End-of-the-world theorists ought to be going bonkers right about now. Think about it: we merged local levee boards, combined the city's seven assessors into one, merged the Criminal and Civil District Courts -- along with the city's two clerks and sheriffs' offices -- and passed an offshore mineral revenue-sharing bill that will send billions to Louisiana. Is this The Rapture, or what?
Then again, we also re-elected Ray Nagin as mayor and sent "Dollar Bill" Jefferson back to Congress, so maybe this is the opening act for the Anti-Christ.
As you peruse the top 10 political stories of 2006, you can decide for yourself.
1. Consolidations -- No one could have predicted 18 months ago that southeast Louisiana's levee boards, New Orleans' seven assessors, and New Orleans' courts, clerks and sheriffs would be consolidated, as they were this year. For all that went wrong in 2006, reforming the levee boards and merging the assessors into one office will have a lasting positive effect on government and politics. Merging the two court systems (along with the clerks and sheriffs) will likewise take away one of the major points of friction between the city and the rest of the state in legislative matters. Credit goes to a band of citizen activists who recognized the opportunities presented by Hurricane Katrina. People can still make a difference.
2. The OCS Bill -- For more than half a century, Louisiana has been getting screwed by the feds on offshore mineral royalties. Now, thanks to a measure co-authored by Louisiana's U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, we'll get $200 million over the next 10 years (about half of it in the first two years), and then at least $650 million a year starting in 2017. Over the next four decades, it could generate $30 billion or more -- and all of it has been dedicated to hurricane protection and coastal restoration. The fiscal and environmental impact of the new law will be huge.
3. Ray Nagin's Rants and Re-election -- Mayor Nagin reinvented himself as a black man this year, just in time for re-election. It started with his "chocolate city" speech on MLK Day and continued with his "they don't look like us" remark to a group of displaced voters in Houston. As dumb as he looked and sounded, hizzoner got the last laugh when he was re-elected over Mitch Landrieu (who waged an anemic runoff campaign) in a race that was all about race. In black precincts, the battle cry was, "Keep our black mayor." In white Uptown environs, it was "I'd rather have four more years of Ray than eight years of Mitch." After the election, Nagin continued his general habit of not filtering dumb thoughts before uttering them, such as the time he described Ground Zero in New York as "a hole in the ground." In general, his second term finds him even more disengaged than ever -- at a time when the city cries out for strong, effective and visible leadership.
4. Bill Jefferson's Roller Coaster Ride -- The rest of the world really can't believe we re-elected "Dollar Bill," but it proves what Tip O'Neill once said about all politics being local. The federal bribery and extortion investigation notwithstanding, Jefferson managed to suppress white voter turnout (with a boost from Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, who told voters to "stay home") while clobbering runoff opponent Karen Carter in black precincts. At least the congressional Democrats know how to treat Jefferson; despite his re-election, they kept him off the powerful Ways and Means Committee, from which he was booted last May. In terms of embarrassment, he's our Marion Berry. Look for him to be indicted in the first quarter of 2007, which could give Second District voters what they really voted for -- a "do-over."
5. The Recovery Begins -- It may be coming in fits and starts, but the recovery is officially under way. We need to keep reminding ourselves that we're in uncharted waters and that this is going to be a long, long journey. The travails of the LRA and the governor's Road Home program, uncertainty about levee repairs, FEMA foul-ups, the city's disjointed "planning" process, housing issues -- you name it -- all made our world a ball of confusion in 2006. Through it all, we soldier on, mostly picking ourselves up by our own bootstraps because our elected leaders are so clueless.
6. Kathleen Blanco's Misfortunes -- Gov. Blanco has been derided for her weak performance during and immediately after Katrina. By year's end, her own team had deserted her as she left Senate President Don Hines hanging on the syrup mill boondoggle and defended Virginia-based ICF's handling of her much-maligned Road Home program. Her Christmas session was a colossal bust, and her "re-elect" numbers are in the toilet as she enters the political season. But hey, Nagin and Jefferson got re-elected, so hope springs eternal.
7. State GOP Fortunes Improve -- As Blanco stumbled, state Republicans soared. The special elections of Sept. 30 saw the GOP capture the secretary of state's office and the insurance commissioner's post. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers flexed a lot of muscle to thwart Blanco's plan to give away $2 billion before Christmas. They hope it foreshadows big legislative and statewide gains next fall, but Republicans have a knack for shooting themselves in the foot.
8. Crime -- It's coming soon to a neighborhood near you, if it hasn't overtaken your neighborhood already. West Jefferson is the new hot spot for drugs and murder, along with Faubourg Marigny and Bywater. A September crime summit produced more talk than action. Jefferson Sheriff Harry Lee took a fact-finding trip with black leaders, then offended them soon after returning. You packin' yet?
9. Criminal Court Dramas -- Judge Charles Elloie was removed from the bench for his disgraceful handling of bonds. Criminal Court Clerk Kimberly Williamson Butler continued her strange saga -- dodging arrest, then going to jail, then comparing herself to Gandhi, MLK and Nelson Mandela as she qualified for mayor. District Attorney Eddie Jordan remains widely viewed as incompetent, but he insists he's doing a great job -- even as the feds take on local cases to put bad guys in jail (a signal that his former colleagues don't respect him much). At year's end, Jordan padrone Bill Jefferson won re-election, which means the beleaguered DA may not be as vulnerable in 2008 as many think.
10. New Kids on the Block -- If you were hoping that the citywide elections last spring would bring change to city government, look to the City Council. By a 4-3 majority, the council has new faces. The newbies made a difference, too, pushing for an Office of Inspector General and other reforms.
Happy New Year!