This weekend, voters in the New Orleans Democratic Party primary will begin the process of electing the city’s first new mayor since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The race has been heated since the beginning—now 12 candidates are vying to replace the discredited C. Ray Nagin as head of the city government. It’s a crowded field, and Mitch Landrieu, the front-running candidate (who declined to be interviewed by The Root), could be the first white mayor the city has had since 1978. The Root spoke to James Perry, a lawyer and fair housing advocate, who is one of three black candidates in the hunt.
In this interview, Perry breaks down the election to date, how New Orleans became “a city that had no guts” and why local school “recovery” has nothing to do with Katrina.
The Root: Discussing the New Orleans’ mayoral race, The Economist called this “the job almost no one wants”—citing difficulties with everything from crime to infrastructure. So why are you running?
James Perry: I disagree with The Economist. Tons of folks want to do the job! The problem with politics most of the time is people with power focus on who is next in line and all that kind of stuff. My whole decision to run has everything to do with my frustration and love for the city. We are a city that is in crisis. We have one of the highest murder rates in the country—in 2008 it was the highest. We have more blight than any other city in America. We have the second-highest AIDS rate in the country, and we have quite frankly a city that is unsafe—because we don’t have adequate levee protection and our coastal areas haven’t been rebuilt.
What I have seen over my years are politicians who have been dedicated either to their own careers or to helping a few. So I think it’s time for someone who is committed to the whole city, making the city safe and restoring faith in government. And there were very few people who were willing to step up and do that, and I am one of them.
TR: Though current Mayor Ray Nagin is term-limited, he might not do so well in this election—in a poll this winter, 72 percent of New Orleans residents said they want change. What was Nagin’s biggest mistake?
JP: I think the city clearly was heading in the wrong direction before Katrina—but were it not for Katrina, Mayor Nagin would have been an average mayor. Some things would have gone well, and some things would have gone poorly. But he simply didn’t bargain for the devastation that was Katrina. He was a corporate guy, so [he] came in with the idea of having a corporate structure in government. And that’s not how government works. It’s different when you wake up in the morning and you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and you have a good idea. You walk in, and you say to your staff ‘do this’—and then they do it, because if they don’t they’ll get fired.
But in government you have to be a coalition builder, you have to lead through collaboration. In New Orleans, you can’t do anything unless at least four of the seven members of the city council are on your side. And if you can’t do that, you can’t move your agenda forward. I think the mayor came in expecting more of a dictatorship—and democracy is a partnership, it’s collaborative.
TR: Do you agree with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan that Katrina was the “best thing” for the New Orleans school system?
JP: Well he’s wrong. The things that have happened in our school system have come from the Recovery School District, which has had a very different approach. And demonstrates that the schools are performing better—but still failing for the most part. Here’s the important thing: People presume that ‘recovery’ is a reference to Katrina recovery. But the Recovery School District was created before Katrina and created in order to take hold of failing schools and turn them around. So the state had taken hold of four or five schools before Katrina and it was in the works that it would take over more failing schools.
TR: Are there any real silver linings of the storm? What is the economic development strategy beyond tourism?
JP: In any disaster comes great opportunity. But our ability to take advantage of that potential has everything to do with how we conduct ourselves, particularly in city government.
Well, for New Orleans, the necessity of rebuilding the city provides the chance to build tons of infrastructure and really pump a great amount of opportunity into the middle class. The vast majority of the rebuilding contracts have gone to out-of-state firms. And so the result has been that what should be an economic boom for the city hasn’t been. It’s been an economic boom for firms from Seattle and Georgia and New York—when we have local firms that have the capacity.
We have a desperate need to diversify economic drivers. Tourism has supported the community well, but there’s a core problem and that core problem is that the majority of the jobs that the tourism industry produces are low-wage jobs that don’t allow people to afford decent housing and the basic needs for people. Number two, I think that we need to focus on rebuilding the port of New Orleans which suffered tons of damage in Katrina. More than $3 million of infrastructure that was either damaged or needs to be moved and can no longer be used. So we need to rebuild it and create jobs with decent wages that provide health care. So that’s a great opportunity for us.
I’m optimistic that President Obama is going to open up trade opportunities with Cuba; there is the widening of the Panama Canal [that] also provides another great opportunity for us. The next thing is that the state of Louisiana just passed a number of really progressive tax credits, so there’s a film industry tax credit so tons of movies are being shot in Louisiana, a music recording industry tax credit, a concert tax credit, a digital technology tax credit. The credits have been wildly popular—but they’re not being properly used. A lot of companies go to Shreveport, La., or Lafayette, La.—and I’m happy for those jurisdictions, but New Orleans should be competitive and proactive in getting those investments here.
TR: The front-running candidate would be the first white mayor since 1978. But how does race really affect the governance of New Orleans?
JP: What I hear from folks when I’m walking the streets is that what we need right now is not a black mayor or a white mayor but the right mayor, the right person. We’ve had years and years of African-American leaders, and I don’t need to denigrate their services, Dutch Morial and Marc Morial and Sidney Barthelemy did a great job by the city. But the fact is that the city hasn’t moved forward. And a lot of the problems that we had are vested in their time as mayor. Now some of that has nothing to do with them. The national trend that happened where, because of a flight to suburban communities by upper-middle-class citizens of the times, African Americans became citizens. All the things that make it work were gone. Only low-income communities were left.
So it’s not their fault—but the fact is that having an exclusively African-American leadership hasn’t been a great indicator for the city. So I think people are more focused on what’s going to move the city forward. What you hear from the folks voting on my behalf, is that it’s about the direction of the city.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.