Malcolm Suber: Good for New Orleans
It is not
The greatest need in New Orleans now is for a direct, politically effective challenge to the prevailing framework of "market-driven" recovery, the results of which are as clear as they were predictable. The neighborhoods, and sections of neighborhoods, where there are signs of recovery are those where residents had resources before the storm. Elsewhere, the situation ranges from very spotty to bleak. Period. This pattern crosscuts race; the deeper truth of the outrageous injustice that defines life in the city is that property ownership is the sine qua non for consideration as part of the civic community in the calculus of recovery and rebuilding. This is Milton Friedman's ideal, an eighteenth-century model of citizenship.
Several groups in New Orleans have been fighting resolutely since the city was still under water to inject the interests of displaced public housing residents and other poor and working people into local political debates and planning processes for the city's reconstruction. One of the travesties associated with Katrina is that so far those groups' efforts have not gained real political traction. In late September, for example, the Housing Authority of New Orleans's (HANO) plan to destroy 4,500 units of low-income public housing in the city won final approval -- despite the city's critical housing shortage, including rents that have nearly doubled since the storm, and over continuing protests and legal challenges. Advocates for public housing residents continue to fight for housing rights.
As important as that advocacy is, like the ongoing work to rebuild housing for those who remain displaced, unless the underlying framework for recovery is challenged, all those efforts will amount to trying to drain Lake Pontchartrain with a teacup. Local activists are keenly aware of that fact and have been discussing possibilities for mounting a united political offensive for more than a year, but until now their efforts have lacked a focal point. That is why it inspired such excitement when Malcolm Suber, a well-known activist in the city, announced his candidacy in the October 20 special election for the at-large seat on the City Council vacated when Council President Oliver Thomas resigned in a bribery scandal.
Suber, who has been agitating in the city for three decades, is known as a person with clear, principled politics and is rooted in the local political scene. He is a former political science instructor at Xavier University and long-time union activist. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Malcolm and I were graduate school classmates and worked closely together in activist politics in Atlanta in the early 1970s.) For decades he has been in the forefront of the fight against police lawlessness and brutality in New Orleans. He is a founder and key leader of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF), which has been the main vehicle for agitation and advocacy on behalf of poor and working people since the storm. He has a substantial electoral constituency and a solid organization behind him. And the campaign has begun to realize the potential for galvanizing progressives and other affected constituencies into a coherent political voice in the city. This undertaking has already been endorsed by the Green Party of Louisiana, C3-Hands off Iberville and Survivors' Village (the two main groups agitating to defend public housing for poor people), several ministerial and neighborhood associations, Malik Rahim of Common Ground, Bill Quigley, Loyola University law professor and lead attorney for the displaced public housing tenants, and various other prominent union, community and social justice activists.
Suber's campaign rests on a platform that asserts the public sector's central role in shaping and implementing a just recovery. "The right to return," Suber insists, "remains an empty phrase unless policies are adopted by governmental officials that make it possible for our people to return." Thus his campaign pledges to fight for federal legislation to reopen public housing developments in the city and provide assistance to returning tenants and to return control of public housing to local government. He promises to counter the explosion in rental rates post-Katrina by sponsoring a rent control ordinance that will also provide property tax reductions to owners of residential rental property. He also promises to be a strong advocate for an overhaul of the Road Home program to provide homeowners with adequate assistance to repair storm-damaged homes. And he would require all major development projects in the city to provide assistance for affordable housing.
He proposes to open health clinics at public schools, increase funding for community-based health clinics, and secure funding for the City's Health Department to provide free health screenings for the public. Perhaps most crucially, he pledges to fight for the reopening of Charity Hospital.
Suber's platform includes a pledge to introduce and fight for an ordinance requiring businesses with fifty or more employees in the city to pay a minimum wage of $16 per hour--"to insure that the working people of the new New Orleans, especially those women and men in the service industry, are able to escape poverty and provide the creature comforts of life for themselves and their families." In addition, he proposes another ordinance that recognizes the rights of workers to organize unions and establishes penalties for any employer who attempts acts of retaliation or intimidation to limit that right. "When I am elected as your councilman," he says, "I will work tirelessly to make the new New Orleans a union-friendly town."
He takes a clear and resolute stand against the privatization of public schools in New Orleans, which has proceeded rapidly and without debate in the aftermath of the flood, and for increased public accountability and openness in public education and all facets of local government. He calls for open government and an end to corrupt and sweetheart contracting.
Recognizing that many of the city's needs can be addressed only through a regional approach and serious federal commitment, he endorses the call for a Gulf Coast Civic Works Project, on the model of the Works Progress Administration, for rebuilding physical and social infrastructure along the region devastated by Katrina and Rita.
This campaign could be the most important development in local politics in post-Katrina New Orleans. In a city whose politics has been characterized by intense racial polarization before Katrina and since, Suber is the one candidate who is attempting to appeal broadly to New Orleanians on the basis of a concrete vision for the city that transcends those divisions and is genuinely inclusive. His campaign's base is solidly anchored in the city's poor and working-class black communities. He also has always sought to work with progressive and civic-minded whites from the affluent Uptown and Lakefront areas as well as white workers, and he has worked conscientiously to build alliances within the city's Latino and Vietnamese communities. A Suber victory would provide the Council with a clear and resolute voice that insists that all those constituencies be included among the circle of stakeholders in the crafting of the city's recovery and physical and economic reconstruction.
And this is a seat that can be won. There are thirteen candidates in the field, including several incumbent and recent officeholders. The coalition that has formed around Suber's campaign is in a strong position to secure a place in the runoff between the two highest finishers. And then the real debate for the city's future begins.
As an all-too-close observer of the human consequences of the depressingly narrow, class-skewed political discourse that has gripped the city since the storm, I can say emphatically that without some aggressive intervention into local political debate, there is little hope for a just and fair alternative to the Friedmanite vision currently driving the city's recovery. As long as that prevails, all the rebuilding efforts of church groups, Habitat for Humanity and other volunteers will amount to little. Therefore, I urge Nation readers who want to help restore New Orleans on a just basis to support the Suber campaign in whatever way possible.
Contributions can be made and information obtained on line at malcolmforcitycouncil.com.
Checks should be made out to Campaign to Elect Malcolm Suber and mailed to the campaign at 1200 Carondelet Street, Suite 1, New Orleans, LA 70130.