5 years out of step?

Talking about GOP Candidate Anh “Joseph” Cao’s win this weekend over Bill Jefferson in Louisiana’s 2nd House district, local reporter John Maginnis described the state as “five years out of step” with the rest of the country.  It’s a place where Republicans are “still coming up.”  The main themes of the victory are a) low turnout among black voters and b) white activism to vote the indicted Jefferson out of office.  Many have pointed out that Cao’s win reflects post-Katrina demographic change in New Orleans: the black population has shrunk by at least 7 %, and whites have increased by 5%.  Asian-Americans – mostly Vietnamese – make up 3% of the city’s post-storm population.  Last year, the City Council became white majority again for the first time in 20 years.

What I find more interesting about Cao’s victory is his inspiration to enter politics after Katrina, due to the flooding of his office and home and the poor government response to the disaster.  It is this kind of local activism that I have seen in the city and region since the storm.  It is this burgeoning, organized activism that promises to fill the political and socio-economic gaps in the city and region, given the chronic lack of local government leadership in New Orleans, and/or the willful neglect of local and state governments around the Gulf Coast.  That is, one remarkable outcome of the 2005 storms is the tremendous civic infrastructure that is being built by activists, professional advocates, non-profits and funders, because governments either lack the money or political will to rebuild fairly and responsibly.

As the field remarks, the GOP’s big tent pretty much begins and ends in Louisiana.  Much more so than creationist Gov. Jindal, we might look to citizen-activist Representative-elect Cao for insight on how to expand the GOP to include those who simply want better, more responsible government to fulfill our individual rights to private property and to help us run our small businesses.  I’m obviously not all that interested in strengthening the GOP, but I’m intrigued by the task ahead for the Party, as it must modernize and moderate its platform if it ever wants centrist Republicans to turn up at the polls again.

But Cao’s election symbolizes a broader trend underway in Louisiana: the slow, methodological development of citizen engagement, non-profit capacity building, and political accountability.  Louisianans have their work cut out for them: Jindal has abolished the Department of Labor in this right-to-work state, wants to effectively get rid of the Medicaid system, and has imposed cuts to vital non-profits throughout the state.  This is also the place where only 2 months ago GOP Rep. John LaBruzzo advocated sterilization for low-income women as a poverty alleviation measure, then patted himself on the back for taking a tough, bold, innovative anti-poverty approach.  Then there’s Jena.  And Angola.

I need to stop now before I further inspire my LA and Southern colleagues to remind me of the Northeast’s and Boston’s own dirty laundry of injustice and political chicanery.    But I write from an inspired position.  The people I’ve met in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast are doing more work than is reasonably expected to rebuild their homes and communities in the absence of government leadership.  It is some of the most impressive mobilization I’ve seen in my shortish life.   And they’re dragging their governments, with their shuttered Charity Hospitals, toxic FEMA trailers and bloated ports, into a new, more progressive era.  It’s like the civic activist version of the World’s Strongest Man contest.  Stay tuned!!


2 Responses to “5 years out of step?”

  1. December 8, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    I think you’re on stronger ground arguing about whether the resurgent GOP in Louisiana is a leading or lagging indicator, and translatable to the rest of the nation, than about how bad they may be. I am deeply concerned about Jindal, but almost for the opposite reason you suggest: it’s not how bad he is, but how successful he’s being at innovating and trying new things that other Republicans can’t or won’t even try – say what you will about Medicaid for instance (and let’s note that Louisiana is one of the worst Medicaid states going in), moving to a more managed care model that focuses on outcomes is in line with a lot of what progressives want to accomplish on the national level. Moving his Labor department to one more focused on job creation and workforce needs is certainly problematic int terms of workers’ rights, but it’s also kind of bold in terms of rethinking what government do and do best. And on and on. I’m not even sure Jindal’s that committed to replacing evolution with creationism in schools – it tends to go against his educational background and his interest in health science. I think the more interesting issue is… can the GOP nationally learn anything from Louisiana, and isn’t it likely that what they will take from it are the wrong lessons? Really applying what Cao and Jindal represent – community serving, less married to conservative ideas if it’s not getting the job done, activists for post-Katrina responsiveness by government… these are not your parents’ Republicans. I think the GOP could seriously revive itself if it were paying attention. But I’m betting they’re not.

  2. 2 grahamad
    December 8, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    That is your view of Jindal from 20,000 feet. The man is a frightening social conservative who has progressive activists in LA totally up in arms. Maybe – MAYBE – he’s an innovator in terms of governance. But I am not up for infusing more privatization into a system just because it has the wrong public policies. To me, he’s just the same radical, if more competent, GOP.

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