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2004 in Review 

Joining the Party

Following the Republicans' dismal showing among black voters in the 2000 presidential election (George W. Bush received 8 percent of the black vote, a historic low), the GOP vowed to make changes for the 2004 election cycle. In a gesture of inclusiveness, the party leadership insisted on bringing more black delegates to the Republican National Convention in August. A press release highlighting the Louisiana delegation, which included 13 black delegates, said the delegation was 'among the most diverse in the nation' and demonstrated the broad appeal of the Republican Party ('Black, Republican and Proud,' Sept. 14).

The 13 black Louisianians at the convention named varying reasons for their party affiliation, which sets them apart from the vast majority of blacks in the state. Some mentioned their religious faith as a deciding factor, saying that the Republican platform on gay marriage, abortion and school prayer seemed a better match for their beliefs. Others stressed economics, saying the Republican Party's emphasis on home ownership and entrepreneurship could help more blacks reach the middle class.

The Republican National Convention was more than a showcase for a diverse mix of faces, it was also a rallying point. Black delegates were encouraged to return to their home states and build a grass-roots movement by organizing outreach events and nurturing black Republican candidates for local political office. The delegates' work paid off with a modest gain in black voters for Bush in the 2004 election: According to a CNN exit poll, he garnered 11 percent of the national black vote this time around.

That increase is just the beginning, says Landon Allen, the Louisiana GOP's newly appointed minority outreach director. 'Louisiana has 28,500 registered African-American Republicans, so my first goal is to reach out to them and get them into recruiting mode.' A new statewide infrastructure is in the works, with a council of black Republican activists planned for each of Louisiana's 64 parishes. 'We're looking at getting African Americans more involved in the Republican Party and getting them to run for office at the community level, the city level, the parish level, the state level,' Allen says. 'We'll work our way up the ladder.'

Musical Chairs

The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) is now halfway through its 14th season. In September, we reported on the fiscal challenges that the LPO faces as the United States' only musician-owned orchestra, as well as its ongoing search to replace music director Klauspeter Seibel ('Unfinished Symphony,' Sept. 7). To date, two potential candidates for the music director gig have made an appearance: New Zealand Christchurch Symphony Orchestra's Marc Taddei and Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto.

Taddei's interpretations of Mozart's Overture to the Impressario and Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 were precise but fresh, and he has a charming sense of humor. But it's Prieto who seems to have captivated LPO fans with his youth and exuberance on the podium. His Beethoven 5th Symphony concert in late September filled the Orpheum Theatre and led to multiple standing ovations. The LPO seems to be giving him close consideration as well -- he'll be back to conduct twice more before the season closes, and an audience-reaction poll was passed out at the September concert. The only wrench in the gears at this point may be Prieto's busy schedule; already music director of two symphonies and associate conductor at a third, does Prieto have time to conduct a full season in New Orleans?

Three new guest conductors are scheduled to appear in 2005 before the LPO goes into deliberations. Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee conducts Holst's The Planets next month. Edwin Outwater, the young associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, will conduct in April. And Emil de Cou, son of a New Orleans native, conducts in May.

Remembering Freedom Summer

Forty years ago this summer, young people -- many of them white and middle-class -- converged on Mississippi to conduct 'Freedom Schools' as part of the civil rights movement. The 'Summer Project,' as it was referred to, was designed to call attention to the struggle for voting rights that African-Americans in Mississippi had already been engaged in for more than three years. But the summer project also established an indelible connection between political activism and the empowerment of education.

The summer of 2004 found several players in the original Freedom Summer engaged with young New Orleanians in a struggle for civil rights that, for them, has yet to achieve fruition ('Hard Lessons,' July 20). In Treme, Jerome Smith led Tamborine and Fan, a day camp that stresses political activism and prompts children to question the way blacks are presented in media and history. 'We teach children to stand up like in Mississippi,' said Smith, whose students follow current events and organize forums and protests as needed. At the Kuji Center on the edge of the St. Thomas neighborhood, the Peoples' Institute for Survival and Beyond focused on deconstructing racist myths and assumptions and encouraging political involvement during its eighth 'Freedom School' for kids ages 10 to 20. Another Freedom School affiliated with the Peoples' Institute, this one located at Frederick Douglass High School, drew the support of Curtis Muhammad, Bob Moses and John O'Neal, all colleagues from the Mississippi battles of the 1960s.

STAYING HOME

In 2003 and early 2004, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) was illegally using confidential juvenile records to evict families from this city's housing projects ('Evicted,' March 9). A Gambit investigation showed that nearly 20 percent of HANO evictions for 2003 and 2004 were based on the actions of juveniles. Some incidents -- like a swiped bookbag, a truancy charge, teen girls squabbling about a card game -- seemed too petty to warrant an eviction. Others involved very young children, like an 11-year-old who was caught throwing a bag of crack out a window. Others dealt with unresolved cases, like that of a 15-year-old boy who was contesting an armed-robbery charge in juvenile court. But they all had one thing in common -- they all utilized information about juveniles that, under state law, must remain confidential. Most of these seemed to come to HANO's attention through New Orleans Police Department, which also was violating the law in turning over those records. At the time, HANO attorney Glynn Alexander was unrepentant, saying he could make a case for eviction without those records. 'I'm still going forward,' Alexander says. 'That's not going to stop me from evicting their parents.' A few weeks later, the NOPD had reassigned one person for releasing the records and was drafting a new policy to prevent anything similar from happening in the future.

Ex-Felons in the Mix

Unlike many Southern states, Louisiana law does not have a banned-for-life law for people with felony records ('Not Barred,' March 30). Ex-felons in Louisiana can vote once they're no longer on probation or parole, but most people don't know that. Which is where Norris Henderson comes in.

In March, he incorporated a group called Voice Of The Ex-offender (VOTE), focused on the 15,000 people released from Louisiana prisons each year. VOTE found a warm reception locally -- it teamed up with several groups to put on candidate forums and carry out voter-registration drives throughout the state and in a few local jails, including Orleans Parish Prison ('Unlocking the Vote,' November 2).

More than anything else, VOTE's success came from its focus on shoe leather, on going to neighborhoods and talking to people one-on-one in to dispel existing myths -- that felons can't vote at all or that they have to wait five years before they can. Henderson estimates that he heard confusion from 9 out of 10 people on the street. 'It comes from years and years of misinformation,' he says.

Down and Dirty

From the front page of major newspapers around the state to local talk radio to the neighborhood barbershop, people this year were taking notice of the negative tones being plastered across campaign advertisements and direct mail pieces. What many didn't know, however, was the mud being drudged up was usually the result of a few key political figures schooled in the ways of opposition research (The Hatchet Men,' Oct. 19).

The state Republican Party closely tracked Democratic candidates, unearthing old voting records, public documents and remarks from years ago, while the Dems did the same to GOP contenders. While most of the party work was focused on the U.S. Senate race during the primary, the congressional campaigns were using external firms or guns-for-hire to oversee their covert activities.

When Gambit turned the spotlight on these dirty deeds just four weeks before the primary election in November, we pushed Democratic operative Andrew Koneschusky to the forefront. While he was unsuccessful in damaging the family-friendly image of U.S. Sen.-elect David Vitter, a Metairie Republican who swept a packed field of notable names this fall, Koneschusky did make a name for himself as an oppo pro.

Public opinion on negative campaigning will not likely be changed as a result of this year's election cycle, but politicos are coming to grips with a certain truth about opposition research and negative campaigning: It might be nasty, but it works.

Sugar Concerns Continue

As the last of the 2003 sugar crop was heading in from the fields last January, southeast Louisiana farmers were worrying about more than recouping their losses from the 2002 hurricane season. Another storm, with the unwieldy name of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was brewing on the horizon, making third- and fourth-generation farmers worry about the future of their farms -- and of a way of life that has defined the landscape in this part of the state for 200 years and which produces more than 35 percent of the nation's sugar cane total. In January, Gambit looked at the prospects for the future, including possible alternative uses for sugar cane that would open the way to niche markets here at home and at the scary possibility that a fall in the price of sugar as a result of increased imports under CAFTA could prompt an economic crisis ('No Sweet Deal,' Jan. 13).

In the months following our coverage, Louisiana sugar growers were championed by members of Louisiana's congressional delegation, chiefly by Sens. Mary Landrieu and John Breaux and congressmen David Vitter and Billy Tauzin. The industry got a boost in December, when former American Sugar Cane League general manager and president Charlie Melancon, a seasoned lobbyist for Louisiana's sugar growers, won Tauzin's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the meantime, however, Louisiana growers faced a dismal year, with wet weather early and hot weather late in the season depleting this fall's crop.

With a new Louisiana delegation heading to Washington, the CAFTA storm is still brewing. The agreement has been signed by the president but has yet to be ratified by Congress. Jackie Theriot, chair of the Legislative Committee of the American Sugar Cane League, says his organization remains committed to defeating the agreement.

Making Music

Austin, Texas' South By Southwest (SXSW) is a yearly music showcase and industry shmoozefest, and it's one of the primary venues for conducting music business. Susan Cowsill, former member of the Cowsills and the Continental Drifters, went to SXSW in 2004 looking to build the infrastructure for her solo career ('Badge On the Run,' May 25).

By the end of the mid-March weekend, she had much of the money needed to record an album. The resulting CD, Just Believe It!, is finished, with guest appearances by Lucinda Williams and Adam Duritz as well as Jumpin' Johnny Sansone and Amanda Shaw. It's out now on her European label, Blue Rose Records.

Cowsill and her band played a showcase in New York in front of representatives of 11 labels in November, she says. 'We had wonderful response from several labels, but the whole industry shuts down around Christmas time, so not much is happening right now.' She is, however, in serious discussions with the manager of a number of major artists, and she recognizes that signing with him may change her plans. One thing is certain. ' We're returning to SXSW to up the ante,' Cowsill says.

New Orleans metal band Outlaw Order had more modest goals for SXSW. 'We just want to jam,' guitarist Gary Mader said before going to Austin, and business was largely an afterthought. The band had released an EP with Southern Lord Recordings and discussed putting out an album with label head Greg Anderson on the drive from New Orleans. 'We finally got a contract and need to get a lawyer to look at it,' Mader says. 'It's not in any language we can understand.' With the album written, Outlaw Order plans to record in February and spend 2005 touring.

After SXSW, rock 'n' roll band Supagroup spent much of the fall touring Canada and the West Coast with Alice Cooper. 'He named us the next Guns 'n' Roses,' singer Chris Lee says. While in Austin, the band was working with its label to try to get more radio play and airplay on national video network Fuse. In the southeast, many alternative stations added 'What's Your Problem?' but neither Fuse nor MTV picked up the video. Supagroup recorded its fifth album, tentatively titled Rules, this fall in New York with producer Kevin Shirley. It's scheduled for a May 10 release.

Bluebrass Revolution

Tipitina's Internship Program (TIP) sent professional musicians and high school students in the program to Asheville, N.C., this summer to see what happens when New Orleanians steeped in soul, jazz and R&B traditions try to make music with their bluegrass counterparts ('Strings Attached,' Aug. 17).

The exchange was such a success that, according to Bill Taylor, director of Tipitina's Foundation, he's in the process of finalizing details for a 'Bluebrass' summit in New Orleans at Tipitina's this spring.

Multi-instrumentalist and Asheville participant Woody Wood is continuing the exchange with a series of pre-Mardi Gras shows at the Maple Leaf Bar. With Troy 'Trombone Shorty' Andrews, Big Chief Peppy of the Golden Arrows and Geechy Johnson of the Wild Magnolias, Wood will work on an Indian/bluegrass fusion on Sunday nights starting Jan. 16.

TIP enters its second year with a flurry of activity, including expansion to Shreveport of the internship program and the musicians' co-op. The Second Line Brass Band Workshop series started at the end of 2004 continues and expands, due to the demand, into Tipitina's. Starting Jan. 6, it will take place the first Thursday of each month, February excepted due to Mardi Gras.

The first TIP Masters Seminar of the year is a drum summit featuring Zigaboo Modeliste, Smokey Johnson and Earl Palmer Saturday, Jan. 15, at 1 p.m. The legendary Palmer considers himself retired, Taylor says, but is flying in from Los Angeles for the occasion.

C-Murder Update

Rap artist Corey 'C-Murder' Miller, the brother of music mogul Percy 'Master P' Miller, is expected to greet the New Year the same way he met 2004 and 2003 -- locked up at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center at Gretna.

Corey Miller has been in jail since Jan. 12, 2002, when he was arrested and booked with the shooting death of one of his fans, 16-year-old Steve Thomas, outside the Platinum Club in Harvey.

As 2004 drew to a close, the state Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was expected to rule on whether to grant Miller a new trial or re-instate his murder conviction, which was thrown out in April by trial Judge Martha Sassone. A parish jury had convicted Miller in 2003 of second-degree-murder in Thomas' death, and the rapper faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Prior to sentencing, however, Miller defense attorney Ron Rakosky asked Sassone for a new trial, arguing that prosecutors failed to inform the jury that key prosecution witnesses had criminal records. The state allowed that it did not have information about one witness because of an expunged conviction, but countered that the legal problems of other prosecution witnesses were known to the defense.

The saga of one prosecution witness was revealed to the public for the first time by a Gambit Weekly investigation. ('John Doe's Deal,' March 2.) Our probe found that prosecutors for District Attorney Paul Connick's office persuaded state Judge Steve Windhorst to release a four-time convicted felon from the Gretna jail, after the cooperating inmate testified in open court against Miller at a 2002 bond hearing. The inmate witness, whom we called 'John Doe' in response to authorities' concerns for his safety, was also facing life in prison as a multiple offender. But prosecutor Doug Freese told the judge that authorities feared they would not be able to guarantee their witness's safety in jail. Doe was released and remained free for 16 months. By early 2004, Doe was back in an area jail (that we did not name) and facing new charges of domestic violence and being a convicted felon in possession of firearms.

First Assistant District Attorney Steve Wimberly declined comment on the case. Freese is now in private practice. He has been replaced on the Miller case by prosecutor Roger Jordan, who previously worked for former Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick.

Out of Prison for Good

In June, the state of Louisiana officially closed its notorious Tallulah juvenile prison. A few days later, a coalition of townspeople announced plans to put a community learning center on the west edge of town, on the land where the prison now stands ('Taking Back Tallulah,' Aug. 3). The Legislature later passed a bill that will make this idea possible. As a result, Tallulah moved from prison town -- home to one of the worst juvenile lockups in the nation -- to college town -- the first and the only place in the country to propose an educational facility in place of a prison. &127;

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