Although the spark was provided by a public records request, the cause of this conflict is much deeper, more entrenched. I'll get to the underlying causes in a moment. First the news.
If you haven't been paying attention, here's some basic facts. On December 3, 2008, a Civil Rights lawyer, Tracie Washington, made a public records act request for 36 months-worth of New Orleans City Council emails. Interestingly, she requested only the emails of the Councils' majority four white members and their staffs. This single aspect of her request had drawn endless criticism, most of it by self-righteous whites calling Washington a "racist" or accusing her of inflaming "racial tensions." City Council President Jackie Clarkson publicly slammed Washington saying she is "insulted," and that her political career has always been supported by both white and black citizens (not exactly a true claim, more about which I'll get to below).
In addition to the standard channels through which public records requests are made, Washington also went straight to the City's Information Technology office, the agency that has direct access to servers holding the emails in question. Washington, with the help of Sanitation Director Veronica White, was able to acquire the emails in question with astonishing speed. This means of fulfilling a public records request is clearly not the correct protocol. Whether it actually constitutes a legal violation on White's part, as countless observers and members of the press have insinuated, remains to be shown.
Last Thursday Washington was summoned to court. Lawyers from the august and all white law firm of Herman, Herman, Katz & Cotlar, representing the City Council, successfully argued that the emails might contain privileged attorney-client information and other tidbits that allow the Council's Attorney to withhold or heavily redact them before release. The City Attorney's office never had the chance to do this, as the usual procedure goes, because Veronica White personally expedited the process of releasing the records (more on this below).
Judge Medley's staff are now reviewing the documents to determine if there is privileged material that should be withheld. There very likely is, but the speed and intensity which the City Council's legal team has moved to restrain Washington from disseminating the emails and now even to possess them has led many to speculate that the messages might also contain evidence of wrongdoing by the Council, or less than flattering communications, some of which might bear on the sad state of race relations in City Hall.
Representing the Council, Steven Lane even went so far as to argue that Ms. Washington had violated professional standards of conduct as a lawyer by accepting material “she had reason to believe contained privileged information.” Perhaps. Lane's team therefore not only demanded that Washington hand over the original and only copies of the emails, but also that Washington be forced to hand over her computer to the Council's high octane legal force. The judge refused this request.
Finally, Lane used Thursday's court proceedings to suggest that Ms. Washington could be charged with interfering in a federal investigation: given the ongoing probe into the NOAH agency, Lane said that the federal attorney in charge could interpret Washington's behavior as obstruction. Lane didn't further clarify this threat, but it capped observations by Washington's attorney, Clarence Roby, that if anything the whole proceeding has had “a very chilling and intimidating effect on public citizens who are trying to access their government. Accordign to Roby, “it chills the effect of the sunshine law to demand of someone to give back the documents they lawfully requested.”
What's clear to those of us who have experience making public records requests, and who have been watching City Hall for some time, is that the official procedures for making a public records request in this town are broken. There are probably hundreds of outstanding records requests being made to the City Council at any given time. The internal procedures guiding these requests funnel them through the City Attorney's office where allowable exemptions are determined before the records request is fulfilled. At last week's court hearing Roby called this a situation of "the fox guarding the hen house," because it allows for the City Council to determine which records it will and will not release. In this specific case things are even more troubled. The City Council seems to be arguing that Washington's records request should not have gone through the City Attorney, and instead that it should have gone to their attorney's, Herman, Herman, Katz and Cotlar. Why? In part because the Council retained this law firm to conduct an investigation and perhaps litigate against the Mayor and City Attorney among other players in City Hall. Why is the Council thinking about suing the mayor and his team? Eli Ackerman's recent post gets into the details of some of these squabbles.
Whatever the process is supposed to be at this point, what's been passing as protocol obviously stifles public involvement in timely issues of government because shunting a records request into the City Attorney's office is a major delay. Allowing the Council's private legal team to redact them would equally allow interested parties to delete and withhold documents that the public has every right to see, but which might expose their wrongdoing. Reporter Lee Zurik's experience trying to get Mayor Nagin's calendar and emails through a similar public records request only demonstrates how broken the system is, and if you think the Mayor is the only one with skeletons in his inbox, well, I've got a bridge over the Mississippi I'd like to sell you.
Washington seems to have found a way to circumvent this time delay and it may have involved exploiting the feud between White and Head (I'll say more about exploiting these kinds of divisions below). That she also got her hands on records which the City's attornies had yet to censor has the City Council united in fearful opposition.
What's now further complicating things is that Sanitation Director Veronica White's computers have been seized by federal agents under U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's command. Letten is the very man responsible for the NOAH investigation. Letten is also the same attorney who put a crestfallen Council member Oliver Thomas in jail along with several cronies of the Morial era who continued to practice pay-for-play politics long after Morial's retirement. Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino told the Times-Picayune that he's baffled by the feds taking White's computers. White's conduct with respect to the City Council emails is by no means a violation of any federal statutes – and probably not even a violation of Louisiana law, but others speculate that the feds are simply "fishing" for information about corruption in City Hall using grand jury subpoena powers. Last night Letten was profiled on WWL TV. The storyline was that Obama might replace Letten, even though he's earned a reputation as an "equal opportunity crime fighter." The subtext of the story seemed to be that major indictments are coming soon from Letten's office.
In yet another twist to the email controversy, the Times-Picayune has begun to run prominent stories about an NOPD police officer who works under Veronica White and his participation in the recall effort directed at Council member Stacy Head. The T-P's exhibit A is the fact that while off-duty, NOPD officer Donald Berryhill attended a rally supporting the recall effort. Exactly how this constitutes a violation of the police officer's code of conduct hasn't been spelled out by the Times-Picayune's reporters, nor by Stacy Head who released a statement days ago alleging misconduct. Head's statement also erroneously identified another officer at the rally as working under Veronica White.
Some see all of this as a major scandal in the making - a grand conspiracy run out of Nagin's office by White involving a who's who of black New Orleans, all of them out to line their crony's pockets and destroy honest politicians like Head. The establishment media have been hard at work to frame things in precisely this way. To adopt this analysis would be a major mistake, however. The situation is by no means so simple and clear cut. There are more submerged forces at play deserve to be aired, if for no other reason than to at least provide context for outsiders watching this internecine battle in the house of Fleur de Lis.
However, before I get to the main point of this post I'd like to state my personal take on the various players involved so as to preempt anyone who might think I'm “defending” any party here. To be exceeding clear, I think pretty much every elected official in this city, and most of their senior colleagues are corrupt in one way or another. Furthermore, I'm not just interested in pointing out clear cut examples of illegal behavior in officialdom. The harm they do to the people of New Orleans goes so much deeper into the core of their work. Even the perfectly legal actions of the Mayor and City Council more often than not serves the interests of the powerful, the connected, the privileged few of this city. They've managed to do a great deal of harm to the majority, especially the working poor (think closure of Charity Hospital, demolition of public housing, etc.).
That said, here's the necessary context that most of the reporting on this episode is missing: what we're watching is essentially a political struggle - perhaps entering an endgame phase - between the city's two highly polarized power blocs. This is not merely corruption boiling over. It's corruption embedded in a larger field of conflict between our city's ruling class.
The first bloc struggling for power, let's call them the Naginites, are a network of mostly well-connected black – or “Creole” - power brokers and a limited but influential number of again mostly black businessmen. They have successfully controlled this city's political apparatus for decades through the Mayor's office and through the City Council until very recently. Their ascendancy coincided with the limited gains made during the Civil Rights Movement era and Moon Landrieu's rise to power. The Naginites of today are the political heirs of Ernest Morial's electoral sea change in 1978. They still control the mayoral powers of the city and the police department. They have operated the city apparatus throughout the years to hand out largesse to their chosen few, as well as selling out the city at large – it's labor, land, housing, infrastructure and resources – to major league business interests, mostly owned and run by whites, often representing out of state corporate interests. In this latter respect they serve as brokers between white suburban capital and black urban labor and cultural resources.
The second bloc, let's call them the “White League 2.0” is a network of well-connected, mostly white political power brokers and the region's largest, again mostly white, and by far the wealthiest businessmen. They have begrudgingly accepted the political dominance of the Naginites for decades in New Orleans, but have always retained dreams of the “good ol' days,” before Civil Rights, when their well-heeled Louisiana and Pickwick Club buddies not only owned New Orleans, but ran New Orleans. These two blocs, drawn primarily (but note purely) along racial lines are in a full blown war. They have been at war since Katrina. The prize is control of the city-state and all its mechanism that can enrich one or the other's base. Neither of these sworn enemies has had more than partial control over the state apparatus called the City of New Orleans since 2005, and what we're seeing now is a full blown war. No more covert action. No more uneasy truces. Perhaps one will destroy the other now, but it's not very likely.
Sadly, this war is a major reason for our city's slow and inept reconstruction since the Great Flood. Few things can get done so long as the elites who govern New Orleans are so viciously divided against one another. Polarization leads to politicking irregardless of rational goals. The most recent Council-Mayor battle over "transparency" regarding contract boards is an excellent example of petty battles for their own sake, as much as it represents a substantive conflict over policy. (It also gets at the root of the power struggle between the Naginites and White League 2.0 because it concerns the very core of how power is exercised by the city-state, and the different means to and ends largely stands to benefit the strengths of one or the other network, it's about inclusion and exclusion.... but I'll save this for a future post as it's too complicated to get into here.)
This divide has been variously a curse and blessing for those of us fighting for a just recovery. An especially cursed part of it is that the few concrete "recovery" initiatives that have proceeded are ones both power blocs agree on most adamantly on. Not coincidentally these are precisely the most harmful for working class New Orleanians. So there's paralysis in many areas except around things like privatization of schools, health care, and housing and efforts to further pimp out the city as a boozing and conference playground for tourist. On these things the blocs unfortunately agree.
The blessed part of their divide, limited as it is, has been that the city's most marginalized can and have exploited the electoral needs of one or the other bloc to win policy battles with far reaching implications. Tracie Washington's public records request appears to be an example of exploiting this divide between the two camps in order to expedite a broken democratic process.
Another more profound example, the lower 9th Ward and other majority black, working class sections of the city are largely standing today because Nagin was forced to block the Council and even some of his own backer's desire to demolish these areas and fill them with “green-space.” As Lance Hill pointed out in 2006, Nagin's reelection was due in large part to black fears of a white-led effort to relegate their neighborhoods as swampland parks in the wake of Katrina. Hill wrote at the time, "I think it’s clear from the people I have been talking to, both in the city and those still displaced, that by the primary [election] a consensus had developed in the black community that white people were deliberately attempting to take the reins of city government to remake New Orleans into a whiter and more affluent community." Nagin's political machine had to adopt a no-demolitions/full reconstruction program in these areas in order to gain the votes of the city's displaced masses. In doing so his bloc prevailed in the election, but the war between the Naginites and the White League 2.0 would continue. Hill's analysis of this immediate post-Katrina battle is so prescient it's worth quoting at length:
"The public school system had been virtually closed; thousands of poor blacks were evicted from their homes; utility companies dragged their feet on reconnecting black neighborhoods (Ninth Ward residents were only allowed back into their neighborhoods this month; white “good government” groups fought to deny building permits in the flooded areas which they hoped to bulldoze into oblivion; traditional black occupations such as roofers and painters were given to itinerant Latino labors; and white neighborhoods effectively prevented FEMA from bringing in 30,000 trailers for displaced people, mostly blacks. Then it got worse. The uptown white elite pushed to abolish the school board and assessors offices, both majority black, and then demanded that the Mayoral election be held while 80% of the black community remained displaced. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the city’s daily newspaper, endorsed a majority-white city council ticket and a white mayoral candidate who had only 3% black support in a city that was 70% black. No wonder that African Americans began to fear that there was no place for them in the city envisioned by the uptown elite and their confederates comprised of developers, urban planners, and ageing and increasingly conservative yuppies."
The displacement of the city's black majority after the Great Flood dealt a seemingly insurmountable blow to the Naginites and any would be heirs to the city's black political establishment. Because of their economic circumstances and other barriers, blacks tend to vote at lower levels than whites. In New Orleans this means that whites, even though they may remain a minority, now constitute an electoral muscle capable of bagging important elections. Nagin and his cohort in the immediate post-Katrina elections were saved only by their adoption of a “no demolitions/full reconstruction” policy, at least as far as the city's sunken wards went. Holding onto the city's executive powers, the Naginites have been hoping to secure their reconstituted base for the long-haul. This means dishing out the gravy to key supporters, often in the form of municipal contracts, and garnering some support from those powerful business interests that could just as easily belong to the White League 2.0's base. Sanitation contracts are among the biggest in this messy city, and therein lies the potential that there are very scandalous and corrupt happenings in City Hall.
The White League 2.0 has approached Katrina largely as an opportunity to dismantle the decades old black political establishment and replace it with their own. Their goal isn't to preclude all participation by black individuals in government. Indeed, some of the new White League's members are black. Joseph Cao, the Vietnamese American who defeated Bill Jefferson is a member of this bloc. In this sense, the White League 2.0 isn't about excluding blacks. Rather, it's about building a political machine that relies on the newly empowered white electorate as its base (with a small but significant number of black middle class supporters) to pry power away from the Naginites. It's about dealing a blow to their rival political machine which uses the electoral power of black working class people to maintain control over city offices. A serious aspect of their vision does promote building a smaller, whiter city. The White League 2.0 have styled themselves as a new flavor bringing "transparency," "best practices," and honesty to government.
They have made significant gains in taking control of the city's executive, judicial and legislative realms since Katrina. Stacy Head won her race for City Council by beating Renee Gill Pratt, an associate of William Jefferson and other Naginite brokers. When election for the at-large seat on New Orleans' City Council went down in 2007, whites came out in droves to elect Jackie Clarkson to the seat. She replaced the shamed and resigned Oliver Thomas who has since been convicted on bribery charges connected to the Morial era's vast network of insider businessmen.
The New York Times observed after the election that, "white candidates made other gains on Saturday, taking two New Orleans seats in the Louisiana Legislature long held by blacks, and a state court judgeship that had also been occupied by a black judge. Voting was largely along racial lines. The apparently greater number of votes cast by whites — 29,700, compared with 22,900 black votes [...] makes uncertain widely quoted estimates that blacks, despite a disproportionate population loss, are still substantially in the majority here."
Thus, while Clarkson says she's offended by Washington's request for her emails and those of the three other white City Council members, her attitude seems based on a denial of the obvious racial dynamics at play. Clarkson recently told WWL News, "I never felt I was black or white. I always felt I represented the city of New Orleans. I’ve always been elected very well by black constituents as well as whites." It's nice that Clarkson doesn't feel her own race, but from the numbers measured during the 2007 election it was more than apparent that both black and white voters see her race and supported or opposed her largely along racial lines. Most blacks voted for her opponent, Cynthia Willard-Lewis, while most whites voted for Clarkson.
This brings us back to the specificity of Washington's request, the spark that seems to have ignited an inferno. Since getting the emails and confronting the Council's legal team (and a major media onslaught), Washington has told her colleagues about receiving various death threats and even having excrement smeared on her car. The threats, of course, have been peppered with racist epithets. Publicly Washington has been slammed as a "racist" herself for only requesting the white Council members emails. Given the wider context, however, calling Washington a "racist" is rather ridiculous. There's already a highly polarized struggle for power in the city drawn significantly along racial lines. If Washington's behavior was racial, it's only because everything else already is. Acting with full knowledge of race and power dynamics in a context already tempered by deeply seeded racist power structures, histories, and political differences isn't racist in and of itself.
New Orleanians are unlikely to rise above the shallow dialog about race that is normally had when episodes like this flare up. Instead, we seem set to trade barbs back and forth. Nagin, White and others in City Hall will keep race baiting the City Council while Head, Clarkson and company will shoot back equally venomous statements. The Times-Picayune and other establishment media will assuredly continue to blow up the least relevant and most ridiculous racial aspects of this battle, in exactly the form that led none other than Cokie Roberts to condemn our city's press for “exacerbating those tensions.”
If New Orleans wants to get serious about discussing the racial divide in politics, we would do ourselves a big favor to focus on the major conflict between the Naginite and White League 2.0 blocs. Both of these elite networks exploit existing racial divisions among regular folks so that they might hand out the spoils of government. Indeed, both of these blocs have been built over many generations of political and economic war between competing elites, by forces of race and racism hardly within the control of Nagin, Fielkow, White or Head.
Most blacks and whites in our city are gettin screwed as a result of the war between these two houses of the Fleur de Lis. For the Naginites it's been about city contracts awarded to their base as well as pimping out the city to corporate America and tourism industry. The White League 2.0 shares this second goal and seems intently interested in breaking the Naginites hold on the Mayor's office in order to implement their vision of “free market” disaster recovery and transparency in city contracts; and this would most certainly end up favoring the extremely dominant and vastly more wealthy white owned businesses that have been pining to win more city contracts. Many working class New Orleanians, blacks in particular, understand this for what it is – an effort to gentrify our city and make temporary displacement permanent.
Can we rise above?