Last night, MSNBC (the least watched cable news channel, by the way) hosted a "debate" for the top seven candidates for Mayor of New Orleans. As a native New Orleanian, I obviously have an interest. But all Americans are indirectly affected because the federal government will be financing New Orleans for a long time, in some way or another, given the extent of the catastrophe. I recently visited the city and found it to be in terrible shape, except for those parts usually visited by tourists--and this was about seven months after the flood. From news reports, it appears that things are still as bad, even now. But the nation needs to understand why New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana is so endemically backward and perversely self-destructive: the politics of the personality cult.
Traditionally, elections in New Orleans are about personal career and ambition, not about fundamental reform. With no strong entrepreneurial tradition, the entrepreneurial instinct is channeled into politics, which becomes a combination of a family business and a patronage network. You see the same phenomenon in Latin America and even in Italy. Politics becomes personal and family enrichment by another name. The prime exemplar last night was the candidate of the Landrieu family, Mitch Landrieu, who sincerely plays the traditional role of the Louisiana politician as personality cult. In contrast, Ron Forman, who as a non-profit executive has overseen the best run projects in a city not known for anything serious that is well run, is the anti-personality-cult candidate. Forman offers a refreshing maturity and doggedness in thinking outside the box. The Landrieu approach is more feel-good slogans, Clinton/Kennedy style, with the plea to trust him.
With Landrieu, you will get the same that New Orleans has known before: slogans (here are some old, now-forgotten examples from New Orleans history: "Pride Builds New Orleans," "Keep the Drive Alive"), expansion of a family political machine focused on one state and city, and, hopefully, higher office for the new mayor. With Ron Forman, New Orleans gets a chance to go in the opposite direction, reject the personality cult style of its politics, and focus on serious change. Forman has no local political family machine to advance. So, if you hear that Landrieu is the new mayor later this year, you can expect nothing fundamentally new out of New Orleans, except some new, nice slogans. But if you hear that Forman the solid executive is the new mayor, you should be hopeful. A lot of U.S. taxpayer money will be affected by the result.
The Catholic perspective looks for a politics that goes beyond patronage, beyond self-glorification and the pursuit of celebrity status (a la Kennedy), and beyond family political machines so unfortunately focused on one state and city. The Catholic perspective looks to fundamental change and opportunity for those mired in hopeless social structures. Ironically--or maybe, not so ironically--the best hope for that lies in Ron Forman, who, by the way, would be, as I understand it, the first Jewish mayor of New Orleans, if elected. Maybe, that's what it takes finally to think outside the box in New Orleans. This Catholic would be happy to see it. For more information on Forman, see his website.