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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Top 10 Political Stories of 2009

Posted By on Sat, Dec 26, 2009 at 12:21 AM

There never seems to be a recession in Louisiana political hijinks, as 2009 proved many times over. This was a year of tectonic shifts in the local political paradigm, and the coming year promises to bring more big changes. Herewith, our annual list of the Top 10 Political Stories:

1. Bill Jefferson’s Continued Slide — The former congressman’s misfortunes continued to pile up. He was convicted on 11 of 16 federal felony counts in August after a long-delayed trial in Virginia. Ironically, Jefferson was acquitted of the charge most closely related to the infamous $90,000 in cash that the feds retrieved from his freezer in 2005 — but jurors concluded that his congressional office was an ongoing criminal enterprise under the RICO statute. The trial judge sentenced him to 13 years but let him stay out of jail pending his appeal. In another twist, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering other cases that could overturn some of Jefferson’s convictions. Locally, Dollar Bill’s brother (and political muscle) Mose Jefferson was convicted of bribing a school board member in an unrelated case. Mose and Assessor Betty Jefferson (another Jefferson sibling) face still more federal charges with Mose’s gal pal (and Dollar Bill protégé) Renee Gill-Pratt. Politically, Jefferson’s once-dominant political machine, the Progressive Democrats, is in shambles. The Feb. 6 citywide elections will be the first in three decades in which Dollar Bill is not a factor.

2. The City Hall Scandals — There’s no telling how many separate criminal investigations are underway at City Hall. Former technology chief Greg Meffert was indicted on several dozen criminal counts, along with his wife Linda and former business partner Mark St. Pierre. St. Pierre is the city contractor who paid for the Mefferts and the Nagins to vacation in Hawaii in 2004 and for the Nagins to unwind — first class — in Jamaica shortly after Katrina (while the rest of us were still trying to get back home to New Orleans). On another front, the feds seized various City Hall computers after the mayor’s emails and 2008 calendar mysteriously disappeared (following a WWL-TV request for them under the state Public Records Act). Ironically, tons of City Council emails were produced by the Nagin Administration in response to an unrelated public records request — and some of those emails proved to be cautionary tales against writing things down. More recently, veteran Sewerage and Water Board member Ben Edwards was indicted on 33 counts of corruption, including alleged kickbacks. Edwards spent more than $250,000 “independently” helping Mayor Ray Nagin win re-election in 2006. As the clock winds down on Ray Nagin’s tenure in City Hall, the feds appear to be tightening the circle of suspicion around him.

3. The Mayor’s Race — For a while it seemed that nobody wanted Ray Nagin’s job — then everybody seemed to want it. After a yawner of a preseason, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu lit up the field with his eleventh-hour decision to run. The fallout came quickly as school reformer Leslie Jacobs dropped out a week later. Landrieu, who is making his third bid for the mayor’s office, is once again the early frontrunner. The race for the City Council’s two at-large seats promises to be filled with intrigue as well. Incumbent Arnie Fielkow waited until the last day to qualify, prompting former at-large Councilman Eddie Sapir to jump in. Assessor Darren Mire was another late entry, which seemed to guarantee a scrambled field. Then both Sapir and Mire dropped out on the same day, right before Christmas. State Rep. Austin Badon, who was the first to announce for mayor, was among the first to drop out of that contest, opting instead to run for the council from District E, where he is the early favorite.

4. Suburban Scandals — The feds have been busy all over southeast Louisiana. They indicted and convicted St. John Parish President Bill Hubbard on extortion and money laundering charges, St. Bernard Judge Wayne Cresap on bribery charges, and Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price on tax evasion and depriving citizens of honest services via mail fraud. Meanwhile, FBI agents are looking into Jefferson Parish Chief Administrative Officer Tim Whitmer’s insurance commission-splitting deals in connection with insurance business at West Jefferson General Hospital and among various parish contractors. Some big names are said to be involved, and this could be the beginning of another round of “Jefferson Scandals.” Look for some fireworks to start in the Jefferson Parish scandal before Mardi Gras, my sources say.

5. Ray Nagin’s Unraveling — Could he possibly be more obtuse, more detached, more disengaged — and less effective as a mayor? While in Cuba (on a junket), he praised Castro’s evacuation plans. That came after he failed to convince the City Council to buy the nondescript Chevron Building and make it the new City Hall. Earlier in the year, he thumbed his nose at the courts and the state Public Records Act when his calendar and emails somehow disappeared. When an outside contractor said that the emails were deleted deliberately by someone who knew what they where doing, he fired the contractor. Meanwhile, a growing list of people who once were close to him are under federal indictment. Here’s the good news: he’ll be gone in 18 weeks.

6. Bobby Jindal’s Minus Touch — The Boy Governor started 2009 as the Wunderkind of the national GOP. Then came his disastrous response to Barack Obama’s first national address and his failure to show any coattails in three separate special elections — including a bid by his former executive counsel for the state Supreme Court in northeast Louisiana (which is supposed to be a Jindal stronghold). As he continues to raise millions nationally for his campaign war chest, the state faces major budget problems.

7. State and City Budget Woes — Bobby Jindal told a state cost-cutting commission to “be bold” in their recommendations. Gee, wasn’t that what we elected him to do as governor? Lawmakers anguished over cutting about $1 billion in operating funds this year, but it only gets worse in the next two years. Locally, Mayor Ray Nagin announced a $68 million deficit, then took a taxpayer-paid trip to Mexico to sign a feel-good sister city agreement. When the City Council revised his proposed budget, Hizzoner retaliated by slashing key services — and then blamed it all on the council. Plus ça change.

8. David Vitter’s Run-up to 2010 — The Biggest Hypocrite in America remains an early favorite to win back his U.S. Senate seat, but not without a fight. He initially drew a potential rival in porn star Stormy Daniels of Baton Rouge, but now he will have a real opponent in Democratic Congressman Charlie Melancon. Vitter continues to poll below 50 percent but remains 10 points or more above his main opponents. His infamous bad temper flared up again during an incident at Reagan National Airport when he tried to board a plane late, and all the national attention he’s gets every time there’s another sex scandal anywhere sure makes Louisiana (if not Vitter himself) look bad. Not that he cares.

9. The Saints Deal — For the first time since the state started subsidizing the city’s NFL franchise in 1985, a deal to keep the beloved Saints in New Orleans did not tear the Legislature apart and cost the city valuable political capital. Maybe it’s because Gov. Bobby Jindal also wanted lawmakers to approve $50 million to bail out a north Louisiana chicken processing plant. South Louisiana leges immediately said, “Deal!” Cluck, cluck! Go Saints!

10. The City’s New Master Plan — Like everything else worthwhile that happens here, the city’s new master plan has endured a rough birthing process, but the end results will hopefully be worth it. Don’t let the fact that I’ve listed this as No. 10 fool you. This will be a very important story for decades if we get it right.

A final note: I left former Recovery Chief Ed Blakely off my list of most important political stories. That’s because, even when he was here, Blakely was largely irrelevant. His ridiculous, self-serving comments after his departure proved that.

Here’s hoping 2010 brings better news.

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