When Ray Nagin won his first election as mayor of New Orleans, he changed the paradigm for winning a citywide election, particularly one for mayor, from dividing the city along racial lines to uniting it along economic lines. Nagin's lopsided, 59-41 percent win over then-Police Chief Richard Pennington was the result of an unprecedented coalition of middle-class voters " black and white " who banded together to vote their common economic interests. Ironically, Nagin abandoned that paradigm in 2006, mostly because many in the middle class came to see him, post-Katrina, as a clueless, disengaged charlatan. To get re-elected, Nagin went back to the old paradigm of 'us versus them" and cobbled a 53-47 percent victory over Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu in a race that largely broke along racial lines.
Now, with the City Council's recent vote to demolish the 'big 4" public housing developments, local politics may be shifting back to the economic paradigm. The unanimous 7-0 council vote in favor of demolition sent a clear signal (though not many in the national media seemed to be paying attention) that city leaders no longer want New Orleans to be a poor, racially divided city with high concentrations of abject poverty. Instead, they want New Orleans to be a place with a thriving, bi-racial middle class rooted in home ownership.
Like most cities in America.
That should have been a big international story. Instead, the big international story that night was about protesters being tossed out of City Hall. Opponents of the demolitions (and the international press, which covered the noise rather than the debate) viewed the decision through the old, familiar racial prism. But the truth is, the council's three black members all voted to tear down the projects because most of their constituents (read: black voters who actually live here) look at the projects and see the same failed policies that white people see when they look at the projects. Many former residents of the projects likewise support the demolitions for the same reasons.
What demolition opponents failed to address, and the reason they lost the council vote as well as local public opinion, is the fact that the projects will be replaced with something most folks believe will be much better: 3,343 public housing units, 900 market-rate rental units and 900 homes for sale " mostly to former public housing residents.
Do people who seriously consider themselves 'affordable housing advocates" really oppose the notion of public housing residents qualifying to buy their own homes?
That's a question the national press never bothered to ask. It was just so much easier to show video of people being ejected from the City Council Chamber. Never mind that most of the protesters never spent a night in public housing in New Orleans.
One person who has spent a lot of time in public housing hereabouts is B.W. Cooper resident leader Donna Johnigan, who spoke in favor of the demolitions. In response to taunts that black persons who support the demolitions were 'sellouts," Johnigan replied, 'Sellout? Because we want better homes, better schools?"
Nobody has to explain the new paradigm to Johnigan.
Katrina changed life for everyone in New Orleans. As Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell noted, we all have had to adjust to new realities since the storm. Hedge-Morrell, by the way, deserves special credit for breaking what had been a stalemate the evening before the historic vote. When she announced her support of the demolitions, she paved the way for a unanimous council vote " rather than one that broke along racial lines.
About the only thing that hasn't changed after Katrina is the rest of the world's view of us. The world never understood New Orleans before the storm, so we shouldn't expect them to understand us now.
But as we go forward, we should at least understand some things about ourselves. We have the opportunity " the obligation " to rebuild a better city. The City Council voted unanimously to do that on Dec. 20. The important thing for us now is to stay focused on the 'rebuild" part of that task.
And to embrace the new economic paradigm once again.