Opinion

21st Century Carpetbaggers in the New Reconstruction

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21st Century Carpetbaggers In The New Reconstruction:

Let The Good Times Roll, But Don’t Let Them Tread On Me

By

Timothy Achan Gates

 
The Greater New Orleans area is home to a variety of establishments that cater to anonymity, dark caves offering nearly any kind of vice imaginable, but the English Tea Room is not one of those. Located north of New Orleans in Covington, the Tea Room is a brightly lit, high profile, mid 20th century cottage with an authentic, red London Telephone Box on the front patio. A life-size cardboard cut out of Queen Elizabeth II, always available for picture opportunities, greets visitors to the “Queen’s Parlor.”

The idea of an English tea room in historically confederate territory may seem odd, but Covington was actually a refuge for British Loyalists after the Revolutionary War, and the St. Tammany delegation voted not to secede from the Union during the War Between The States. The genteel air of the place is not conducive to the gritty realities of piecing together the more sinister aspects of local political motivation, but it does generate a sense of stillness in time that allows thoughts to gather. Sitting in the Churchill Room, enjoying exotic teas from around the globe and surrounded by obscure memorabilia of the British Bulldog, the situational reality of one of his more infamous statements hit home:

“Never let a good crisis go to waste…”

South Louisiana has been in crisis mode for the last decade. The five year anniversary of the BP Disaster recently passed, and the ten year anniversary of Katrina is approaching. The consequences of those events are still realized on a near daily basis; it was recently announced that all that oil… yeah, it’s still on the floor of the Gulf, and there’s a lot more than was initially reported. Which, for those paying attention, was already well known.

Standing in the kitchen of the tea room, looking off the back porch on a dark, misty Louisiana winter night, I spoke briefly with Bo, the head dishwasher, before closing. It was Mardi Gras time, and Covington was sleepy; everyone seemed to be somewhere else. Addressing the quiet of the street, Bo offered with a slight lament,

“Just think. This is how it was before Katrina.”

I exited silently as Bo finished his closing duties.

Jesus, I thought, he was only ten during Katrina.

Nostalgia is a prevailing sentiment among those that lived here before that fateful storm. The area is considered a refuge from the city and a place of healing. The Northshore is home to the affluent, and it is also largely rural, to the disdain of well-connected developers and crony public officials. While the Parish Governments work to grow the tax base and Governor Jindal dreams of the Presidency, Louisiana is far behind in education, it has the highest incarceration rate, per capita, in the World, and it is very polluted, with one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the nation.

Welcome To The New Reconstruction

The prevailing post-disaster economic directive appears to be a consolidation of corporate control in a part of the country that continues to struggle for a more cultural identity, separate of its pop culture persona. Not to undermine the daunting task of recovery in a city with loosely defined economic goals (it’s not called the Big Easy for nothing), the consequences of those decisions have changed the landscape: The New Orleans Superdome is now the “Mercedez-Benz” Superdome, and the New Orleans Arena is now the “Smoothie King” Arena.

The standard operating procedure is based on what Hunter Thompson identified as the “Death of the American Dream.” Privatize everything. The free market was never really free, and like fame, even black mold has its price.

Local media outlets have picked up on the nuances of the larger picture with features like “Louisiana Purchased” and “Selling Louisiana,” but wholesale dissemination of information is still challenged by the annoyance of reading and comprehension. Besides, if you are a Louisiana native, the inherent corruption is expected and most would rather not be bothered by it.

In early 2014, former Chocolate City and Vagina-Friendly Mayor Ray Nagin was convicted on twenty of twenty-one charges of wire fraud, bribery and money laundering in relation to pre and post Katrina activities, just the latest in Louisiana’s rich history of public corruption trials. Detailed in his 2011 book, “Katrina’s Secrets: Storms After the Storm,” Nagin recounts some bizarre fears he developed during the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane experience:

“I started wondering if during the night I would be visited by specially trained CIA agents. Could they secretly shoot me with a miniature, slow-acting poison dart?”

It is unlikely that Nagin is the first mayor of a fairly well known city to worry about being offed by the CIA, but he is the first in recent memory to voice it in such a hauntingly specific fashion. Thanks to the writers of the Sony release “The Interview,” it is now widely known that the CIA prefers adhesive strips with ricin on one side; if only Nagin had that knowledge, he could have simply avoided shaking hands, rather than obsess about arcane, low-tech assassins.

Very recently, the CIA has undergone major restructuring, with a speculated “lock down” incident. Greg Miller of the Washington Post reported CIA Director John Brennan describing a reorganization of the intelligence agency, with the aim of placing it in the position to “cover the entire universe, regionally and functionally, and so something that’s going on in the world falls into one of those buckets.” Frequent checks will ensure the buckets do not have holes in them. Perhaps someone at CIA HQ spiked the punch again.

As New Orleans prepares for another Royal Dutch Shell sponsored Jazz & Heritage Festival, it is fitting to see The Who and Sir Elton John in the line-up, an entertaining reiteration that the Imperial Structure persists in the Land of Napoleonic Code. Follow the Yellow Brick Road, and pay no attention to the Man Behind The Curtain.

When Abby Hoffman ran onstage during a break in The Who’s performance at Woodstock to rant at the crowd about the jailed John Sinclair, The Who (allegedly Townsend) knocked him into the audience, with the reasoning that they didn’t care about his politics, he was hogging their stage and they were there to play music. Today, the political landscape of the marijuana issue is still highly relevant and rapidly transforming, with the emerging sentiment that nobody should spend any time in prison for simple possession of a medicinal plant, much less a decade, in 1969, now or ever.

A posthumous nod to John Lennon, who was assassinated on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1980 by Mark David Chapman, a religious fanatic who admittedly fantasized as a child about exerting king-like power over little people living in the walls of his bedroom. Lennon, along with a small group of performers that included Stevie Wonder and Bob Seger, organized a Crisler Arena concert at the University of Michigan, ultimately resulting in Sinclair’s freedom.

The Who chose to behave like cheap thugs, using musical instruments to assault unsuspecting, well-intentioned freaks attempting to express, at least by Hoffman’s tripped out estimation, a very important statement at the time. The implications of this narrow world view are supported by its jaded practicality, and that is why The Who are a logical choice to play a major, global oil conglomerate-sponsored festival showcasing Louisiana music, while the Northshore of the Greater New Orleans Metro Area is working overtime to stop the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing in the wilds of St. Tammany Parish.

I Can See For Miles And Miles…

St. Tammany sits just north of Lake Pontchartrain and New Orleans, and it was named by William Claiborne in 1810 after Delaware Chief Tamanend, who is not technically a Saint. Tamanend is a notable historic figure; he was integral to relations between the natives and settlers in the North East during the late 17th century. With a strong reputation for peaceful negotiation, “Tammany” societies and festivals in his honor became commonplace across the country. Covington is the Parish Seat of St. Tammany, its City Logo a rendition of Tamanend sitting on top of the Parish, holding a staff that penetrates the lake, emanating slight ripples in the water.

St. Tammany is historically known as the “Sanitarium of the South,” and before the role of ozone was understood properly, the north shore was promoted for its ozone belt. For many visitors, simply having the variation of trees as opposed to concrete environments makes a great difference. The nearby town of Abita Springs is named for the pure artesian well water that is available, and it continues to provide a destination point for healing. During the Yellow Fever epidemic in New Orleans in the mid -1800’s, people flocked to the north shore to recuperate, and to avoid the disease altogether. These days, the Parish Government is quick to promote the natural, scenic beauty of St. Tammany, while privately discussing plans to capitalize on the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale formation that lies beneath our sole-source aquifer, extending for miles and miles.

The Industry was talking about the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale in 2011, and although local media reported on the speculation, the fact that there was a plan was not understood. The groundwork was being laid to introduce hydraulic fracturing in St. Tammany for at least three years, but the general public was not aware of any proposal until April of 2014. As soon as the operations were disclosed, a flurry of activity ensued. Events were organized, stances were taken, meetings were attended and lawsuits were filed.

After frustration from a lack of progress with the St. Tammany Parish Council, a small group of “fractivists” decided the best course of action would be to fire them all. Recall petitions were filed with the Office of the Secretary of State for every council member, including the Parish President. With a press conference in downtown Covington, the event became even more controversial when it was discovered that the petitions were not filed properly, by the fault of the state office.

To correctly file a recall petition for a parish council member, the filer must be a resident of the council district represented. The clerk allowed two citizens of the same district to file petitions for every council member from every district in the parish. Those petitions became null and void, but the petition to recall St. Tammany Parish President Patricia Brister was still valid.

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”

“Let them recall Brister, we’ll just put someone else in there who will do what we want.” This statement was overheard at a popular Covington restaurant shortly after the recall petition debacle. Not only does it demonstrate clearly the influence existing outside of the Parish Government, it reveals an underlying contempt for basic principles outlined in documents like the State and Federal
Constitutions. Who are the elitist controllers of the Parish President, wielding their confidence with such hubris, and within earshot of the profane? After initiating a series about economic development suggestive of a hidden control structure in St. Tammany, the Chamber of Commerce was first to respond.

The St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce called, on behalf of Larry Rase, Executive Director of the Northshore Business Council, and DonahueFavret Contractors. The main criticism was that the writing inferred a “hierarchy of organizations,” exemplified by the use of the word “above.” The St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce is, of course, open to the business community as a paid membership group. On the other hand, the Northshore Business Council is a private, invitation only group of “CEOs, Presidents and Market Managers” which oversees the three parishes of Tangipahoa, St. Tammany and Washington. Therefore, St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce is a public business organization, representing the western half of St. Tammany Parish, while the Northshore Business Council is an invitation only group representing three entire parishes, but they are lateral organizations.

It was agreed that a formal response to the economic development series would be offered, which ultimately came from Don Shea, former Economic Development Director of St. Tammany Parish. Shea also sat on the board of the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation, a non-profit corporation that receives public money and acts as the management arm of the District, a political subdivision of the state, within the boundaries of St. Tammany Parish. If that’s not confusing enough, the Parish Government also creates new Economic Development Districts within the Development District, literally a subdivision of the state upon a subdivision of the state.

Shea is now the first casualty of the fracking fracas within the Parish Government, although not admittedly. The official story is that he was asked to submit his two weeks’ notice; when he asked for more time, he was refused, then he asked for termination. This action came on the heels of an email communication made public in which Shea referred to the fracking opposition as “loonies”.

The legislative process is indeed similar to a form of magic, whereby control of one’s immediate environment can literally be created from nothing, simply by declaring it so. After the formal responses and heated conversations, what no one has been able to explain is the absent public oversight of the process in which quasi-public agencies work with private organizations to divide up public money among certain members of the business community.

“tip my hat to the new constitution…”

In the summer of 2014, this writer sent a list of questions to GNO, Inc., an economic development and retention organization that works with ten different parishes regionally:

1) What specifically is GNO, Inc. doing to explore and implement emerging renewables such as solar and industrial hemp?

2) Does GNO, Inc. pay an excise tax?

3) Is there a mechanism in place to prevent the cross pollination of board members from other organizations?

4) How would you describe the working relationship with the Bureau of Governmental Research and the Northshore Business Council?

5) The NBC has formal research indicating that St. Tammany Parish is best suited for heavy industry and defense industry contracting, which seems contradictory to the message that the Northshore is a destination point for scenic beauty and healthy lifestyles. What is GNO, Inc.’s position on heavy industrial operations in St. Tammany?

There was no reply. Incidentally, the same day the questions were sent, Louisiana State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell advised Governor Jindal to reject a bill that would kill a lawsuit between the Jefferson Parish Levee Board and ninety-seven different oil companies, including BP, Helis Oil Co. and Manti Resources. Rejecting the AG’s advice instead, Jindal signed the bill and killed the lawsuit.

The Pinball Wizard Is A Real Good Looking Boy

In the Fall of 2014, GNO, Inc. held a gala launch party to re-introduce Biz New Orleans, originally founded in 2003, but defunct since Katrina. The October Premiere Issue featured a playful color cover with “Mr. Business” standing before the twilight backdrop of downtown New Orleans, like a statue, part of the machine. Michael Hecht is “Mr. Business,” the young and established Ivy League CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., and the new Pinball Wizard of the southern-fried economic development game.

“How do you think he does – it? I don’t know…”

Hecht worked for Mayor Michael Bloomberg running a post-9/11 small business initiative when he was first contacted by former Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Mike Olivier. Louisiana was looking for a “similar program,” and Hecht worked with Olivier until his installation at GNO, Inc. in 2008. In the Biz piece “Selling New Orleans,” Hecht explains that whether it’s bringing 47 different entities to the table to persuade GE Capital to move to New Orleans, or coordinating 250 entities across the country to fix flood insurance, GNO, Inc. found that being a trusted coordinator, intermediary and project manager is a role that people want filled.

Now that New Orleans is packaged and sold, perhaps the next series will be, “Frying New Orleans And Eating It,” in which the city is cooked to golden perfection and chomped on like a hush puppy. Only time will tell just how supple Hecht’s wrists are.

Get On The Magic Bus For A Quick One While He’s Away

Have you seen the Bus, the Magic Bus? The Louisiana Legislative Express runs non-stop to Baton Rouge and D.C., at all hours. Heck, it might even be invisible. It is Magic. One thing in Louisiana that is not magic is The Army Corps of Engineers; they tend to get thrown under the Magic Bus. For years, politicians have been blaming the Army Corps for levee failures and incomplete projects. The Corps of Engineers responds that the funds allocated for said projects have a tendency to disappear before the projects are completed. Interesting Louisiana storm trivia: Hurricane Katrina traveled straight up the controversial “Mr. Go” canal, one of the last Corps projects completed at the time.

“I want it, I want it, I want it…”

Despite the protestations of swollen bureaucrats, there is evidence to support the idea that the Army Corps of Engineers plays a more active role in attempting to curb rampant industrial development, particularly in wetlands areas, of which St. Tammany Parish is about 45%. In 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers introduced the Modified Charleston Method to Louisiana as a means of mitigation for
wetlands development, requiring 3-4 mitigated acres to 1 developed acre. A campaign to dismantle the Modified Charleston Method was launched by Greater New Orleans Inc. and the UNO’s Institute for Economic Development & Real Estate Research before the public was even aware of its existence.

Congressman Steve Scalise was quick to respond. “The Modified Charleston Method is a radical environmental regulation that stunts economic development in Louisiana,” Scalise states on his official website. The main argument is that the MCM has a negative effect on the real estate market, driving developers away. While Congressman Scalise describes the MCM as crippling and unrealistic to business, exempting Louisiana from it paves the way for industries like hydraulic fracturing, which are crippling and unrealistic to the public, the sector that Scalise supposedly represents.

“I’m so nervous, I just sit and smile… too much, magic bus”

In November 2014, the second issue of GNO Inc.’s regional new/old business publication, Biz New Orleans, featured a black and white cover of Congressman Scalise resting in an armchair, appearing in charge and slightly strung-out on the political high, facilitating an inviting, wide open crotch-shot. The photo is reminiscent of the scene in Scarface where Tony Montana is slumped in his chair in front of a mountain of cocaine, right before he introduces everyone to his little friend. Unlike Montana, Scalise is presented as a negotiator, offering the conviction that in any relationship, differences should be confronted and gotten out of the way.

Presented next is quoted material about Congressman and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, from the Biz New Orleans article, “How To Play The Game” By Jeremy Alford. Note that the passage is taken directly from the article, but appears out of order and context.

“By 1972, when his twin engine Cessna disappeared over Alaska, somewhere between Anchorage and Juneau, Hale Boggs (the last Louisianian who served as whip) had climbed up to majority leader, as many whips do. It’s not unimaginable that Scalise could accomplish the same… That evening it was as if the street were curving downward in a slight bend, stretched by the weight of Scalise in the middle as he was coming into his own…. The smell of seafood in the air mixed with anticipation as Scalise addressed his team inside a private room in Acadiana, a fish house in Washington, D.C. with a New Orleans chef and menu… He had also taken up with a group of conservative lawmakers who refer to themselves as “The Jedi Council,” one of Washington’s best kept secrets…. Acadiana is located on K Street, one of Washington’s major thoroughfares of power and home to the offices of the nation’s most influential lobbyists and special interests…. Scalise handed out red Marucci baseball bats to his whip campaign team… Inscribed on the bats: “Bring the Wood”” – Jeremy Alford, “How To Play The Game,” Biz New Orleans

While this paragraph is a journalistic mess of quoted material taken out of context, albeit from one single article (my apologies to Jeremy Alford and Biz New Orleans), some undeniable truths prevail: 1) Scalise has the possibility of disappearing somewhere between Anchorage and Juneau in a Cessna twin engine plane after reaching majority whip status 2) Scalise creates his own gravity 3) Scalise enjoys the ambiance of a southern style fish house 4) Scalise is a “Jedi” 5) K Street is the source of most, if not all, problems in this country and 6) Scalise is fond of red baseball bats inscribed with the phrase, “Bring The Wood”.

The Biz article was released prior to reports of Scalise’s controversial speaking engagement to a white supremacist group. David Duke even popped into that media storm from out of the shadows, threatening everyone to lay off Scalise, or he would name associates on both sides of the aisle. Congressman Scalise works hard at fostering an image of leadership that illustrates the ability to compromise across the aisles, or within his own party, for that matter. In fact, the entire focus of the Biz article is to point out the differences between Hollywood and reality with regard to Scalise and the character depicted in the fictional “House of Cards” Netflix series.

“You’re house is only another mile… too much, Magic Bus”

Observing Scalise personally, one can attest to the fact that the same degree of difference exists between Scalise, The Article and Scalise in Real Life. His appearance at a WRNO Town Hall Meeting (as a panel member) at the Covington Trailhead, held shortly after Covington Mayor Mike Cooper announced his disagreement with the “proliferation of hydraulic fracturing operations,” was a stumping session for the November elections, where he (Scalise) relentlessly blamed ethanol, the EPA and common core issues on the lacking Democratic leadership.

As the meeting degraded into a shouting match between the panel and those opposed to fracking, Moderator John Osterlin made the statement that “they should frack in the poorest neighborhoods of New Orleans, to give them jobs.” Although Osterlin is no longer with WRNO (and not expressly due to his sociopathic statements), in that one shining moment he and the WRNO Town Hall panel got a good, rollicking belly laugh.

Too Much, Magic Bus.

#End Part One