The next mayoral election will be one of the most important elections in the history of New Orleans. A new person will be chosen to lead the city forward after the last four years of a slow and frustrating recovery process. Choosing the right person for the job will be pivotal to the future of the city, as we are right at the border of taking it to new heights — or watching it fall into a permanent state of disrepair and dysfunction.
We don't know who all of the candidates are yet, but I think most people already know what qualities would make a great mayor. Opinions may vary depending on your situation and perspective, but I think that if there was that one special candidate who had the right qualities, it could break down many of those divisions and start to unite the city under one common goal. Call me a dreamer, but now is the time for optimism.
Please note that the qualities below do not include the ability to fly, see the future, or know how to plant money trees. I may be a dreamer, but I am also a realist. The things we want are not that impossible. We just have to pay attention and study each candidate closely and objectively. Here are a few of the things I hope to see from the person for whom I want to vote:
• A shining spokesperson for the city. I don't want this to be a critique of our current mayor, but how many times has he said or done something that made national news and made you just want to put your head down in shame? New Orleans has an image problem, and a well-spoken leader with some presence and charisma wouldn't hurt at all. I would love to have a mayor who could present our situation to the country with no one worrying about what he or she might say to embarrass us. The leader of any group should display the character and behavior that can be a benchmark for everyone he or she represents. We shouldn't have to find ways to work around the image of our leadership.
• Won't play it safe — or stick his or her nose in everywhere. Though holding the most important position in the city, the mayor is not directly responsible for many of the things that impact us — the school system being most paramount. How good would you feel about the direction of the city if the mayor just showed up at school board meetings and demanded a few minutes to speak? What if he called a monthly meeting of all the heads of the different charter schools and private schools just to get a feel for what was going on? I realize he can't walk in and take over legally, but it would be nice to know that he understands the impact the system has on the health of the city and is staying on top of it.
It wouldn't be a bad idea for the mayor to stand out in front on the health care issue as well. No one should be naïve enough to think one person can come in and change problems that took years to develop, but it would help everyone's resolve if we felt like the mayor lost as much sleep and worried about these things in the same way we do.
• Has a clear plan for change. I am sure all the candidates are going to say they are tired of the old way of doing business. What would be more intriguing is a person with specific ideas and details, a person who explains how his or her plan is a break from the old way of business. The perfect mayor won't just depend on slogans and take away my ability to make an informed decision.
I want details and statistics. I want to know what areas of city government we could cut back, and how we can enhance other areas that need attention, like the New Orleans Recreation Department. If there is a plan for new revenue, I want to know how much it is supposed to generate and where the money is going. We shouldn't have to speculate about what might be happening. I don't want the mayor to only tell me what's going on after he or she is accused by everyone of not doing anything.
• Not afraid to speak the truth when necessary. If the next mayor is going to have any chance of bringing the city together, he or she has got to be willing to call out any particular group when needed, regardless of race, class or geographic location. The mayor doesn't get the option of picking a side. From the first day in office, our new mayor has to represent everyone.
If a person or group is doing something to get in the way of progress, I want the mayor to stand up and say, "Things would be moving forward a lot faster if you guys would do the right thing." This rule should apply to everyone from thugs on the corner to business leaders in the CBD and everyone in between.
We have to stop being afraid to talk to one another about one another. If anyone wants the challenge of changing the course of the city, they should embrace the chance to bring every faction to the table and air out everything. The first few times we try this, we may end up with hurt feelings — and we may even need extra security. But we have to do it because in the long run, it will go a long way in helping us understand one another and move forward as one city.
• Admits mistakes and makes adjustments when necessary. No one is perfect. We live in a city in the midst of a recovery. Sometimes things may seem feasible one moment and then turn into a bad idea after a while. I think the next mayor has to have enough humility to tell the public when something isn't going according to plan and be willing to change the plan or abandon it all together. One of the worst feelings is watching the city throw away money on an idea that doesn't work and then keep throwing money at it in an attempt to save face. The public might be disappointed if a good idea turns into a failure, but morale gets low and frustration sets in when money is wasted just to keep the administration from looking bad.
These qualities are a blueprint of what to look for when speeches are being made and debates are taking place. Remember, even if the next great mayor shows up out of nowhere and takes the city by storm, he or she won't be able to do anything alone. Everyone will have to make an assessment of what his or her role is and do what he or she can even if that means just checking on a neighbor from time to time. If the perfect person doesn't come along, we can make a lot of progress with a good one — as long as we rally together and make the effort.
Clifton Harris is a lifelong resident of New Orleans and resides in eastern New Orleans with his family. He is an information systems coordinator who assists case managers and nonprofit organizations in providing services to the homeless. When Harris isn't working, he enjoys writing and being a full-time father. He has been writing his blog Cliff's Crib (cliffscrib.blogspot.com) for five years, where he focuses most of his attention on social and community issues.