jails -- operated by sheriffs -- for which the sheriffs' offices are paid $22 a day per prisoner. Thousands of state prisoners, in fact, are placed in local jails. Multiply that times 365 days a year, and it's easy to see why the sheriffs love Stalder.
But the whole matter of warehousing non-violent black men -- treating them like "commodities," says state Sen. Don Cravins of Arnaudville -- is understandably a hot-button issue for African-American leaders and citizens. Cravins, who is black, doesn't mince words. "They're profiting off the poor," he told the New Orleans Tribune. "They've turned people into products and commodities."
To make matters worse, when Stalder's name was added to the short list, the name of Griffin H. Rivers, a former deputy secretary at corrections, reportedly was removed or down-graded. Rivers, who is African-American, is the candidate favored by the black caucus. If Rivers doesn't get the job -- and, equally important, if Stalder retains it -- Blanco may lose some key allies in the black caucus.
This is just one of many insider dramas being played out in Baton Rouge these days, but it's one that is likely to generate political fallout in all corners of the state. All eyes are on Blanco.
- Ashley Hunt
- Sheriffs have as many reasons to back Richard Stalder retaining his top post at the Department of Public Safety and Corrections as black leaders have to oppose him.