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Does Substance Matter? 

The knocks against Councilman Jim Singleton as a mayoral candidate -- his age and his speech and hearing impairments -- may actually become his strengths. That was the tenor of his announcement speech last Thursday.

Of the mayoral announcements so far, Singleton's was by far the most personal and the most substantive. He presented specifics rather than rhetoric, and he strayed from his prepared text to tackle head-on a very personal issue that has confronted him his whole life: his speech and hearing impairments.

Noting the distinction between perception and reality, the 68-year-old councilman said, "I was born with a speech impediment and a hearing problem, which I have had to deal with all my life."

At that point, Singleton's eyes welled up as he described how difficult it was for him in high school. Then he said, "I understand my problem and how to deal with it." What bothers him most, Singleton said, is the cruelty of some young people toward other young people with similar problems. He said he hopes his campaign, in addition to electing him mayor, will inspire young people to overcome difficulties.

"This disability did not stop me from becoming a classroom teacher, an army officer, a neighborhood advocate, or a city councilman," said Singleton, a retired U.S. Army colonel. "And it won't stop me from becoming your next mayor."

Even Singleton's critics concede that no one knows the city budget better than he. In fact, he has more experience in city government that all of his announced opponents combined. He added that his age and military training give him "a unique advantage. I know there the problems are, and I know how to fix them."

On the issues, he embraced all the recommendations of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, which drafted a blueprint for improving city government. He likewise promised to submit balanced budgets to the City Council, to hire an independent CPA firm to audit city finances, and to appoint an inspector general and ethics commission -- both of which were authorized by 1995 amendments to the City Charter, but neither of which has materialized in the current administration.

Singleton also offered an economic development plan centered on a director whose primary mission will be "to retain and grow local businesses."

He took a swipe at Police Chief Richard Pennington, who is expected to make a formal announcement of candidacy soon. "With recent reports that New Orleans is once again the 'murder capital of America,' we have to stop harping on the progress we have made and begin to put together the mechanics for a sustained and consistent strategy against crime," he said.

Singleton's supporters include state Reps. Mitch Landrieu and Karen Carter, Councilman Oliver Thomas and Maj. Gen. James Livingston, a retired Marine and Medal of Honor winner.

Most campaigns are steeped in imagery. Singleton, after more than two decades on the City Council, is determined to make this one about substance.

Correction and Apology

In last week's column, I erroneously stated that New Orleans businessman Frank Stewart was playing a prominent role in the effort to draft Police Chief Richard Pennington into the mayor's race. That error appeared because I made a rookie mistake: I failed to check with Stewart, whom I have known a long time and for whom I have a great deal of respect, before using his name in connection with the story.

I now know that Stewart's policy as chairman of a publicly traded company is not to take a public role in local elections -- for reasons that should have been obvious to me last week. While Stewart has a close relationship with Pennington, he likewise has longstanding friendships with most of the mayoral candidates and has worked closely with them for many years.

I sincerely apologize for the error.

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