Local Skirmishes

Polite disagreements, simmering street fights, all-out brawls -- Gambit Weekly knew them when we saw them in 2003.


OPPONENTS: Tulane University President Scott Cowen vs. the Bowl Championship Series (BCS)

THE FIGHT: Cowen challenged the existing BCS system soon after Tulane's Board of Trustees unanimously voted to keep its storied football program competing in Division I-A, despite the fact that the football program was running annual deficits estimated around $7 million. Essentially, the BCS, established in 1998, seeks to create a true national championship game -- shared in rotation by the Sugar, Orange, Rose and Fiesta bowls -- through a combination of media and coaches polls, computer rankings, and conference champions from the Atlantic Coast, Pac-10, Big 10, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences, plus Notre Dame. Tulane's Conference USA and seven conferences are left outside of the system and its lucrative television contract with ABC, estimated at more than $930 million. Cowen contends the set-up is unfair to non-BCS conference schools such as Tulane and has repeatedly said he would like to see the BCS system dismantled. In November, however, he convened presidents from both BCS and non-BCS schools to discuss reforming the bowl system.

WINNER: Undecided. Cowen has garnered support and national attention for his attack on the mighty BCS, which came under further scrutiny in December for resulting in what some argue is not a true national championship game. The BCS system remains through at least 2005.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN IN THE LONG RUN? Any pretense that college football is a game for students and amateurs is gone forever, as it's clear with such high-stakes posturing and negotiations that this game is big business. At any rate, Green Wave fans can take solace in the fact that Tulane will continue its century-plus tradition of football, no matter the cost.

OPPONENTS: Mayor Ray Nagin and his inner circle vs. former Chief Administrative Officer Kimberly Williamson Butler

THE FIGHT: By all accounts, they were at the top of their game together in the summer of 2002, when Nagin assigned Butler -- his No. 2 and the city's first black female CAO -- to spearhead the new administration's explosive investigation into corruption within City Hall. As dozens of people were arrested, an entire city cheered Nagin's new pro-business, high-tech management team. But by April 2003, Butler was gone. In February, two months before her ouster, Nagin had restructured city government, down-sizing her duties, in a failed attempt to keep her on the team. Butler's critics said she was highhanded, not up to the job, and partly responsible for the corruption probe's fizzle before it was taken over by the feds. Butler countered that she was the victim of a coup by the mayor's other top advisers -- a club-hopping cluster, she said, uncomfortable with her strong moral values and the fact that an African-American woman was in charge. The mayor announced her departure at an April news conference and, shockingly, told the media that health problems had contributed to her resignation. The Nagin-Butler rift widened later that month when alleged transcripts of BlackBerry text messages surfaced, in which it appeared that top city officials were ridiculing Butler. The Nagin administration refused comment on the alleged transcripts, which circulated widely.

WINNER: Butler. In August, Butler qualified for the vacant Clerk of Criminal Court seat in the fall elections. Not only did she ultimately triumph over nine other candidates in that race, she defeated former City Councilman Johnny Jackson Jr. -- who Nagin backed in the run-off election against his former CAO.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN IN THE LONG RUN? Nagin looked bad, if only for his remarks about Butler's health, and his team looked mean-spirited and less than professional. The tussle shortened the mayor's honeymoon and shifted attention away from the perceived sins of the previous administration. The once-omnipresent BlackBerrys are no longer brandished at City Hall.

OPPONENTS: Gov. Mike Foster vs. Public Service Commissioner Jay Blossman

THE FIGHT: When it surfaced that Blossman had visited a plush New Mexico spa on the tab of a utility company (the industry Blossman and the PSC are supposed to regulate), Foster -- fond of biting nicknames (remember those "tooth fairies" in the Legislature?) -- dubbed Blossman "spa boy." Blossman, seeking momentum in a governor's race that never seemed to get off the ground, responded by pointing out that Foster had not funded a DNA program that, Blossman argued, would have saved time and lives during the Baton Rouge serial killer investigation. Foster took offense at the allegation, saying after serial killer suspect Derrick Todd Lee was captured that Blossman was "a sick little fella."

WINNER: Foster. The outgoing governor showed that his political clout is still considerable when his hand-picked choice to follow him, Bobby Jindal, won the Republican nomination and came close to winning the election.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN IN THE LONG RUN? For one thing, Foster's deft use of degrading nicknames might be one of the best, lasting legacies of his state leadership. But Blossman deserves partial credit for bringing the issue of DNA testing to a higher priority. After the spat, state Rep. Charles DeWitt (D-Alexandria) found $650,000 in surplus state funds to provide for DNA testing that has already solved one rape case in Acadiana, a success that bodes well for permanent funding of the much-needed crime-solving tool.

OPPONENTS: Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee vs. Krewe of Aladdin and Krewe of Excalibur

THE FIGHT: Just weeks before the 2003 Mardi Gras season, Lee announced a required $20,000 security fee for all krewes rolling in Jefferson Parish. Aladdin and Excalibur were unable to pay the fee on short notice and came close to canceling their parades, until last-minute negotiations saved both.

WINNER: Nobody. Lee's last-minute demand for the fee put a damper on Mardi Gras spirit in Jefferson Parish. Councilman John Lavarine Jr. paid the bill for Excalibur. Aladdin paid $3,700 toward its fee, while Lee himself and Waste Management Inc. paid $1,000 on the krewe's behalf; the remainder of Aladdin's fee went unpaid.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN IN THE LONG RUN? Aladdin has filed a federal lawsuit, scheduled for trial in January, against Lee and the parish, claming that the 2003 fees were illegal because they were levied only on new krewes and not all Jefferson Parish krewes. The issue was resolved for 2004 when the parish government agreed to pay the sheriff's office $42,000 in security fees for its Mardi Gras-related expenditures. A permanent solution remains uncertain.

OPPONENTS: the Rev. Grant Storms vs. Southern Decadence

THE FIGHT: Storms, a Marrero-based preacher and leader of Christian Conservatives for Reform, crusaded to stop Southern Decadence, held in the French Quarter each Labor Day weekend for the past 32 years. Storms first gained notice when he began circulating video tapes of public sex acts he captured on French Quarter streets during the 2002 Southern Decadence and was given the spotlight on national programs such as ABC's Primetime Live and FOX NEWS' The O'Reilly Factor. Meanwhile, participants in Southern Decadence staged a parade of satirical floats making fun of their critics.

WINNER: Southern Decadence. Storms was unsuccessful in his efforts to lobby city officials to cancel the annual event.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN IN THE LONG RUN? Southern Decadence organizers made efforts to curb acts of public sex, postings signs throughout the French Quarter about the legal consequences of such behavior. New Orleans police reported an upswing in arrests, though the crimes committed were chiefly of the public nuisance variety, rather than for lewd behavior. Plans for Southern Decadence 2004 are already underway.

OPPONENTS: Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson vs. French Quarter homeless, psychics, et al

THE FIGHT: This fight began in 2002, when Clarkson headed a much-vaunted "French Quarter cleanup" that in its first several weeks netted Sheriff Charles Foti thousands of short-term tenants. The Quarter's homeless people, mimes, tap-dancing kids, haunted-history tour guides, and tarot-card readers complained of trumped-up arrests. Critics held anti-Jackie protests; supporters held pro-Jackie rallies. The cleanup, Clarkson told The Times-Picayune's Susan Finch, was "basically about the law-breakers versus the non law-breakers."

WINNER: Nobody yet. In November 2003, a federal judge suspended enforcement of Clarkson's ordinance restricting tarot-card readers to one side of Jackson Square, giving visual artists -- an "artists' colony" -- the other three sides. A week or so later, the New Orleans Police Department announced a new homeless policy that emphasizes help rather than arrest. On Nov. 20, Clarkson sponsored a revamped artists' colony measure. In spite of an angry crowd in the chambers that at one point shouted, "Off with her head," the Council passed Clarkson's ordinance 5-0.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN IN THE LONG RUN? The French Quarter may have needed some cleaning, but it didn't need a Clarkson-led battle between the haves and have-nots. The federal ruling has calmed the Quarter for the moment, and the innovative new homeless policy, if implemented as planned, could be a long-term solution.

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