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What to know in New Orleans this week (Jan. 9-15, 2018) 

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Cantrell to announce transition team
Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell is expected to announce members of her transition team this week, after a celebratory Mass in honor of her transition St. Peter Claver Church Jan. 4.

  Through an organization named Forward Together New Orleans, Cantrell's transition staff moved into offices at Xavier University Jan. 2, with the District B Councilwoman's Chief of Staff John Pourciau formally leading the transition team. The Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Foundation for Louisiana are the organization's fiscal agents.

  The mass was among the first signs of movement from Cantrell's camp following November's election during an unusually long transition period before her inauguration in May. The last few months have been marked by investigations from Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry into Cantrell's credit card spending, as well as the appearance of former state Sen. and ex-convict Derrick Shepherd at two recent meetings Cantrell attended.

  "Over the past month or so it's been about really working on the operational aspects of the transition," Cantrell told reporters before Mass. "It's also been about ensuring the advisory board for the transition team as well as committee assignments ... and very much doing a deep dive on those areas."

  Among those priorities: city infrastructure, the Sewerage & Water Board, the Department of Public Works, the retention and growth of economic development and job creation, the New Orleans Business Alliance, public safety, and housing affordability. She also wants to thoroughly examine city finances and the "organizational structure of the city," including "various departments we want to tweak and improve upon."

  "When May 7 comes, we'll have real actionable items we'll be able to hit the ground on," she said. "We're going to use our time wisely through this transition so we're truly prepared and ready to lead and govern on May 7."

  Cantrell told Gambit she also plans to look into the city budget, City Planning Commission processes, funding for youth services and municipal pay plans.


Quote of the week
"Kamara also points out that the Saints 'allow me to be me.' His look, his personality, his vibe, embody the spirit of New Orleans. Fans now wear gold teeth to the Superdome, fake dreadlocks on their heads, bull nose rings in their septa. His ability, Kamara says, to be 'organic and authentic' in his new city is a main factor in his success. The energy is right, the perfect fit of franchise, city and player. After touchdowns, he's leapt into the Superdome stands and sat down, just one of the crowd, openly and proudly being Alvin Kamara, an eccentric, suddenly famous, in a city where eccentrics thrive." — Sports Illustrated's Ben Baskin, profiling New Orleans Saints' 2017 superstar running back Alvin Kamara.


Bye Bye Berni: Landrieu's right-hand man is departing
Ryan Berni, who has served Mayor Mitch Landrieu in various top-tier capacities during both of the mayor's terms, announced last week he will leave his post as deputy mayor later this month. Berni plans to open his own political and public affairs firm. He did not respond to a Gambit inquiry as to the firm's title or location.

  The former chief of staff to Democratic strategist James Carville, Berni became Landrieu's press secretary when the mayor took office and since has held several titles, including communications director, senior adviser and campaign manager for Landrieu's re-election campaign. He took a break in 2014 to manage the final months of former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's unsuccessful U.S. Senate re-election bid. Berni has served as deputy mayor of New Orleans since January 2016.

  In a statement, Mayor Landrieu said, "Ryan has been an integral member of our team since 2010. There's been very little done in the past eight years that Ryan hasn't been involved in from beginning to end. I wish him nothing but success as he enters this next endeavor."

  Berni's various roles have included overseeing both the city's taxicab reforms and its controversial short-term rentals laws, as well as serving as what the city refers to as "liaison and point person" for major sporting events in New Orleans, including NFL Super Bowl XLVII, the 2014 and 2017 NBA All-Star Games and Wrestlemania in 2014 and 2018. He also has crossed swords with members of the local media when he felt coverage was unfair to Landrieu.

  No deputy mayor replacement was named, and there's unlikely to be one; Landrieu leaves City Hall in May, when Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell will be sworn into office.


Trump dissolves 'voter fraud' commission
Louisiana was among more than 40 states that refused last summer to submit detailed voter information requested by President Donald Trump's administration, which sought to investigate "voter fraud" through the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. On Jan. 3, Trump abruptly announced he dissolved the commission and is handing over the efforts to the Department of Homeland Security. Trump has asserted that "millions" of fraudulent votes were cast in the 2016 election, despite offering no evidence of it.

  Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler told Gambit in July 2017 that the commission "has quickly politicized its work by asking states for an incredible amount of voter data that I have, time and time again, refused to release.

  "My response to the commission is, 'You're not going to play politics with Louisiana's voter data, and if you are, then you can purchase the limited public information available by law, to any candidate running for office,'" he said. "That's it."

  Schedler, a Republican, was among many bipartisan officials across the U.S. who opposed the request, which critics feared would lead to further voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering and an end to people's ability to register to vote through public agencies and programs.

  In July, Commission Vice Chair Kris Kobach asked secretaries of state to send voter info — ostensibly an effort to find policies that "enhance or undermine the American people's confidence in the integrity of federal election processes." Kobach, as Kansas Secretary of State, established rules requiring people to show proof of citizenship to vote (a policy challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union) and created Kansas' Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which crosschecks voter data to determine whether people are registered in more than one state. (Louisiana has used this program.)

  Mississippi's Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann also opposed the request last year and said the commission should "jump in the Gulf of Mexico."


click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY 
THE PEABODY AWARDS
  • Photo courtesy The Peabody Awards

Hoda ascends
Hoda Kotb, who became a New Orleans TV news favorite during her time at WWL-TV (1992 to 1998), was named permanent co-anchor of the Today show last week. She succeeds Matt Lauer, who was fired from NBC in November after reports of sexual harassment. Kotb became his temporary replacement, and the network saw strong ratings in December with the teaming of Kotb with co-host Savannah Guthrie. Kotb has been at NBC News for 19 years, much of it as a correspondent for Dateline, where her work won her a Peabody Award and the Edward R. Murrow Award.

  In 2010, Kotb talked to Gambit about her years in New Orleans and her first days at NBC: "When I first came to work at NBC and I was walking in the main lobby of 30 Rock," she said, "and it was so big and cavernous and scary, and I'm with the security guard and he doesn't have my name on the list and I'm trying to pronounce it and spell it and it's all a big mess, then I hear these women go, 'Hoda? Is that you?' I turn around, and it's a tour group from Metairie. And I go, 'What? Are you kidding me?' I said to them, 'I'm kind of scared.' And they said, 'Well, go in there and hold your head up and show them!'"

  Kotb, 53, has returned to New Orleans often, including an appearance at Tulane University as the keynote speaker during the university's 2016 graduation ceremony. The New York Post reported her new compensation will be $7 million per year.


AG Landry releases guide for religious expression in Louisiana public schools
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson last week released the "Louisiana Student Rights Review," a guide for religious expression in the state's public schools. The guide clarifies that students can practice and share their religious beliefs on campus under First Amendment protections.

  It comes a month after the ACLU of Louisiana filed a lawsuit on behalf of students in the Webster Parish School District, where schools mandated prayer over the schools' public-address systems and at school events. "School is not a church, and school officials have no right to impose their faith on students," the group wrote in a December statement.

  "We hope this publication helps all citizens better understand religious liberty because too many people have unfortunately been misled into believing schools must be religion-free zones," Landry said in a statement. "The truth is our First Amendment rights are not surrendered at the schoolhouse door."

  The ACLU, however, has criticized the schools' imposition of religious expression on students, not whether students are allowed to practice on campus.

  "It is important to remember that our Constitution and laws protect the rights of students to live out their faith on campus," Johnson said. "Religious liberty is the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights, and the next generation of Americans needs to be encouraged to preserve it."


Capping strip clubs on Bourbon (again)
The New Orleans City Planning Commission (CPC) this week will consider whether to place a cap on the number of strip clubs on Bourbon Street, following recommendations from the CPC's Adult Live Performance Venue Study, made at the request of the New Orleans City Council. In the report, the CPC staff recommends setting a cap of one club per every other block face, though it also acknowledges that "any decrease in number of venues would lower opportunities for jobs and affect the industry's contribution to New Orleans' economy."

  A petition from the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers criticized the proposed cap. The group supports "young women's right to seek gainful work, including in entertainment" and opposes legislation that restricts those jobs to people 21 and older.

  The meeting begins at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 9 in New Orleans City Hall's Homeland Security conference room.


Higgins: Give the U.N. building to ... Trump?
President Donald Trump has been expressing his continued displeasure with the United Nations — and he's now got a Louisiana ally in his corner. U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, who represents Louisiana's 3rd District, made a Facebook post with a photo of the U.N. building in New York City — with a Photoshopped TRUMP logo on the top, making it look like a giant hotel.

  "Damn straight, let's give this prime piece of American real estate to someone who actually loves America. Get the U.S. out of the U.N., and the U.N. out of the U.S.," Higgins wrote. "The U.N. is filled with nations that hate us and yet we give them billions of American dollars. As far as I'm concerned ... they can hate us for free.

  "I would support measures to greatly scale back funding for and participation in UN operations," he added. "They've grown too big for their britches over there, and they're sitting on super prime US real estate."

  Higgins is no stranger to the social media limelight; as public information officer for the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office, he made a series of tough-talking videos, addressed to criminals, that went viral. Last July, however, he was forced to apologize after he recorded a 5-minute quasi-political YouTube video inside a gas chamber at Poland's Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, insulting Holocaust survivors.

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