Voters in New Orleans go to the polls Saturday to choose the mayor who will shepherd the city through its slow and uncertain recovery. To give their city its best chance for renewal, old-line New Orleans Democrats should do the unthinkable. They should do what New Yorkers had to do to save their own city in 1993: suppress their natural instincts and vote for the Republican.
New Orleans hasn’t had a Republican mayor since Reconstruction. But the credible Republican in the seven-person race of top-tier candidates, Rob Couhig, is the only candidate who, during this week’s debates, correctly identified New Orleans’s number-one city-killer: its violent-crime rate. (New Orleans doesn’t hold separate party primaries: the two top vote-getters in Saturday’s primary advance to a run-off May 20, unless one candidate wins a majority of votes.)
“The first thing we have to do is have a safe city,” Couhig said when a debate moderator asked each candidate for his or her top three goals for the next mayoral term. “We’re going to have a zero tolerance toward crime from day one.” In interviews, Couhig has said that he would model his crime-fighting strategy after former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s successful strategy for New York in the nineties.
Couhig, a corporate lawyer, doesn’t have Giuliani’s prosecutorial experience, but at least he has diagnosed the top problem. By contrast, the three front-runners in the race–Democrats Ron Forman, Mitch Landrieu, and current mayor Ray Nagin–named top goals ranging from fixing the city’s broken public-education system or encouraging the feds to build stronger levees to jumpstarting new-housing construction.
In a city whose housing stock is destroyed, whose residential and small-business tax and employment bases are decimated, and whose citizens are dispersed throughout the South, all of the candidates’ goals are obviously worthy. It may even seem narrow-minded for Couhig to point to violent crime as New Orleans’s most acute post-Katrina problem.
But violent crime was the reason why between 1960 and 2000–long before Katrina hit–New Orleans lost many of its employers and 150,000 mostly middle-class residents, a good quarter of its peak population, black and white. New Orleans consistently had one of the highest per-capita urban murder rates in the country, four times that of Houston and seven times that of New York. Gang murderers and drug dealers long terrorized New Orleans’s working-class neighborhoods, because the city’s entire system of policing, prosecuting, and sentencing violent criminals was broken. Employers and middle-class taxpayers fled, leaving behind blighted neighborhoods, dysfunctional public schools, and a growing underclass. The story should sound familiar to New Yorkers, since it played out here in the eighties and nineties–until Giuliani stopped it and ushered in a resurgence of New York’s frayed neighborhoods.
The Big Easy had a short break from its normal murder rate after Katrina. According to statistics released last week, New Orleans had nine murders in the last quarter of 2005, down from 64 in the previous year’s final quarter. But murder has begun to accelerate in recent weeks as drug-dealing criminals come back to the city, often having found themselves unwelcome in tougher-on-crime cities like Houston, to which they had evacuated. Since last Saturday alone, New Orleans has booked four new murders.
If New Orleans wants a chance to lure back its vital working class and middle class, the city’s new mayor must stop this violent-crime resurgence. Otherwise, middle-class evacuees will stay put–and the time and money that New Orleans, Louisiana, and the federal government will spend building modern levees, as well as new housing and schools, will be wasted.
Without its middle-class residents, New Orleans will be a city of the rich, many of whom never left before or after Katrina, because they had already successfully insulated themselves both from violent crime and from hurricanes. But it will also be a city of the pre-Katrina underclass, many of whom are eager to return, because they’re finding life tough in their new cities. If the middle class won’t return, underclass evacuees will fill up any new government-funded housing, built with the best of intentions.
All the money in the world for housing and schools can’t save New Orleans unless the next mayor is tough enough on crime to make its working-class and middle-class evacuees feel confident about returning to their beleaguered city.