Saturday, November 13, 2010

Da Big Easy and Louisiana Politicians

The Bigger Picture
Published on February 25th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Ahhh New Orleans, The Crescent City, The Big Easy, the birthplace of American jazz and the home of the world famous Mardi Gras Carnival celebrations. Mardi Gras is the French translation for “Fat Tuesday”, the final day of the “Nawlins” winter social season before Ash Wednesday arrives marking the beginning of the season of Lent. But despite the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and her sister, Hurricane Rita, just four and a half years ago, the “City That Care Forgot” still throws a street party that no American city or any other city in the world (except possibly Rio de Janeiro) can match.
I drove into New Orleans just before Fat Tuesday’s final parade by way of the 24 mile long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the world’s longest bridge which also spans America’s second largest saltwater lake. I was struck by the smell of the lake’s brackish sea air long before I caught sight of the shrimp boats moored alongside aged wooden docks amid patches of cypress trees with tendrils of moss hanging from their branches.
Thanks to its multicultural and multilingual heritage, characteristic Creole cuisine, distinctive French architecture and extraordinary jazz music, New Orleans remains one of if not America’s most unique cities. Although the French Quarter avoided much of the Hurricane Katrina flood damage suffered by the rest of the city thanks to its location on higher ground, one doesn’t have to travel far to see the areas of New Orleans that were not so lucky. One need only cross the bridge that connects the city with the 9th Ward of East New Orleans to see streets still lined with demolished and partially collapsed homes.
While outgoing Mayor Ray Nagin is by no means the only government official responsible for the slow pace of clean-up and rebuilding in the city’s most devastated poorer neighbourhoods, most of the city’s residents will be happy to see him go. Mitch Landrieu, the son of Louisiana’s US Senator Mary Landrieu, has promised to put an end to the political infighting that has stymied rebuilding efforts and characterized Nagin’s second term as mayor, so he is expected to easily win the upcoming mayoral election.
Unfortunately, both New Orleans and the state of Louisiana have a long history of political corruption unrivaled by that of any other city or state in America. What makes them unique is the fact that their voters, unlike voters in other US cities and states, often vote to re-elect these corrupt politicians even after they have been exposed or convicted for their wrong doings. The first and probably the most honorable of Louisiana’s many rouges was the pirate Jean Lafitte who distributed part of the booty he stole from French and Spanish ships to the local folks so they would allow him to attack these ships with impunity from the mini-kingdom he established deep in the Louisiana bayous.
Then prior to World War II Louisiana’s most notorious politician , a populist Democratic Governor named Huey “Kingfisher” Long, built roads, bridges, hospitals and schools by raising taxes on oil companies and the rich. So what could be wrong with this? Well in conjunction with these “good deeds” Huey Long also created a secret police force, put them and all other all state employees under his direct control and then had “contributions” to his political campaign treasury deducted from their paychecks. He once bragged at a Louisiana State University faculty dinner that “I steal money. But a lot of what I stole has spilled over in no-toll bridges, hospitals, and to build this university.”
Much more recently there was Edwin Edwards, a charming but notorious womanizer who was elected Governor four times between 1972 and 1996. During that same span Edwards was the target of more than a dozen federal and state criminal corruption investigations but was acquitted at every trial. After his last not guilty verdict he distributed “Elect the Crook” bumper stickers during his successful bid for another term as Governor. After Edwards won that election he said the only way he could ever lose an election in Louisiana was by being “found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”
But Edwards luck finally ran out in 2000 when he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for extorting money from casino boat operators in return for state gambling permits. This in turn leads in to my discussion of the recent down fall of another famous Cajun politician, former Congressman Billy Tauzin. Billy was well known for saying that: “Half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment” but Billy was also better than other Louisiana politicians at avoiding being caught stealing.
So after 20 years in Congress, Billy Tauzin decided it was time to cash in on his political power so in 2003 he paid more than $1 million for a 1,500-acre ranch in South Texas. Since he couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage on a Congressional salary, he invited business executives and lobbyists who needed his Congressional support to cover his mortgage by becoming “dues” paying members of his new “Cajun Creek” hunting club.
But Billy didn’t stop there. He then used his position as a Republican leader to push an unfunded Medicare Drug Plan, which prohibited the government from negotiating lower drug prices with drug companies, through the House of Representatives. Then Tauzin promptly resigned from Congress so he could become the $2 million a year head of Pharma, the drug industry’s lobbying group. A slick move considering he also got to keep the money he had in his re-election campaign treasury and his Congressional retirement pension.
So I had to smile when I arrived in the states and was greeted with the news that Billy Tauzin had just been forced out of the Pharma job and into an earlier than planned retirement on his federal pension. It’s also good to know that there is some truth in the old saying that “What goes around comes around.”

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