What could possibly make Louisiana politics more distasteful? Easy, let the national parties come here and run things.
What a year! From David Vitter's impressive primary victory in the Senate race to the housecleaning at the Orleans School Board to the Saints to Mayor Ray Nagin's ongoing political misfortunes -- 2004 was one for the books.
Without further ado, here's our annual list of the Top 10 Political Stories.
1. The Vitter Juggernaut -- Congressman David Vitter's stunning win in the Nov. 2 primary disproved all conventional wisdom about Louisiana's open primary system, particularly the notion that Republicans can't win statewide elections against moderate Democrats, especially those with Cajun connections. Vitter not only won, but he also won in the primary -- against one moderate Democrat with a statewide base (Treasurer John Kennedy) and one very conservative Democrat from Acadiana (Congressman Chris John). He did it by running a vastly superior campaign both on TV and at the grassroots level. He had a clear message that resonated among voters, whereas his opponents were unfocused and disorganized. In the process, Vitter re-wrote the history books as well as the political manuals.
2. The New School Board -- Voters made a clean sweep of School Board members who tried to oust Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Amato, then learned that Amato used school system employees to board up his home in advance of Hurricane Ivan. The only two board members who survived the election were those who fought hardest to keep Amato last summer. The five bright new faces offer reason for hope, but reality will set in soon. The board as well as Amato will have to deliver some measurable improvements in the next 18 months, or voters will lose faith again.
3. Louisiana's Loss of Seniority -- The retirements of Sen. John Breaux and Congressman Billy Tauzin, and the Senate candidacies of Congressmen Chris John and David Vitter, cut Louisiana's seniority in more than half this year. It will take a long time to get it back. The only saving grace is that, as long as George W. Bush is president, we at least have a popular new U.S. senator and five of seven congressmen in the majority party. They better bring home some bacon while they can.
4. The Saints -- From the talk of a new riverfront stadium to ongoing talks for a renovated Superdome and increased subsidies, the Saints once again became a hot political story this year. Too bad the team's on-field performance hasn't been as noteworthy. Gov. Kathleen Blanco says she won't present her plan to Saints owner Tom Benson until the season is over. That won't come soon enough -- and this story will likely make next year's list as well.
5. New Sheriff in Town -- Marlin Gusman proved that you could be Marc Morial's friend and still win citywide, particularly if you bring more to the table than just being a pal of his former honor. He ran a smart, media-savvy campaign and stuck to his issues. He also delivered razor-sharp TV attacks that his opponent, Warren Riley, failed to answer effectively. He takes over an empire built by former Sheriff Charles Foti Jr. over the past 30 years -- including 1,100 unclassified employees.
6. Sept. 18 Voting Machine Debacle -- How could an office that had conducted picture-perfect elections for nearly 30 years suddenly become so incompetent? Don't ask new Clerk of Criminal Court Kimberly Butler; she'll tell you it's everybody else's fault. Truth is, Butler fired some of the office's most knowledgeable and experienced assistants and replaced them with her pals. As a result, some 90 precincts didn't have voting machines when polls opened for the most important local primary of the year. Secretary of State Fox McKeithen had to drive to New Orleans to deliver some of the machines himself. He later fumed, "I've never seen a rodeo like this before." Neither have we.
7. Nagin's Trials and Triumph -- If there's such a thing as a Midas Touch in Reverse, Mayor Ray Nagin has it. Once again, he showed that he has no coattails in a citywide election when Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley lost to Marlin Gusman in the race for criminal sheriff. That came right after a huge flap over the future of the New Orleans Recreation Department, which drove a wedge between the mayor and City Council. The mayor recovered in time to strike a compromise bond issue with the council, and he ended the political season on a high note when voters approved the largest bond issue in city history. That may have said more about Nagin's chances of re-election than Riley's defeat, because it showed that voters like and trust this mayor enough to tax themselves and let him spend the money.
8. The Morial Family Saga -- The FBI raided Jacques Morial's French Quarter home early on Valentine's Day and emerged with boxes of records in the ongoing federal investigation into former Mayor Marc Morial's administration. Jacques was his brother's most trusted adviser, but there's no word yet on what the FBI was looking for -- or what agents found. Meanwhile, "Uncle Glenn" Haydel (brother of Morial matriarch Sybil) is embroiled in a bitter legal fight with the Regional Transit Authority, which canceled his lucrative consulting contract after Ray Nagin's team took over the RTA.
9. Nasty Campaigns -- What could possibly make Louisiana politics more distasteful? Easy, let the national parties come here and run things. Both the Democratic and Republican parties conducted scorched-earth campaigns for local congressional candidates, especially those of Billy Tauzin III and Charlie Melancon in the Third Congressional District. It got as ugly as ugly can get. When it was over, the national boys simply left -- leaving the local candidates to apologize for all the ill will created by their friends in Washington. The one exception was Bobby Jindal in the First District. Even though he had just moved into the district, he proved to be so popular that all major opponents bowed out.
10. Property Tax Woes -- Everybody is complaining these days -- even the assessors. This was a year in which assessors had to reassess all properties, and this time a new state Tax Commission demanded that they actually do it. That meant humongous property tax hikes in some areas. And where that didn't happen, voters could log onto the Internet to see how their neighbors were assessed. Talk about stirring up trouble in the neighborhood!
Honorable Mentions -- This was a really busy years in politics. I have to mention a few other stories, such as failure to get crime under control in New Orleans, the state Supreme Court tossing out the billion-dollar verdict in favor of oystermen against the state, and the election of state Sen. Kip Holden as the first African-American mayor of Baton Rouge. Not since Dutch Morial won in New Orleans in 1977 has a black candidate been elected mayor by a majority-white city. Kudos to Kip and to Red Stick.
Happy New Year!