Sunday, October 29, 2006

Embattled Bill Jefferson …

Bill Jefferson is struggling to retain his seat as U.S. Representative from the Second District of Louisiana against Karen Carter and several other candidates. This report is excerpted from the Associated Press, via MSNBC:

(Bill) Jefferson arrived on the New Orleans scene in the 1970s as a Harvard-educated lawyer from the backwaters of north Louisiana, the sixth of 10 children brought up in a three-room country home. By 1980, he represented New Orleans in the state Senate. At 42, he became the first black from Louisiana in the House since Reconstruction.

The law firm Jefferson founded became the largest black-owned practice in the South. He created a political organization, the Progressive Democrats, which fielded candidates for the school board, assessors' races, state House seats and mayoral contests.

But he was criticized because his law firm took lucrative contracts from Southern University and the attorney general's office while he served in the state Senate. But no punitive action was taken.

Questions lingered. Records show Jefferson defaulted on loans and was sued for poor maintenance of his extensive real estate holdings. He also overdrew the bank account of his congressional office, which Jefferson attributed to sloppy bookkeeping.

"That's why he's called 'Dollar Bill,'" said Susan Howell, a political analyst with the University of New Orleans. "He's been hobnobbing with the highest and lowest."

It was Dutch Morial, the city's first black mayor, who dubbed him "Dollar Bill Jefferson" because of his purported fondness for money.

Jefferson's latest money trouble stems from allegations in an FBI affidavit that he accepted $100,000 in cash in 2005 from an FBI informant in a scheme to bribe Nigerian telecommunications officials. All but $10,000 of the cash was found four days later in the freezer of his Washington home, the FBI said.

Two of Jefferson's associates pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges; one, a Kentucky businessman, admitted paying more than $400,000 in bribes to a phony company headed by Jefferson's wife and family to obtain favors from the congressman.

"Who knows what goes on in your house? Nobody tells me where to put my dollars. If I to want to carry them in my pocket, if I want to carry in my sock, that's my business," said Helen Lang, the president of the Section 8 Resident Council, a community group that has endorsed Jefferson.

Jefferson responds to the criticism with his own fire. After a recent debate, Jefferson said he was "not going to tolerate" his rivals presenting themselves as "being on the ethical high horse."

"Our national image is at stake in his election," (challenger)Karen Carter said. "I think it's time to restore credibility and honesty to this office."


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, October 22, 2006

New Orleans as Petri Dish?

Best of the week's news, this is excerpted from an AP story as it appeared in

If the world is a classroom, New Orleans is a petri dish.

The city, notorious for having one of the worst public school systems in the country, has emerged from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an experiment in education.

Privately run charter schools, relatively limited before last year’s storm, now outnumber government-run public schools. And the number could rise as the demand for quality schools grows in this still-recovering city, state education officials predict.

“Suddenly there’s an opportunity to improve the community and education as a whole,” said Robin Jarvis, who oversees the state-run school district that took over most of the city’s public schools after Katrina. “I think largely, before, they’d given up.”

Since Katrina, less than half the city’s public schools have reopened. Of the 53 that have opened, 17 are run by the state, five by the cash-strapped local school board and 31 by charter groups. Total enrollment, now at about 25,000 students but changing regularly, also is less than half of what it was before Katrina, school officials say.

People on both sides of the charter debate are watching what happens closely for evidence to bolster their theories — that giving parents choices in public education pays off in student achievement, or that relying increasingly on independent, nonprofit groups to teach children is a dicey proposition.

While supporters promote charters as a step toward strengthening the city’s educational system, critics see them as eroding what’s left of traditional public schools. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has called New Orleans the closest the country has come to an all-charter district.

“You had a natural disaster in New Orleans,” said charter critic Nat LaCour, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. “Now what’s happened in New Orleans is a man-made disaster.”

Charter schools receive public funding and generally accept a wide range of students. The schools have caught on in parts of the country where traditional public schools have faltered. Their charters can be pulled by the agencies that grant them — in New Orleans’ case, the state or the Orleans Parish School Board — if progress isn’t shown in student test scores. Annual progress reports are required.

In reaching those goals, charter schools tend to have greater freedom than other public schools. For example, they can set their own curricula and can focus, if they choose, on specific study areas. At least in New Orleans, many teachers also are held to annual performance reviews.

“We’re trying to develop a system of schools that will be absolutely the best for children in an urban area. If we succeed in that, we’ll be a model for the rest of the country,” said Linda Johnson, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Nationwide, more than 1 million students were enrolled in 3,617 charters across the country at the start of the last school term, according to the Center for Education Reform, a group that advocates school choice and tracks charters.

Johnson urged patience in seeing through a years-long experiment that she believes could yield an educational standard.

“I know everybody wants everything today,” she said. “But it’s going to take some time. In the end, all of New Orleans will be better.”


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dems Reject "Dollar Bill" ...

From the AP by Doug Simpson:

An eight-term Democratic Louisiana congressman whose Capitol Hill office was raided earlier this year as part of a bribery investigation failed Saturday to win the endorsement of the state's Democratic Party.

Rep. William Jefferson was passed over by the party's State Central Committee in favor of state Rep. Karen Carter. The committee voted 69-53 to endorse Carter in the Nov. 7 election.

"I am absolutely humbled," she said.

Jefferson, who has denied the bribery allegations and has not been charged, will still appear on the ballot as a Democrat and will not lose campaign funds because of the vote. But it marks the first time in recent memory that an incumbent failed to win the state party's endorsement, said party member Elsie Burkhalter.

An FBI affidavit alleges that Jefferson took a $100,000 bribe in 2005 to help promote a cable television and Internet business in Nigeria and Ghana. It says all but $10,000 of the cash was found four days later in the freezer of his Washington home.

The investigation became public with separate raids on Jefferson's homes in New Orleans and Washington during the summer of 2005. In May, the FBI made an unprecedented raid on his Capitol Hill office.

In June, he was ousted from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

Jefferson released a statement after the vote accusing Carter of relying on statewide, rather than local, Democratic committee support to earn its endorsement.

"Karen Carter - as she has always done - has sold out the interests of local people for those of people elsewhere in our state," the statement said.

Carter is one of three prominent Democrats challenging Jefferson for the seat. The others are state Sen. Derrick Shepherd of Marerro and Troy Carter, a former New Orleans City Council member. If no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote Nov. 7, a second vote will be held in December with the top two candidates.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Of surveys and photographs ...

About the size of Shreveport

Repopulation projections by Mayor Ray Nagin turn out to be a bit too optimistic according to a new survey. It estimates a current population of 187,525, or about 41 percent of the 454,000 people estimated to be living in Orleans Parish before the storm hit Aug. 29, 2005.

A spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Natalie Wyeth, called the results "the definitive, most precise set of numbers we've seen." The survey was conducted for the authority and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals by the Louisiana Public Health Institute.

New Orleans as our modern Pompeii?

Michael Kimmelman, reporting in the International Herald Tribune, invites us to a photography exhibit in New York:

After Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori went to New Orleans, where he lived years ago, to shoot photographs of the devastation for The New Yorker magazine. He stayed longer than first planned, then went back again and again, for weeks, taking hundreds of pictures with a large-format camera that produced wide, superbly detailed color photographs. The camera was awkward to manipulate through the wreckage and in the heat, without electricity and lights.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in an exhibit that runs through Dec. 10, Jeff Rosenheim, a photography curator, has selected a couple of dozen of these big panoramas and interiors to make a pocket-size lament for a woebegone city.

They are unpeopled scenes: New Orleans as our modern Pompeii.

Polidori shot many photographs of interiors (on the whole less memorable because less emblematic than the exteriors), where soaked ceiling fans droop like wilted daisies and caked mud has turned bedrooms into Martian topographies; each is a voyeur's opportunity to check out the family goods, but also a memorial. The colors ravish.

It's fashionable among some artists today to stage cinematic pictures that look gothic and otherworldly, like Hollywood film stills. Polidori found real barges lifted onto real embankments, bayous where streets used to be, insulation like rendered whale blubber in giant mounds on sidewalks, SUVs propped against houses like flying buttresses and bungalows crumpled like balls of paper.

He also photographed signs of recovery: trailers and construction equipment; a few historic homes, stripped to their frames, on the verge of new life.

These are photographs, in other words, without nostalgia, as Rosenheim writes in a short introduction to Polidori's book, "After the Flood," but with "something of the air that generations of anonymous New Orleanians had breathed in and out." They make "no attempt to excavate what went wrong in New Orleans or why the state and federal response remains even today predisposed to cronyism, gross fraud and corruption." They simply testify, as Rosenheim puts it, "to a city that care forgot."

It's good of the Met to remind us.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Saints go marching in ...

Nancy Armour of AP reported on THE game: Flood-Ravaged New Orleans Revels in Its Old Self

For anyone who questioned why the Saints would go back to a flood-ravaged city, or wondered if a football game could really make a difference in the lives of people mired in misery, you have your answer.

New Orleans was a rollicking, raucous sight to behold Monday night. Fans in the Superdome let loose with a party a year in the making, and there was a rare feeling of hope in the streets.

Residents will be putting the pieces of their lives back together for years to come, and the city will never quite be the same. For a few glorious hours, though, New Orleans was the Big Easy once again.

"I wish we could have had the entire population inside this dome," said Steve Gleason, who smothered a punt to get the Saints' 23-3 rout of the Atlanta Falcons off and running.

Too often, we make sports and the athletes who play them bigger than they are. Players refer to their games as wars. Fans who won't remember who did what to whom five years from now act as if their lives depend upon the outcome.

Sometimes, though, sport does transcend the hype and allows us to show the best of what we can be. This game indeed, everything about this whole Saints season was one of those times.

The team had been on shaky ground before Katrina. No way it could come back to a city picking itself up out of the flood waters. The Superdome was ravaged by wind, rain and the thousands who took shelter there. Entire parts of the city were destroyed, and less than half of the population is back a year later.

But those who had the Saints bound for San Antonio or Los Angeles underestimated the people of New Orleans. After decades of delighting in what sets their city apart, they're finding strength in the one thing that pulls them together.

"We need this team," said Dawn Murray, dressed in Saints colors right down to her gold shoes. "It crosses all lines. It's not Democrat or Republican. It's not rich or poor. It's not black or white. It's black and gold."

They've already showed their staying power, buying out the dome for the entire season for the first time in history. On Monday, they showed the country their spirit, shaking the rebuilt arena with their cheers and "Who Dat?" chants.

They may not have made a single play on the field, but they were as much a factor in the rout as Drew Brees, Reggie Bush and every other Saint.


jbv's Competitive Edge