It's way too early to tell who's even going to qualify for mayor nine months from now, or who will make the runoff 11 months from this Saturday, but this much seems clear already: The next round of citywide elections will be the most racially polarized in memory. That's a damn shame, and there's plenty of blame to go around.
But rather than just assign blame, maybe we should talk about responsibility. Not in the sense of who's responsible for getting us in this mess, because that's just another way of playing the blame game. Rather, let's talk about responsibility in the sense of all of us being responsible for getting us out of this mess.
I'll start with our elected officials, who have a responsibility to put personal, petty differences aside and deal with what's best for the city.
The obvious case in point is the ongoing feud between Mayor Ray Nagin and the City Council. It started out as an honest, though heated, difference of opinion over the city budget. It escalated into a war over patronage contracts and then a race-baiting trap set by the mayor. Unfortunately, white council members walked right into the trap and made things worse.
Mr. Mayor, you have a responsibility not to make everything about you. You only have 14 months left to leave a legacy, so it's time to get focused — and engaged. You also have a responsibility not to turn every disagreement into a race war. There is absolutely nothing racial about transparency in government. If anything, transparency will increase the likelihood that those who have been shut out in the past will have an honest shot at participating in the future. Moreover, the Open Meetings Law was enacted when New Orleans had a white mayor and a six-member white majority on the City Council. It's not about race, Mr. Mayor. Get over it and lead.
City Council members, particularly Arnie Fielkow: You have a responsibility not to be naïve. It's not good enough to have your "heart in the right place," as Fielkow put it last week; you also have to have your head in the game. You can't take the politics out of politics. Even if your intentions are pure, your actions will speak louder than anything. If you don't recognize that, you don't belong in public office.
More specifically, white City Council members, when the mayor suspended the committees he had appointed to vet prospective professional-service contractors, there were two things you should have recognized: (1) He was perfectly within his rights as mayor to do that; and (2) the issue of those committees meeting in public was now moot. So why bring it up for a veto override — particularly after the mayor tried to turn it into a race thing? Ray Charles could have seen that trap, yet you walked right into it. Why? To prove a point? To embarrass the mayor? Each of you has a responsibility not to light racial fuses.
As for the rest of us, we each have a responsibility to recognize that the city has too much at stake right now to fall back into the same patterns that got us into our current mess. We've gone four years without much leadership in the mayor's office, and if we don't get it right next time, we can all kiss our city goodbye.
A few weeks ago, my 87-year-old father asked me about the next mayor's race, as lots of folks do. We both agreed that the race is yet to be run, but we also agreed that it should not be a race about race.
"I don't care what color the next mayor is," the old man said, "as long as we get somebody competent."