The year was so jam-packed with big political stories, let's not waste time summarizing them. Instead, let's get right to the Top 10:
1. Hurricane Katrina -- The storm we always feared realigned more than our fragile coastline, it also changed Louisiana politics forever. The big question is, have our politicians figured that out yet? The answer will likely be one of the big stories of 2006, as local and state politicians fumble around trying to fit the new reality into the old mold. Meanwhile, in 2005, the biggest story was the live, televised drama of our leaders failing us when we needed them most -- particularly Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco. They were totally unprepared for the storm, despite several dress rehearsals -- Ivan last year, and Cindy and Dennis this year. Nagin froze, then ranted, blaming everything and everyone that looked like the federal government, and occasionally the state as well, and feuding with Blanco openly. The one thing he didn't do was respond to the crisis with a vision and a plan. Blanco wept and asked us all to pray. Satellite phones would have helped a lot more, but no one at the state level thought to get any. Consequently, state and local agencies couldn't talk to one another as the situation worsened. In the aftermath of the flood and the stalled recovery, people are enraged and engaged. The old paradigm of politicians doing as they please while the public snoozes "ain't dere no more."
2. Federal Investigations -- The biggest player in state politics continues to be Uncle Sam by virtue of federal investigations into local corruption. "Operation Wrinkled Robe" showed it still has some wrinkles to iron out as Jefferson Parish Judge Alan Green was convicted in June of mail fraud. His conviction followed that of Judge Ronald Bodenheimer a year earlier, along with a dozen lesser luminaries. Green's brother-in-law, Congressman Bill Jefferson, saw his homes and offices raided in early August after an apparent sting operation into his personal finances. Several pals of former Mayor Marc Morial were indicted on charges of skimming a public energy-management contract that Morial inked in the final moments of his tenure, and Morial's uncle Glenn Haydel was indicted for theft and money-laundering in connection with his Regional Transit Authority contract. Morial's brother Jacques also got a nasty Valentine's Day card from federal agents, who battered down his door at 7 a.m. on Feb. 14 and carted away boxes of computer records. Finally, at year's end, Democratic operative and Morial pal Ray Reggie prepared to go to jail for a year and a day after pleading guilty to bank fraud -- and wearing a wire on some of his old cronies.
3. Gov. Blanco's Slide -- The Governess had a great year in 2004, but she hit the skids this past year. Starting in the regular legislative session, she over-reached with her proposed $1-a-pack cigarette tax, and when that went up in smoke she likewise failed to give teachers a significant pay raise. Her slide continued during and after Katrina, as she generally projected weakness and confusion to the world at a time when Louisiana needed strength and certitude. When she finally got around to calling a special session, she wanted to delay any budgetary action -- even though it was crystal clear that state spending needed to be slashed. She was forced by conservatives in both parties to add budget reductions to the call, and then she failed to take a stand in the pivotal votes on levee-board consolidation. Power abhors a vacuum, and right now there's a big hole in the executive branch.
4. Delayed Elections in New Orleans -- If justice delayed is justice denied, what are elections delayed? State law lets the governor postpone an election after the secretary of state certifies that a "state of emergency" would disrupt the election process or deprive citizens of their right to vote. Blanco exercised that authority in the Calcasieu Parish DA's race, postponing it four weeks in the wake of Hurricane Rita. So why couldn't she pick a date for the delayed Feb. 4 citywide elections in New Orleans? A flurry of citizen lawsuits finally forced state and local elections officials to shoot for an April election date in New Orleans. That should be doable -- it's when St. Bernard Parish will hold a postponed election for justice of the peace.
5. Tom Benson vs. The Governess -- One area in which Blanco has shined is her classy responses and overtures to New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson during negotiations to keep the team in the Crescent City. Benson has grown less rational by the week, while Blanco has managed to stay on the high road. For now, everything is on hold until after the 2006 season, which gives Benson a chance to cool off -- or have a lucid interval.
6. The School Board Saga -- Five new Orleans Parish School Board members took office in January, and they all promised to get along. That lasted less than 90 days as the new board, which was elected on a promise to keep Superintendent Anthony Amato, sent the schools chief packing. Finances were so abysmal that a New York turnaround firm was brought in to take charge amid continued infighting. After Katrina, lawmakers finally took 102 public schools away and gave them to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. What's left of public schools appears headed for charter status, which many see as a ray of hope.
7. Wither the Levee Boards? -- Post-Katrina, the public demands more -- and less -- from government. More efficiency and professionalism, less bureaucracy and fiefdom-building. Nowhere is that equation more out of whack than Louisiana's far-flung system of local levee boards. Blanco pushed through legislation for an oversight board -- one more layer of bureaucracy -- but state Sen. Walter Boasso championed a better (and vastly more popular) solution: combining all the levee boards in southeast Louisiana. His bill failed during the special session, but it's clearly an idea whose time has come.
8. GOP Legislative Gains -- In politics, you don't have to have a majority to matter; you just have to have enough votes to kill what you oppose. Republicans now control enough votes in the Louisiana House and Senate to block any tax or constitutional amendment, and that gives the Republican Caucus a very big stick. During the recent special session alone, three Democratic legislators switched parties. After the next election cycle in 2007, the GOP may have a majority in the House.
9. The Domicile Debates -- City Council members fretted and fumed over domicile requirements for NOPD officers, then finally suspended them after Katrina. Meanwhile, state Rep. Cedric Richmond tested the limits of the term itself when he tried to run for City Council District D, even though all objective evidence showed him living just outside the district. He was disqualified, but that may ultimately have been a blessing. Who wants to be in City Hall these days?
10. Eddie Jordan's Sagging Fortunes -- The city's first black DA was found to have discriminated against white employees when he fired dozens of them and replaced them (in all but two cases) with African Americans. His office must now shell out more than $2 million in back pay. That, on top of dismal conviction rates in an office that appears to be operated by amateurs.
Happy New Year!