A long time ago in the hoary old ages of time when I still shaved regularly and wore even stranger outfits and personally communicated with as few people as I could get away with (colloquially known as “the years I had to move my mid-tower from room to room searching for a wifi signal I could airsnort into”) I got involved in local politics. Mostly I did it out of some residual respect I had for Michael Moore’s blue collar liberalism and a desire to follow through on Moore’s suggestion that every individual should try to get on every ballot they’re eligible for. I still don’t think this is a terrible idea, if only to drive home the weight of the forces guarding that particular gate for those without means. The first campaign kickoff party I ever went to was a by-donation affair ($30), and I agreed at the door to spend some time canvassing for the candidate: a man whose name I can’t remember (Jeff something) but who looked remarkably like Mark Hamill and had a phone number that was super easy to remember (4, followed by 4 fives, followed by a 7 for the total amount of numbers, followed by a fifth five).
This was my whirlwind introduction to (local) politics, a hugely thankless affair where the minimal amount of work I had to do was to hand out cutesy brochures shaped like a cowboy hat (Jeff, the white hat, opponent, the evil greenbelt violating black hat) still lead a ton of people (who had previously agreed for me to visit, apparently) to believe I was there to sell them something or talk about Jesus.
Last week I went to the most recent campaign kickoff I’ve been to and I managed this time to duck both financial and canvassing obligations. Ernest “eddy-baby Freddy” Charbonnet held a pretty ritzy-doo high class affair at the top of the Basin Street Station, a sort of quasi-museum/office building/meeting space at the foot of the particular I-10 overpass exit that gets you to the French Quarter. The party was on the fourth floor overlooking a ton of landmarks, from the Mahalia Jackson Theater to the police station to one of the cemeteries to the old Iberville projects (the new projects down Orleans are obscured by the one windowless facing). The banquet room was marvelous and understated and ultimately a bit small, the six-odd indoor tables occupied by the time I arrived (punctually). There’s some really marvy skylights and an interesting series of paintings with a silhouetted black woman wearing dresses inspired by various famous paintings (mostly van gogh). The open bar was friendly, if a little oddly stocked, and they poured to rival a christmas party. Asking for mixer was a formality, just a willful attempt at deceiving your true beverage from yourself.
I biked to this event wearing black jeans and a Zephyr’s t-shirt along with sandals and my ratty old Goorin bros’ sorta army hat with some serious holes in the brim fabric. Most of my tattoos are covered, anyway. Still have glittery red and silver polish and three fingers of black and the yellow I impulsively put on half of two of my toenails, though. As usual I have no idea if anyone notices, but I’m by far the most casually dressed person there. At some point a few young-ish couples (relatives of other attendees, as far as I gleaned) come in with the guys wearing the bare minimum of a button-up and slacks, but I’m the only t-shirted individual. One guy did have a blazer and what appeared to be a track suit underneath. Professor Chervenak, inexplicably oft-interviewed political science professor at UNO, was wearing exactly the same thing he does every day thereby meeting the obligate monowear standards of professorhood (it’s in their tenure agreements). I had a lot of time to reflect on this and decide whether or not to be embarrassed. By the second drink I decided to simply be serene.
As far as substance, I don’t remember much. I came to this kickoff largely because I still follow a candidate from a previous race who is still heavily involved despite having lost his bid. Oddly enough, he actually remembered my name, despite my only personal interaction with him being a somewhat rude question about his age shouted in a crowded hall. I blame facebook, but I’m at least in part frightened by the prospect of anyone of any importance remembering who I am. It’s jarring, even though it’s something I’ve been interested in for quite some time. Funny enough, Eric Strachan ended up being the only person who knew even remotely who I was (it didn’t help that I botched the nametag) with the man of the hour Eddy Charbonnet very much not paying any attention to me. Which I must emphasize is totally fine, since I was still variegating on whether or not to be embarrassed and by the time I chose to be serene I was wholly uninterested in further human interaction. The point here is that this is all filtered through my head because it was a fairly alienating interaction that I had to stare at through my skull instead of getting lost in interpersonality.
I did spend a little bit of time chatting with a wife of a lawyerly looking guy and some time apologizing to Ed Chernevak for doing so badly in his course, but that was pretty much it. I couldn’t convince anyone else to come and I didn’t have any real strong ties to anyone involved in the campaign. A campaign which, if the short series of speeches was any indication, has about as much substance as my presence did. Strachan got on stage to look a little like a short Aaron Sorkin displaying his endorsement and introducing further endorsements from people I don’t know. Charbonnet got on stage to announce some really broad statements about his belief in the strength of city council as a balance to the executive office, some kind of statement about the two consent decrees concerning OPP and NOPD, and a very clear and strong statement that he’s not running against Stacy Head (who Strachan was the head of legislation for) but for the other at-large seat up for grabs on the council. He then introduced his kids and wife and got off the stage. I don’t want to say the speech lacked substance. Nothing really lacks substance, especially not the appearance of a lack of substance. What the speech did do was tell me very very little about why I should support Charbonnet. He passably hit a few popular beats he knew the crowd would react to and then got off stage. It’s a shame.
Platforms are contentious at best in politics and most major parties specifically write platforms that can be reinterpreted in some way (except of course the green party, which actually has some gonads) because nothing in politics is more dangerous than making a strong political statement. It’s even worse in local politics when nearly all of the players are dependent on a network of already existing players and a system of basic agreements with one another that there’s a certain way things are going to be done. Without Gary Landrieu’s hulking figure stalking about parties and crushing hands how can you expect to get the attention of the rest of the moneyed elite? Ideas are for idealists, the game is already locked up, etc etc. Louisiana is rife with this stuff. We practically revel in how corrupt our system is and our politicians are. It makes for books and great “character.”
It’s not really that democracy is a sham or anything. The system still works and even still produces upsets from time to time. The problem is that the people who’re most heavily invested in that democracy are simultaneously the least interested in it, which is why a person can start a campaign without a single platform or promise, just a party and a plea for yard signage. It’s going through the motions in case anyone is looking real hard but recognizing that the majority of your support is going to be won through back room deals and premeditated political alliances rather than strong popular support of an opinionated stance. That’s why everyone at a free party is in a suit, and why I’m not.
I’m not going to make some conceit about how I remember Huey Long and how awesome he was. That was some 80 years ago and I certainly wasn’t alive then. I will say this, though: for every memory that people in New Orleans have of a corrupt and inefficient government of foppish old-money lawyers and politicians, there’s a memory of a time when Louisiana was the bluest of the blue states, a haven for all the poor southerners and a beacon of public infrastructure in the south. We live in the highest tech city environment since Venice, why do we put up with cracked and broken roads and shoddy streetlight coverage? Why do we let our politicians spend millions on a streetcar line that travels less than a mile from a glut of hotels to the superdome? Why do we sit idly by while our noble leaders pretend to have moral convictions as the city crumbles around us?
We’re New Orleanais; we don’t have to put up with this shabby crap. If we can organize a fucking daiquiri festival because we’re frightened by a few provisos, we can run and elect a few candidates that don’t fucking suck.