Every year at this time, I marvel at Louisiana's ability to generate political storylines that are consistently stranger than those of the preceding year. This year is no exception. In fact, there were so many big — and unusual — political stories in 2010 that I have to alter my traditional "Top 10" format in favor of a "Top 20" compilation. The year 2010 was just that weird.
Herewith are the Top 20 Political Stories of 2010:
1. The Saints Win the Super Bowl — Yeah, I know the Super Bowl is not a political event, but the Saints' march to Miami had enormous impact across cultural, racial and political lines. When Garrett Hartley kicked the winning field goal to clinch the NFC championship for the Saints, New Orleanians forgot about the citywide elections a full two weeks before Election Day. All we could talk about was the Saints going to the Super Bowl — and that had a huge effect on the mayor's race. The team's stunning victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Feb. 7 (the day after the mayor's race) united New Orleanians like nothing else and gave us a lasting civic high.
2. The BP Oil Gusher — If the Saints' Super Bowl win was the ultimate high, the BP oil catastrophe (coming just 10 weeks later) was the quintessential downer. The huge leak sent millions of gallons of crude into Louisiana's fragile marshes, exacerbating the adverse impact of rising sea levels and coastal subsidence. The protracted crisis gave Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and Gov. Bobby Jindal national platforms and — we hope — brought needed national attention to Louisiana's disappearing coastline.
3. Mitch Landrieu Elected Mayor — You know it's a strange year when the election of New Orleans' first white mayor in more than three decades ranks third among the year's biggest political stories. Landrieu was the first New Orleans mayor ever to win election by capturing a majority of black and white votes. That feat could mark the beginning of a post-racial era in local politics, depending on Landrieu's ability to maintain his reach across ethnic lines. In his first seven months, Landrieu has deftly increased local revenues, wiped out the Nagin-era deficit and renegotiated costly sanitation contracts. Behind the scenes, he's getting a rep for heavy-handedness, but leadership and change always exact a toll. The trick for Landrieu will be maintaining his cross-cultural support while making the tough decisions needed to turn the city around.
4. Suburban Scandals — And you thought New Orleans was corrupt? Take a look at Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard and the River Parishes. No one has been indicted yet in Jefferson, but the feds subpoenaed parish records and raided the parish's would-be landfill contractor in what appears to be a widening probe. Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard resigned shortly after his top aide, Tim Whitmer, stepped down as CAO amid an insurance scandal; they were followed by Parish Attorney Tom Wilkinson, who quit after it was learned he put Broussard's former wife on the payroll for a job she was not doing. All eyes will be on the federal courthouse in 2011 as former St. John the Baptist Parish President Bill Hubbard reportedly is cooperating with the feds in several other suburban investigations. Hubbard pleaded guilty to soliciting bribes in 2009. Meanwhile, former Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price reported to jail in October to begin a three-year-plus prison term for corruption, and former St. Bernard Parish Judge Wayne Cresap was given a five-year jail term and fined $100,000 for his part in a judicial bribery scheme.
5. The Republican Tsunami — Louisiana finally joined the rest of the South as a "red" state on Nov. 2, and the GOP tide continues to rise as Democratic state lawmakers switch parties. Republicans will soon control the state House — and will come close if not succeeding in owning the Senate — but will the GOP lead Louisiana out of the wilderness, or will this be just another case of the lean hogs moving closer to the trough to get their fill? The 2011 legislative session will hold some answers.
6. The NOPD Scandals — The Glover case, the Danziger Bridge case and other federal investigations have ripped open NOPD's cone of silence. Bad news is likely to continue as the federal intervention runs its course at NOPD and exposes other problem areas. The good news: when the feds and new Police Chief Ronal Serpas are done, we'll have a much cleaner and more effective police department.
7. U.S. District Judge Thomas Porteous Removed — Earlier this month, Porteous became only the eighth federal judge ever convicted by the U.S. Senate; the House unanimously adopted four articles of impeachment against him in March. Porteous' trial painted him as corrupted by alcohol and gambling addictions, and the Senate voted overwhelmingly for removal. He previously served as a state judge in Jefferson Parish, and his impeachment represents perhaps the last chapter in the feds' "Wrinkled Robe" investigation into corruption at the parish courthouse.
8. The State Budget Crisis — State lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal are on a mad dash to "the cliff" — everyone's favorite metaphor for the huge revenue shortfall projected for the next fiscal year — and nobody has figured out yet how to turn things around. Higher ed and health care cuts loom large, but there's a lot of pushback from colleges, doctors and others.
9. David Vitter's Re-election — Love him or hate him, you have to admire the sinful senator's political instincts, tenacity and focus. He dodged reporters and their pesky questions about his dalliances with prostitutes, raised wads of cash, and then had the good fortune of running for re-election in a state in which President Barack Obama is even more unpopular than sin. Vitter ran a strategically brilliant campaign, mentioning Democratic opponent Charlie Melancon only in the context of the congressman's support of the president.
10. John Young Elected Jefferson Parish President — For a while it looked as though Jefferson's major political factions were going to war, but when At-Large Councilman Tom Capella opted to run for assessor instead of parish president, everyone decided to give peace a chance. Young has been the face of reform in Jefferson, and his nascent administration is giving parish government a much-needed makeover.
11. The Nagin Scandals — From crime camera capers and other IT boondoggles to inept contracting work at Armstrong Park to an $80 million deficit, former Mayor Ray Nagin's legacy is coming sharply into focus as one of gross incompetence, if not malfeasance and corruption. Although he has not been named as a target of the ongoing federal investigation into his administration, Nagin is beginning to look like General Custer at Little Big Horn. His former right-hand man, Greg Meffert, pleaded guilty in early November to corruption charges, as did former IT chief and Meffert successor Anthony Jones just last week. Both fingered former Meffert business partner Mark St. Pierre as having bribed them, and both have promised to cooperate with the ongoing federal investigation. St. Pierre, who paid for Nagin's trips to Hawaii and Jamaica, remains under federal indictment for bribery and conspiracy. If St. Pierre cops a plea, 2011 could be a very bad year for The Walking Id.
12. Bobby's Travels & Travails — Remember when we used to complain about Gov. Mike Foster refusing to leave the state to pursue economic development opportunities? Now we have a governor who refuses to stay in Louisiana, although Gov. Talking Point's jaunts have little to do with economic development. Jindal's book tour and frequent fundraising trips have swelled his war chest and lined his pockets, but back home folks are getting tired of it. His once-stratospheric approval numbers have fallen to 55 percent, and his disapproval numbers have risen to 43 percent. That's not disastrous, but he needs to get and stay engaged to reverse a steady two-year slide.
13. Lawrence Chehardy's Resignation — For 45 years, Jefferson Parish had a guy named Chehardy in the assessor's job, and voters were just fine with that. Then, in June, Lawrence E. Chehardy, who succeeded his father, Lawrence A. Chehardy, as parish assessor in 1975 and held the office longer than anyone in parish history, suddenly announced his year-end retirement. Chehardy's decision caught many off guard, coming as it did amid the ongoing federal investigation into parish government, but he has not been linked to any of the matters believed to be under review. Chehardy says he's tired and ready to move on. His departure from the parish political scene leaves a huge power vacuum.
14. Cedric Richmond Elected to Congress — Only a few Democrats were able to swim against the surging Republican tide this year. Richmond, a state representative from eastern New Orleans, unseated the unlikeliest GOP incumbent, Anh "Joseph" Cao, on Nov. 2. It was Richmond's second try for Congress; he ran third against former Congressman Bill Jefferson in the 2008 Democratic primary.
15. Jay Dardenne Elected Lt. Governor — Although a longtime Republican, then-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne was not a Tea Party favorite when he ran for lieutenant governor this year. That makes his victory in that race a real achievement. Dardenne is an anomaly in many Republican circles: He's moderate and Jewish. Not bad for a state that coughed up David Duke two decades ago.
16. The Fight to Control New Orleans Public Schools — When the state took over failing public schools in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the Recovery School District (RSD) was expected to turn the schools around — and then turn them back over to the local school board. The RSD has brought significant improvements to many schools, particularly the growing number of charter schools, but now it wants to keep them a while longer. The Orleans School Board is fuming, but most voters like things the way they are ... for now.
17. Erroll Williams & Marlin Gusman Elected Assessor and Sheriff — New Orleans now has just one assessor instead of seven, and one sheriff instead of two. Gusman took office in July. Williams formally takes over as the city's sole assessor in January, and he'll have a full plate. In addition to consolidating seven offices into one, he must begin reassessing all property in the city and complete the work before his books are open to public review on Aug. 1, 2011.
18. NORD Reform — It's been two years in coming, and at times reformers had to battle two different mayors, but their efforts paid off when voters approved a City Charter amendment creating a recreation commission similar to the one in Baton Rouge, which has a model program. The final plan is not quite the "public-private partnership" reformers envisioned, but it's a big step in the right direction. Mayor Landrieu's eleventh-hour budget compromise with the council gave NORD an additional 2 mills of dedicated property tax — a big part of what reformers say is needed to turn around the city's once-stellar recreation department.
19. Betty Jefferson Convicted — The former assessor and sister to former Congressman Bill Jefferson pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge in February, less than a month before she was to stand trial on a bevy of fraud and corruption charges. Betty Jefferson's daughter, Angela Coleman, likewise pleaded guilty and, with her mom, promised to assist the government's prosecution of Dollar Bill and Betty's brother, veteran political operative Mose Jefferson. Mose, who was previously convicted on unrelated federal bribery charges, is scheduled to stand trial soon for racketeering with his longtime girlfriend, former City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt. The once-powerful Jefferson political machine is now kaput.
20. Tim Ryan Fired as UNO Chancellor — The outspoken University of New Orleans chancellor was given his walking papers by the Good Ol' Boys from LSU after he refused to "play ball" (as he put it) on state budget cuts. Ryan's dismissal gave LSU mullahs their way for now, but it has galvanized the UNO community and the city at large in support of the lakefront campus, which is threatened with deep budget cuts next year.
That and more will make 2011 another one for the books.