Roundtable: Edwards' Bid, Nagin's Complaint

Dec 29, 2006
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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, John Edwards aims for the presidency again, and the shrinking city of New Orleans.

Joining us is Joe Davidson, editor for The Washington Post; Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, she is in New Orleans today; and Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University, columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal. He is in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

So, welcome folks, and let's talk a little bit about John Edwards. He tried in 2004. He lost. He became the VP ticket guy for the Dems. Apparently, all that rigmarole didn't stand in the way of him making another run for the presidency. While in New Orleans' Ninth Ward yesterday, he announced his intentions and he is in the Gulf region working to help restore the area. He says he hopes to inspire others to help rebuild their America.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (2008 Democratic Presidential Candidate): You walk around in these neighborhoods and what you'll hear is most of the good that's been done in New Orleans has been done by faith-based groups, charitable groups and volunteers. People who cared enough to come here and spend some time and actually do some work, get their hands dirty. Well, that's what we need to do again. It's what America needs to do again. And that's what's going to be the basis for my campaign.

CHIDEYA: Professor Berry, I don't know if you've run into anyone who is paying attention to Edwards, is there any sense that coming to New Orleans was opportunistic or fantastic or both, or neither?

Dr. MARY FRANCES BERRY (History, University of Pennsylvania): Well, he's been here several times, unlike some people who've only been here once. And, in fact, when he does come for photo-ops he does some work, which a lot of people come here and just come and do the photo-op and leave.

So what the people on the streets say is, at least he did some work. And at least he has been here before. And so - and also people hope that he will call attention during the campaign to the dark side of what's going on here. There are good things going on here. Tourists need to come back, more of them, because that side of things is - and the culture and everything is still here.

But that dark side, which I'm not even sure the Democrats are going to make a priority of rebuilding, John Edwards highlighted that people appreciate that and they hope that during the campaign he will talk about it more. So he dug some dirt while he was here, and he gutted some houses when he was here before, so that's all to the good.

CHIDEYA: Joe, what are the folks in Washington saying?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (The Washington Post): Well, I think many people are commenting on the fact that this campaign is starting so early. You know, Edwards is actually the third Democrat to have formally announced, and of course there are others who have - who are waiting just for the right time. And that time is much earlier than it was before. For example, when Bill Clinton announced his presidency was in October of 1991, which is only three months before the Iowa caucus.

Here we are 2006 still, and the campaign - and the primaries and the caucuses don't start until 2008. So I think that many of the politicos in town and around the country are just somewhat amazed perhaps at how early the presidential campaign is starting this year. And that's because - for a number of reasons, one thing is that people want to get a jump on money. They want to get a jump on campaigning consultants and on the attention of the people in the media.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, speaking of money. It's rumored, or at least estimated, that this race could cost a $1 billion overall, race for the presidency. That is a ton of money.

Nat, what I want to ask you about is looking at someone like John Edwards who has been doing some anti-poverty work while he has been in between presidential campaigns but who hasn't had the highest profile, is he going to resonate with African-Americans based on his ability to foreground what he called two Americas in his last campaign?

Dr. NAT IRVIN (Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Well, I think, Farai, the two - the theme of two Americas as highlighted by his visit to New Orleans will probably continue to resonate not only with African-Americans but the America in general.

I think the strength that John Edwards would bring to this campaign will be the fact that - first of all, he has run on a national ticket and almost won. He has worked on his foreign affairs - foreign policy credentials. He has, I think, by capturing the message of two Americas, he is tying - focusing in on the angst, the sort of Lou Dobbs approach to what is happening to the middle class of America.

He is tapping into something that's bothering not only African-Americans but Americans in general. I think the thing that Joe pointed out about him having started so early, what works to his advantage is that his two rivals will not have as much time to spend on shaping their message as he will. John Edwards has been doing this for some time. He's already bumped his head with Tim Russert before; he's got that experience. He's already done “Chris Matthews Show.” He's got that experience.

And so for the next few months he's going to be honing this message, whether it's the two Americas or whether it's just a judgment that it takes to lead this country. I think he has his real shot and is one who we should not just think - we should take him very seriously because he has a chance to win.

CHIDEYA: Professor…

Dr. BERRY: And also, Farai…

CHIDEYA: Oh, go ahead.

Dr. BERRY: He's also been - he's been, of course, to New Orleans several times, but he's been living practically in Iowa for the last year or so. I know people in Iowa, I have friends in there and they know him. And he sat down at everybody's table and talked to them. He is way ahead with the folk in Iowa so that the Clinton and Barack and the rest of them have some catching up. So I think John Edwards should be taken seriously.

CHIDEYA: I want to follow up with you on two more New Orleans-related topics. There is, first of all, some bad news from New Orleans, the mayor, Ray Nagin, said in the past that he had no doubt folks from New Orleans are going to come back to the city. Now he is admitting he could be wrong. According to Census Bureau, the state dropped 5 percent of its population, 200,000 people, in the last year, and of course a lot of them were New Orleanians.

Professor Berry, what is this going to do to Louisiana and to New Orleans?

Dr. BERRY: Well, you see some pick up in terms of places being built. There are people who live outside New Orleans, whether they're in Houston or in Baton Rouge or some in place even further away who still want to come back and can't because of all the glitches with the insurance money and the house building, and all the issues that we've heard about - who gets the subsidy and who doesn't.

So there are still people who will be coming back but it's - the comeback is going to be very much slower than we thought. And there are volunteers, of course, building things here. If the people do not come back in large numbers, one part of New Orleans, the part that's doing well, the tourism industry, the cultural footprint, the Superdome, all those things that people come here for, whether it's Mardi Gras or the Sugar Bowl or whatever, all those things are going.

So it maybe if the people don't come back, it will be a much smaller area. But I believe that there are so many people who do want to, that once you can get these glitches straightened out, and you see the building all around you - if you go around here and go to all the neighborhoods you see the people trying to come back. And I think that more of them are going to come back before the next census than has been projected.

CHIDEYA: But Nat, at the same time, a lot of the people who have left are the backbone of the black middle class and professional class in New Orleans. Folks like doctors, teachers - they just don't feel that they have a clientele. I mean if people leave, then their patients leave, the children leave. There are teachers who want to be there but there aren't enough kids in the school to employ all the teachers. What does that do to a society?

Dr. IRVIN: Well, I'm not as optimistic as Mary is today. Of course, she is there so I have to yield to some respects to what she sees there. Actually, when I speak with people from New Orleans, they pretty much reflect the attitude that Bob Herbert wrote recently in a New York Times piece in which he called it - New Orleans is an open wound.

And when I think about how America is basically perceiving New Orleans now, I think we know more about the record of the New Orleans Saints, the football team, than we actually know about what people are dealing with. And I think when you read about New Orleans or when you see reports, there's not much good news coming.

Now when you think about the actual facts to reality of what does it take to live in the city. If I were living there, if I had been displaced, the first thing I'd be concerned about would be if I - especially if I have children -would be where would they go to school. Well, once I've relocated to some other place with my children, it would be very difficult for me to then turn around and go back to New Orleans. In other words, you know, when it comes to moving your family, those are the kinds of things that you start to invest in another place and then you get structurally tied to it.

And I don't know. When I think about New Orleans now and I think about what I read. I think about safety. I think about healthcare. I think about education. And it's one of those tragedies that I think - a national tragedy that we have spent so much time and attention on building Baghdad that we have essentially, one way or another - and I don't want to just put in to the Bush administration - that we are failing this historic city.

Dr. BERRY: Farai…

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, one thing that reminds me of is the…

Dr. BERRY: I've got add to that.

Mr. DAVIDSON: (Unintelligible)

CHIDEYA: Hold on. All right. Let's let Professor Berry, and then Joe.

Dr. BERRY: I've got to add a local fact, couple of local facts. One is, it's so many people are so tied to New Orleans who are other places working that their children are here. They sent them here to go to school. And they're here and now it's a problem about what to do because they don't want to make ties to other school systems.

The other thing is that the school system now has become so overburdened that one of the major problems - and that relates to the middle class coming back - is an absence of teachers. That's one of the biggest issues here, that there's so many children now flooding the schools that there aren't teachers for them.

All of these problems that you perceive in fact do exist here in New Orleans. But what I see is a tremendous number of people who are either coming back, want to come back, doing whatever they can. I think that if all - if the government can solve its problems - that's state, local and national - and stop all these glitches and give people the support they need, they will come back. If that doesn't happen, then you're right, they won't come back.

CHIDEYA: All right, Joe, I'm going to do a little midpoint refresher for everybody who is just tuning in. We've just been listening to Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; plus Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University.

You're listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. And coming up, Joe Davidson, editor for the Washington Post. Joe, what do you think about the future of New Orleans, and whether or not people are going to come back?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, first of all, I should say, I'm just one of thousands of editors it seems like, not the editor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: One can always aspire.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That's right. Well, a couple of points. My son is visiting me from Houston, where many of the people who fled Katrina went. And he says that there are still so many people there and expected to remain there that the city of Houston is contemplating adding two new city council members because the population has increased so much.

And I was reading in the clips that the mayor, Mayor Nagin of New Orleans, says that only about half of the population has - is - well, New Orleans is only about half the size it was before Katrina, which was about 455,000. And as Mary indicates, he blames that, quite a bit of that, at least on logjams and federal housing aid.

And if that's the case, it would seem incredible that the federal bureaucracy turns so slowly that people are prevented from going home even now. There's this - these many months after Katrina.

CHIDEYA: Well, Joe, let me stay with you about a story that's making a lot of headlines. Yesterday, seven police officers were indicted on murder or attempted murder charges in New Orleans. The charges stem from an incident six days after Katrina struck. Two people were killed, four people were grievously wounded, one lost an arm, one is partially paralyzed in shootings on a bridge leading out of the city.

Now, the police officers say they were under fire. The people who were wounded say, we were just trying to get out. We were trying to reach our families.

This is a huge issue in a city that has had problems, as most cities do, between police and residents. Joe, what do you make of the fact that these indictments came down and they came down hard?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well they did come down hard. I was curious as to why it took so long to investigate. I mean this incident happened on the fourth of September in 2005, and here it is, the end of 2006. So I was a bit curious as to why it took so long, but sometimes these cases are complicated, particularly involving police officers who often don't have to - in many cities, at least - don't have to cooperate with an investigation for the first couple of days after the investigation.

And I think, though, that it is indicative of the kind of gulf that can occur between police departments - and particularly black communities - and the kind of tension that develops around these kinds of cases. I mean if you have - if it's true that these officers - if they are convicted in the deaths of these two men and the shooting of these four civilians under some barbaric conditions, at least as it's described in the newspaper accounts, then I think it's really going to make - increase the kind of tension that we often see in big cities around the country between police departments and black communities.

CHIDEYA: Nat, people from New Orleans have gotten a bad name. Oh, they brought crime to Houston. Some people say, oh, they've brought crime to Baton Rouge. And people from New Orleans are saying, look, we're not the problem. How does this play into the whole idea that New Orleans is a problem case when it comes to crime?

Dr. IRVIN: Well, you know, Farai, if this were not - if this were the only - if this were not the only kind of news coming out of New Orleans, it would be factored I think more along the lines of which Joe just described. I mean that, you know, the sort of day-to-day tensions that have existed between minority communities and the police department.

But when you look in national stories, we tend to get the worst kinds of examples, or the failures that are coming at New Orleans rather than success stories or some of the aspiration stories that Mary was referring to.

So it just doesn't help. And you know, of course, the general tendency, the inclination that we have toward New Orleans politics, Louisiana politics, is corruption. And so, this is not one of corruption but it is one that seems to be of extreme cruelty, the idea in fact the way that the district attorney has that characterize it as if it were just, you know, shooting animals.

And it just doesn't help. When you're thinking about trying to re-establish the city or if you're thinking about returning, it doesn't help.

CHIDEYA: Professor Berry, are people talking about this?

Dr. BERRY: Yes, and it's complicated. Of course, we've got a lot of, you know, police shooting of black people cases in New York and other places. We all remember Amadou Diallo and so on.

But, this is complicated by the Katrina, and the fact that these people were really just trying to get away from the flooding and the effects of the flooding and the hurricane. That's all they were and they were in east New Orleans, they're middle class black folk, apparently.

And this one guy who was killed, Ronald Madison, was a mentally retarded guy whose brother was with him. His family had left. They had a brother who is a dentist, they're middle class folks. And he just stayed in town because he wanted to take care of his dogs, and he wouldn't leave. So his brother stayed with him.

So you have this case - if it is the case that the police shot them in this way, you can always say the police are nervous, they're scared, they're upset, they're as affected by what's going on as everybody else. But as Eddie Jordan the prosecutor said, there are some rules about, you know, when you shoot people and when you don't and how many times you do.

So people here just see it as another one of the tragedies. And on the one hand, we need police. We need order in the city. We need to deal with crime. So you always want to support the police, but this just sounds totally outrageous.

One of the biggest thing that's being said by those who support the police and don't like that this coming out is that Eddie Jordon shouldn't have made all these statements until after there was a conviction. And that he is just inflaming everybody by doing this and playing politics.

But we just see it as part of the whole fabric of the things that have happened to people that are bad coming out of Katrina.

CHIDEYA: Eddie Jordan, being the -

Mr. DAVIDSON: And they came in one of those -

CHIDEYA: The DA. I'm sorry, we have to end it here.

Dr. BERRY: Eddie Jordon is the DA.

CHIDEYA: Yes. All right, well we're going to have to end it and Mary Frances Berry got the last word. She's a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. She was at Red River Recorders in New Orleans, Louisiana. Also had Joe Davidson, an editor for the Washington Post. And Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University, and columnist for the Winston Salem Journal. Thank you all.

Dr. IRVIN: Happy New Year.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, Happy New Year.

Dr. BERRY: Happy New Year.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Same to you.

CHIDEYA: As always, if you'd like to comment on any of the topics you've heard on our Roundtable, you can call us at 202-408-3330, or send us an email. Log on to, and click on Contact Us.

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