Councilman-at-Large Oliver Thomas' guilty plea on federal bribery charges was a moment of rare pathos in the saga of pathologies that govern New Orleans. Thomas' fall was more poignant, more painful, than the blunders and corruptions of his more famous colleagues.
The levees broke because of the incompetence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the flood exposed government ineptitude at all levels, proving that we are no longer the country that put men on the moon. Now, in Katrina's long, aching aftermath, when New Orleans desperately needs leadership, education and crime-prevention programs, national interest in the city has faded. The news media have scant interest in stupid, greedy politicians outside of Washington.
As the second anniversary of Katrina approaches, the national media will descend on New Orleans with stories about the plight of the displaced, the Army Corps' failure, and then some. The real story is what we have become: a schizophrenic city, the haves peering over bloody streets at the have-nots.
Sixty percent of us are back. Uptown is comparatively at peace. Central City is a war zone leaching homicides into the downtown wards with car-theft homicides bleeding out in Carrollton. The Times-Picayune's first issue of the season on debutantes ran below the fold of the Living Section, beneath a huge story by Chris Bynum about the murder of a decent, hard-working Hispanic who was repairing a house in eastern New Orleans. Shot in the head, left a pregnant wife. The city where jazz began is saddled by a mayor who became a celebrity out of Katrina and used his fame to raise money on the black banquet circuit, yet back home can't produce a recovery; by a well-intentioned governor who turned Road Home administration over to an inexperienced company in Virginia that is still trying to figure out Louisiana; and by President Bush and his bottom feeders in the last Congress who stiffed us on the funds needed to rebuild.
Now, as Democratic candidates for president -- and a new Congress under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- seem serious about funding a larger scope of recovery needs, New Orleans politicians march south from credibility, with one of the most popular officials in modern memory copping a guilty plea.
Call it the Fall of a Common Man, with no disrespect to Oliver Thomas. He had the common touch; he appealed to people across the poisoned racial gulf. His apology during and after his court appearance was sincere and moving; he says he lacks health insurance, and his family is broke. Crudely translated, he was telling U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance and the rest of us that he was not a very smart crook. He was better at politics than at stealing.
That's not Edwin Edwards, defiant to the end, now holding an endowed chair in a federal penitentiary, nor Bill Jefferson, asserting his innocence as his political machine goes deeper under the federal microscope, which has revealed a maze of family sweetheart deals, not to mention the infamous $90K in his freezer.
In contrast, after a tongue-lashing by Judge Vance, Oliver Thomas struck a tone of contrition: "I stand before you today humbled, disappointed in myself, and seeking your forgiveness for what I am about to say."
Years ago, he knocked on my front door during his first campaign for the City Council. I invited him in, we chatted, he left, I thought, "What a great guy -- he could be mayor one day."
Seeing his large frame shambling across the stage of Anthony Bean's theater in one of the August Wilson plays, I liked Oliver even more. How many politicians appreciate "the arts" enough to actually perform in a world-class drama? (Wilson won two Pulitzers; Bean staged the plays beautifully.)
Now it turns out that, as he confessed, Thomas took less than $20,000 in bribes from Pampy Barr, the ex-cop-turned-Marc Morial insider, to make sure Pampy kept his concession of downtown parking lots. The bribes were paid three years before the populist councilman lost his brother in the 2005 flood. I spent Katrina in a tree-trapped house in Covington, glued to WWL Radio like a life support. When Oliver came on, telling listeners "we are all one place now," his voice was a quavering plea for unity, for pulling together, an S.O.S. directed at Jefferson Parish: The city is underwater, poor folk are trapped on rooftops, we (the black city) need help from you, (the white-majority suburb).
Since those apocalyptic days, the dream of a unified language -- a concept of recovery around which all could rally -- sank in a morass of political stupidities, which unfolded almost weekly in a tragicomedy played out on the front pages of America's newspapers:
• the mindless media antics of Ray Nagin;
• the heavy-handedness of Attorney General Charles Foti in his persecution of Dr. Anna Pou;
• the incompetence of Orleans Parish DA Eddie Jordan;
• the frozen funds of "Dollar Bill" Jefferson;
• the passion play of U.S. Sen. David Vitter;
• the self dealing of Barr and other pals of Marc Morial; and
• Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee's Machiavellian logic in getting his supporters to help re-elect Jefferson because he didn't like Rep. Karen Carter's sound bite in Spike Lee's movie.
These are grownups. People who went to college. Vitter went to Harvard.
Where did we get these people? How did they win elections?
Standing out in high relief from this debacle is the economic boom in the suburbs of Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes, thanks to transplants from St. Bernard and Orleans. That is the future of this metropolitan region as things stand now: prosperous suburbs and a decaying city.
New Orleans is schizophrenic; cops can't stop the homicides; politicians can't repair the poverty; muggers now mow down people with impunity.
The vacuum in leadership is staggering.
Oliver Thomas' fall might meet the classical standards of tragedy: a well-intentioned man selling his political soul for the bribery equivalent of chump change. Twenty grand? That is peanuts compared to the take of Mose Jefferson, brother of Dollar Bill. Mose got nine-hundred thousand dollars to help the Orleans Parish Public Schools decide they needed certain educational software. Now that is influence to peddle, legal or not.
Thomas didn't have a strong, legitimate sideline business or family wealth. He didn't know how to make enough to support himself in office. Give him credit for lacking the avaricious vision of huge funds, deals-within-deals as sketched in the indictment of Congressman Jefferson. So Thomas did what countless machine pols across the map of democracy have done: He sold out cheap, which in a weird way affords a mirror on his lost virtue.
"Traditionally, in Louisiana, using political office or political favors to enrich oneself and one's friends has not been swept under the rug; it has been openly advertised," wrote William J. "Big Bad Bill" Dodd, a former lieutenant governor, in a 1991 memoir, Peapatch Politics. "For as long as I can remember, a big-time state politician who failed to get rich and make his friends and relatives rich has been considered stupid."
Bill Jefferson's operation conforms to that description. So does Pampy Barr's, though he was a backroom dealer who held no elective post.
The difference between the era Dodd writes about, the decades before and after World War II, and today is that political machines have been shrinking as suburbs have grown. True, there are crooks in suburbs such as Jefferson, where judges of recent vintage have been convicted of federal crimes, but in Orleans Parish, there is not much left to steal from the public fisc. Relatively few people owe workaday jobs to those in office. The deep pockets are in government contracts.
Some say there is a pathology in the black community, of folk who will vote for someone under a cloud like Dollar Bill or incompetent like Ray Nagin because he's one of us. White reformers recoil, aghast -- but are blacks really any different from whites who vote for a neo-Nazi like David Duke or who follow the ethically obtuse political advice of Harry Lee? This "pathology" affects every sector of the population.
Generations of African-American poverty have bred a cynicism among blacks toward politics that cannot be changed without a radical shift in the operations of governing. Repairing NOPD is hugely important, but cops struggle to keep pace with crime -- and the sources of crime are not the province of police work. How desperately this city needs to come together, across the jagged lines of class and race, to improve schools and provide programs to compete with the street culture of drugs and gangs, which hold a long mirror on corruption at the top.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Call Oliver Thomas' guilty plea the Fall of a Common Man. He had the common touch; he appealed to people across the poisoned racial gulf.