Last week brought the best of times for Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the worst of times for Congressman Bill Jefferson. Rarely do two politicians from the same state who are not running against each other suffer such disparate turns of fortune in the same week.
Blanco steered her two top reform measures through the Legislature: a bill consolidating New Orleans' separate civil and criminal court systems and a constitutional amendment merging the city's seven assessors' offices into one. She also saw final congressional passage of billions of dollars in aid for Louisiana's recovery.
Jefferson, meanwhile, saw the fruits of his 16 years in Congress wither on the vine as first the Democrats and then the entire House voted to remove him from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Now it's only a matter of time before he faces the toughest campaign of his career and probable indictment on federal criminal charges.
Louisiana may be headed for another political sea change.
A few short months ago, lots of folks (particularly conservatives) were writing off Blanco just as they are now scribbling Jefferson's political obit. I always thought that Blanco had time to recover -- provided Louisiana begins to recover. Now, thanks to an additional $4.2 billion in federal housing aid (on top of billions already approved by Congress) and $3.7 billion in additional levee funds, Blanco is poised to oversee the largest spending spree in Louisiana history.
The amount of money that's about to enter Louisiana is staggering: $6.2 billion in Community Development Block Grant funds; $1.7 billion in hazard mitigation funds; $4.2 billion for housing; and $3.7 billion for levees. Nothing shores up a wilting political base like $15 billion or more in public spending. Add to that billions more in insurance settlements and private investment, and it's foreseeable that Louisiana in the next five years will spend money like a 22-year-old sheik on his first trip to Vegas.
There's a catch, of course. The money must be spent wisely, and as much of it as possible must get into the hands of people adversely affected by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. It's no mean coincidence that those folks -- residents of greater New Orleans and Acadiana -- are the core of Blanco's political base.
I'm not predicting Blanco's re-election, but anybody who thinks she's a goner should consider the recent re-election of Mayor Ray Nagin, who proved to be a modern-day Phoenix.
As for Jefferson, he hasn't even been charged, and even if he is he's entitled to the presumption of innocence -- in a court of law. In the court of public opinion, the rules of engagement are not nearly so sympathetic, let alone fair.
Jefferson is a great campaigner who no doubt will cast himself as the victim of a heavy-handed FBI and a racially insensitive Congress, which has never removed a white representative from a powerful committee even when that congressman was under indictment. Nagin's recent success proves that race-based campaigning is alive and well -- and remarkably viable -- in New Orleans.
On the other hand, Nagin didn't have a major black opponent. Jefferson is likely to have several. His best shot is to sucker a major white Republican into running against him (paging Rob Couhig) and then try to hold on to enough of his base to make it to the runoff against that white opponent, in which case he would be a shoo-in.
Without a major white opponent, however, Jefferson's future looks bleak. The number one reason for re-electing him, substantively speaking, is his clout -- and his colleagues took that away from him last week. Now he's on his own, but even there he still has some weapons in his arsenal.
- The best if times: Gov. Kathleen Blanco's two top reform measures successfully made their way through the Legislature. Worst of times: Congressman Bill Jefferson was removed from the House Ways and Means Committee, first by fellow Democrats, then by Congress.