New Orleans cops have an unofficial motto: You can't make this stuff up. That could easily be Louisiana's official political motto. Where else could a prospective federal defendant turn the tables and investigate his would-be prosecutors? And where else could a governor who supports teaching creationism in public schools chide the national GOP for being "the stupid party"? Only in Louisiana.
Herewith, our 2012 edition of the Top 10 Political Stories of the year.
1. Upheaval at the U.S. Attorney's Office — The unfolding scandal at the U.S. Attorney's office drew more attention than the many public corruption cases the feds launched this year. Former assistant U.S. Attorneys Sal Perricone and Jan Mann were outed as anonymous commenters on NOLA.com by federal target Fred Heebe, who sued them both for, ahem, defamation. Both prosecutors resigned in disgrace, along with Mann's husband Jim Mann, also a federal prosecutor. In a related development, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt scolded prosecutors for leaking information about pending cases to the media and strongly hinted that Mann, who oversaw an "investigation" into the alleged leaks (she concluded there were none), might face criminal charges for her deception. The scandal forced the retirement of popular U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who thus far remains personally untainted by it, although his legacy has been tarnished. Interim U.S. Attorney Dana Boente arrived from Virginia (he was part of the team that nailed William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson) to begin righting the ship, and veteran federal prosecutor John Horn was brought in from Georgia to redo Jan Mann's discredited "leaks" investigation. Going into 2013, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is gathering names for a short list of potential Letten successors to submit to the White House.
2. Federal Investigations — Amid all the upheaval, the feds continued their march against local political corruption. The 2012 hit list includes, in Jefferson Parish, former parish president Aaron Broussard, his former top aide Tim Whitmer and former Parish Attorney Tom Wilkinson. Meanwhile, the investigation into local landfill company River Birch and its co-owners Fred Heebe and Jim Ward has been taken over by the D.C. office because of the Perricone-Mann scandal. In New Orleans, the case against former Mayor Ray Nagin continued to solidify with convictions of former city contractor and self-styled high flier Frank Fradella and businessman Rodney Williams, both of whom pleaded guilty to bribing "Public Official A" at City Hall, who quite obviously is Nagin. Elsewhere in New Orleans, the feds nabbed City Councilman Jon Johnson for converting FEMA funds into campaign cash (he resigned in July), and they continue to investigate Sheriff Marlin Gusman's procurement office.
3. Bobby Jindal's National Ambitions — The governor's continued denial of his national ambitions has become laughable after his recent post-election interviews, but his ambitions themselves are anything but amusing. His critics claim, with some justification, that his presidential aspirations are driving all his decisions as governor and that he is sacrificing health care and higher education on the altar of his ambition. Among the questions that 2013 could answer is, how long will it take for the national media to peel back the veneer of Jindal's ascendant stardom, which is rooted in Team Jindal's talking points and press releases, and take a close, clear-eyed look at his record in Louisiana?
4. State Budget Cuts and Their Aftermath — While this one is closely related to the story of Bobby Jindal's ambitions, it's separate in terms of lawmakers' response (or nonresponse) to the cuts. The closing of Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville, the attempted sale of the Hainkel Home in Uptown New Orleans, and the deep cuts at UNO are prime examples. The response has varied from institution to institution, but clearly Louisiana has seen the dawn of a new day in terms of state support for health care and higher ed. In effect, Huey Long's mantra of "Share the Wealth" has been replaced by Jindal's dogma of tax virginity and privatization. Where Long preached, "Every man a king," Jindal now says, effectively, "You're on your own, pal." On a parallel track, this year's legislative budget fight brought together a new House caucus of "fiscal hawks," a group of conservative, mostly Republican lawmakers who want to hold Jindal's feet to the fire for repeatedly (i.e., every year he's been in office) breaking his promise not to use one-time money to pay for recurring expenses. Jindal won the initial standoff against the hawks, but they're not going away.
5. Public Education Transformed — On both the state and local levels, 2012 was a pivotal year for public education. Gov. Jindal rammed a sweeping set of education reforms through the Legislature with lightning speed. Some of the changes are popular and welcome: Teacher tenure is now harder to get and easier to take away from teachers who don't do their jobs; principals have more on-site authority to run their schools; and successful charter school operators can get fast-tracked approval to open additional schools. On the other hand, some of the changes Jindal pushed are not so welcome: His voucher program was passed with almost no accountability standards; it has become a ruse for funneling taxpayer dollars to fly-by-night Bible "academies," some of which not only teach creationism in lieu of real science but also lack adequate facilities for increased enrollments; and the number of entities authorized to grant charters has increased exponentially, which opens the door for abuse by inexperienced charter operators whose predictable failures will ultimately do great harm to the otherwise admirable record of Louisiana's charter school movement. Locally, the Orleans Parish School Board elections produced a black-majority board for the first time since 2008. It will be interesting to see how the new majority makes its leadership choices and handles the ongoing issue of returning Recovery School District schools to local control. Also at stake is the future of charter schools in New Orleans. Elsewhere, school board term limits are now the law statewide.
6. Crime and NOPD — It was a long time coming, and it's far from complete, but the consent agreement between the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and the feds holds forth the promise of lasting, permanent reform of New Orleans' troubled cop shop. Much will depend on who wins the job of federal monitor and how hard NOPD brass, as well as rank and file, work to make the spirit of the decree a reality on the street. Meanwhile, the city's high murder rate remains Mayor Mitch Landrieu's Achilles' heel, although there is hope that his new NOLA for Life initiative will make a difference. Someday.
7. City Council Politics — The council saw three vacancies this year. District B Councilwoman Stacy Head won the special election to succeed Arnie Fielkow as an at-large council member. In District B, LaToya Cantrell's election (to Head's old seat) continues a post-Hurricane Katrina trend of neighborhood and civic leaders rising to the challenge of political leadership. And in District E, some say James Gray's victory spells the end of state Rep. Austin Badon's political career — but in politics you never say never. The District E seat opened up in July when then-Councilman Jon Johnson pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. In the larger scheme of things, Head's victory in the at-large race elevated her status as a political rival to Mayor Mitch Landrieu and ended the career of former Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis. The Landrieu-Head feud began as a fight for influence over the council but has spilled over into electoral politics as well. Landrieu backed Willard-Lewis against Head in the at-large race, and he supported Dana Kaplan against the victorious Cantrell, who had Head's backing. Landrieu also supported Gray in District E, so the four-vote council coalition he had a year ago remains intact. In fact, when he pushed for a controversial hike in water and sewerage rates earlier this month, Landrieu picked up a fifth vote from District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry. Looking ahead, by this time next year we'll see how far Head is willing to carry the fight against Landrieu. Will she challenge him for re-election in March 2014, or try to keep her council seat? One final council wrinkle: Voters in November approved a City Charter amendment that "splits" the elections for the council's two at-large positions. That will forever change the politics of running for an at-large council seat.
8. Supreme Battles — The announced retirement of Chief Justice Kitty Kimball (effective at the end of January 2013) removed the state Supreme Court's true centrist and touched off a pitched battle in her Baton Rouge-based district. It also triggered a protracted, embarrassing public debate over who should be the next chief justice. The law on succession is clear — the justice oldest in terms of service on the court becomes chief justice — but some wanted to interpret the law against Justice Bernette Johnson, who would become the court's first black chief. The federal courts intervened, at the request of Johnson and others, and nudged the high court toward resolving the issue in favor of Johnson. Meanwhile, appellate Judge Jeff Hughes won the race to succeed Kimball; his victory gives the court a Republican majority. Hughes' campaign was hardly judicious: He ran as a gun-toting defender of traditional marriage and an abortion opponent, and he gladly got "independent" help from environmental plaintiff lawyers.
9. The CCC Tolls Fight — The closeness of a referendum to renew tolls on the Crescent City Connection showed how much every vote counts. It passed by a scant 18 votes out of more than 308,000 cast in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes. State Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, led the fight against the tolls — and against years of abuse by the commission that has spent toll money. Although he narrowly lost the toll renewal fight, Connick won the war to bring more accountability to the process of spending toll revenues. Meanwhile, a regional coalition of business, civic and political leadership came together to pass an unpopular measure for a very popular bridge.
10. Brawl on the Bayou — Reapportionment and redistricting after the 2010 U.S. Census put two Republican incumbents in the same south Louisiana congressional district. U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany of Lafayette and Jeff Landry of New Iberia fought it out in a reconfigured Third District, where boundaries favored Boustany. A physician and traditional Republican, Boustany has more tenure and more friends in the state Legislature, which drew the new district lines. Attorney and tea party firebrand Landry has a knack for garnering attention, but in the end he ran out of gas — and money. Boustany's victory in the staunchly conservative district showed just how weakened the tea party has become — and how difficult it is for a political movement to sustain itself on anger alone. For once, Louisiana was in sync with the rest of the country as pragmatism trumped ideology.
And for good measure, here's one more to round out the list:
The Sometimes-Picayune — One of the cardinal rules of journalism is that reporters aren't supposed to be the story, but the decision by the owners of The Times-Picayune to publish only three days a week — and lay off scores of employees — changed a lot of rules. Among other things, the layoffs decimated the paper's political reporting staff. City Hall reporter Frank Donze took a job at the Audubon Institute, while husband-and-wife colleagues Bill Barrow and Michelle Krupa moved to Atlanta. Columnist Stephanie Grace was among the leading voices silenced by the change (except for her recent contributions to Gambit); she opted not to accept the paper's "offer" to return to daily reporting. On a larger scale, the Baton Rouge daily Advocate has opened a bureau in New Orleans in response to community pleas for a daily newspaper. NOLA.com returned fire by opening a bureau in Baton Rouge — just months after the T-P gutted its Capitol bureau.
Looking ahead to 2013, local newspaper (and online) wars could make as many headlines as political skirmishes. It's never dull in Louisiana.