Tom Benson: 1927-2018
Tom Benson, the 7th Ward native who grew a car dealership into a billion-dollar business empire that included the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, died March 15 at age 90. He had been hospitalized with the flu for a month.
Louisiana politicians and the NFL reacted to the news like the death of a statesman, and local TV stations pre-empted programming to salute Benson. Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued a statement calling Benson "a true champion for our city" and later gave a short speech outside Gallier Hall. On the steps of the Governor's Mansion, Gov. John Bel Edwards called Benson a "Louisiana giant" and spoke of his philanthropy. Saints quarterback Drew Brees was among the many athletes who saluted Benson, saying "I will miss his presence, leadership and grandfatherly advice." An impromptu second line snaked through the streets to the Superdome, and Who Dat fans laid flowers and beads at the base of the "Bronze Tom" statue of the Saints owner.
Benson bought the Saints in 1985, when it appeared the team would move to Jacksonville, Florida. In 2012, he purchased the New Orleans Hornets, renaming the team the Pelicans.
His most unpopular move came after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, when the Saints relocated to San Antonio, Texas and Benson was noncommittal about returning the team to New Orleans. The controversy stretched on for months. In recent years, relatives raised questions about his competency, but Benson was firm that the teams would pass to his wife Gayle Benson. The Saints confirmed that plan, saying ownership "is not in flux but rather in solid standing."
A public visitation will be held at Notre Dame Seminary (2901 S. Carrollton Ave.) March 21 and 22. Benson's funeral, which will not be open to the public, will be March 23 at noon at St. Louis Cathedral, and the funeral Mass will be broadcast on WLAE-TV.
Quote of the week
"I'm not so naive to believe staying here is going to be an easy task for me, but leaving would be cowardly. And Tom Schedler is not a coward." — Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, announcing he would not step down from office in the wake of a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against him by an employee. Schedler says the relationship was consensual. Nevertheless, he announced he would not seek another term as secretary of state; his current term ends in January 2020.
School walkout prelude to national 'March for Our Lives'
Hundreds of New Orleans-area students joined a nationwide school walkout March 14, a prelude to a March 24 national March for Our Lives against gun violence and a call for stronger gun control legislation.
Students from elementary, middle and high schools and several college campuses participated in the 17-minute walkout, from The Net Charter High School and Benjamin Franklin High School in Gentilly and George Washington Carver High School in Desire to Morris Jeff Community School in Mid-City to Lusher Charter School and its neighboring New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School in Uptown. The event — held one month after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — lasted 17 minutes, one minute for each victim.
New Orleans students largely were able to demonstrate without incident, though many schools held memorials or other services to discourage on-campus protests. Catholic schools under the Archdiocese of New Orleans held prayer sessions. At least one school told parents that students participating in the walkout could face up to five days of suspension.
In a letter sent to superintendents of Louisiana schools, the ACLU of Louisiana interim Executive Director Jane Johnson wrote that "rather than focus on discipline, schools should regard National School Walkout day as an opportunity for a practical lesson in participatory democracy."
Rhonda Dale, principal of New Orleans East's Abramson Sci Academy, wrote in a letter to students' families that the school is "proud that our students are passionate about advocating for their beliefs. They have a powerful voice that can affect change, and it is our role as educators to support them as they learn to strengthen their communities."
Students and allies will begin the New Orleans March for Our Lives March 24 with a rally at Washington Square Park in the Faubourg Marigny and a march to City Hall.
Meanwhile, several Louisiana legislators have filed measures to prevent the sales of so-called assault-style weapons or weapons with high-capacity magazines, or to limit their sales to people at least 21 years old. Several other lawmakers are proposing to arm teachers on campus.
State Sen. John Milkovich's Safe Schools Act proposes that schools can appoint "school personnel or private individuals who may possess firearms on the school grounds to protect students or other persons." Arming teachers and school staff also is proposed in House Bill 271 from state Rep. Ray Garofalo and House Bill 332 from state Rep. J. Rogers Pope.
State Sen. Mike Walsworth also proposes allowing students to wear "bulletproof backpacks." His Senate Bill 178 aims to lift restrictions on wearing body armor on school properties and gun-free zones so students can "carry, wear, or possess bullet-resistant backpacks on school property or a school bus."
Bills on minimum wage, equal pay, workplace discrimination advance in state Senate
A package of bills that aim to end gender-based pay disparities, establish a statewide minimum wage and combat workplace discrimination has cleared its first hurdle in the Louisiana Legislature. On March 15, the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations committee advanced seven bills from New Orleans Sens. J.P. Morrell and Troy Carter, who were joined by Gov. John Bel Edwards. The bills now head to the full Senate.
Carter's Senate Bill 162 establishes an hourly minimum wage of $8 beginning in 2019, increasing to $8.50 in 2020. Louisiana is among five states that have not set a minimum wage above the federal minimum of $7.25.
Morrell's Senate Bill 117 requires companies that contract with the state to follow the state's Equal Pay Law, and his Senate Bill 149 prohibits employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees for discussing wages — an effort to promote wage transparency and highlight pay discrepancies that breach protections for equal pay for equal work.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Louisiana women on average make 65 cents for every dollar made by men — 14 percent below the national average. Edwards said those disparities are "truly offensive and we ought to do better than that."
Carter admitted that raising the state's minimum to $8.50 an hour doesn't constitute a "living wage." He added, "Our workers deserve more. But the reality is we'll take what we can get. Anything is better than where we are."
Carter's Senate Bill 159 also allows local governments to set their own minimum wages. Senate Bill 252 would put the proposal on the ballot via statewide constitutional referendum in November. The minimum wage increase passed along party lines by a 4-3 vote. It was opposed by Republican Sens. Neil Riser, Barrow Peacock and Ronnie Johns. Peacock and Johns also opposed the statewide referendum.
The committee also passed Carter's Senate Bill 219, which adds sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in workplace discrimination laws. "It's a bill of fairness," he said. "It's a bill that sends a message that everyone should be protected." Passing the measure sends a message "to people who have been punished and abused because of discrimination," he said. Riser, Peacock and Johns also opposed that measure.
City Planning Commission rejects plan for St. Claude Avenue hotel
In coming weeks, the New Orleans City Council will decide whether developers can open a 37-room hotel on St. Claude Avenue in Bywater. Plans for the Sun Yard were rejected by the City Planning Commission (CPC) last week after months of debate among residents who fear changes to the commercial corridor will harm the neighborhood and their quality of life.
Squeezed inside City Hall's Homeland Security conference room March 13, roughly 30 Bywater residents opposed the plans for the 3300 block of St. Claude Avenue, which call for a zoning change and conditional use permit on the site of the former Truck Farm space that held the annual music festival Chaz Fest.
Residents raised several concerns about the project — from noise, waste management and parking issues to its potential impact to property values and taxes and housing affordability. In his motion to deny the changes, City Planning Commissioner Kyle Wedberg said there are other properties in the neighborhood "where this would be an instant go."
Wedberg added, "This is a neighborhood which cannot be dipped in amber. That said, this lot is problematic. ... The attempt to put that into these lots is a moment where it feels like it crosses a line to me."
Over the last several weeks, developers Liz Solms and Giuliano Pignataro made several changes to their plans. In the CPC staff's latest report, it recommended moving an outdoor bar and lounge area in the back into an enclosed space closer to the front; limiting amplification and hours of operation of events; moving off-street parking to the site itself; and moving a loading and unloading area to St. Claude Avenue away from nearby homes. Developers also would consider adding a maximum capacity limit, which neighbors said they've requested several times.
Solms and Pignataro spent the last several years "looking not just for a place to make an investment but a place to make home," Pignataro told the CPC. He added the project would add positive growth to the Bywater corridor and provide full-time jobs with benefits.
Ultimately the CPC sided with residents who argued the hotel is largely out of character with their neighborhood. Now the issue goes to the City Council.
When a puppy died on a United Airlines flight on March 12 after being placed in an overhead bin, U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy sprang into action, producing the cutely acronymed Welfare of Our Furry Friends (WOOFF) Act with Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. The bill would outlaw the placement of animals into overhead bins on airplanes.
This did not go over well with a number of folks on social media, who noted Kennedy had yet to propose any legislation after a gunman killed 17 students at a Florida high school one month ago.
One Twitter user snarked, "1 dog dies on an airplane and you introduce legislation within 48 hours. 17 kids get gunned down in their school and a month later the best you can do is offer thoughts and prayers. How do you sleep at night?" Others wrote, "Don't worry. Pretty soon @NRA will contact you about their plan to arm puppies," "Today, I introduced the Welfare of Our Kids Act, also known as #BLAM, Our bill directs the #NRA to create regulations to prohibit the shooting of a live child in any public or private space and establish civil fines for violations" and "ITS TOO SOON TO TALK ABOUT OVERHEAD BIN PET CONTROL #ThoughtsAndPrayers."
Kennedy also wrote to the head of United Airlines demanding an explanation and provided a copy of his letter to the media.
Five New Orleans mayors to appear at Loyola forum
Four of New Orleans' five living mayors, as well as Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, will appear at the ninth annual Ed Renwick Lecture Series at Loyola University's Roussel Hall April 5.
Mayors Moon Landrieu (1970-1978), Sidney Barthelemy (1986-1994), Marc Morial (1994-2002), Mitch Landrieu (2008-2018) and Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell will discuss "One New Orleans: Five Perspectives" with Gambit political editor Clancy DuBos.
The event begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. A reception for Loyola Society members will begin at 5:30 p.m.
Paul Simon, Beyonce, Jay-Z all coming to New Orleans in September
Paul Simon's farewell "Homeward Bound" tour has added a New Orleans date. The singer-songwriter returns to the city to headline the Smoothie King Center on Sept. 5. Tickets are on sale now. Simon will bring his live performance career to a close, promising a suite of songs spanning his work with Simon & Garfunkel and his acclaimed solo catalog.
Meanwhile, Beyonce and Jay-Z begin their "OTR II" international co-headlining tour this summer. They will touch down in New Orleans for a Superdome performance Sept. 13. Tickets go on sale 10 a.m. Monday, March 19. Beyonce headlined the Dome during her Formation tour in 2016. Last year, Jay-Z performed at the Smoothie King Center in support of his 2017 album 4:44.