Howard Rich's Blog

May 5, 2009

Term Limits Say New Orleans Mayor Can’t Return; Residents Say They Don’t Mind

from the New York Times:

NEW ORLEANS — As Mayor C. Ray Nagin approaches his final year in office, he faces scandal, an acrimonious stalemate with the City Council and the worst popularity ratings ever recorded for a mayor here.

Term limits will keep him from running again, so Mr. Nagin’s eight tumultuous years of leading what he called a “chocolate city” will come to an end next May. He has not been popular among middle-class white voters since the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but now, with the city still in a halting recovery more than three and a half years later, residents citywide seem eager to see him go.

In a recent poll by the University of New Orleans, Mr. Nagin was cited as one of the “biggest problems” for the city, coming in third after crime and education. Just 24 percent of residents over all said they approved of the mayor, a drop from 31 percent the year before.

“It’s the worst approval rating we’ve reported since 1986,” when the poll was first conducted, said Robert T. Sims, the director of the university’s survey research center.

Among African-Americans, support dropped to 36 percent from about half of those polled last year. Among whites, who constituted much of Mr. Nagin’s voting base in his first election, the approval rating was 5 percent. (The survey’s margin of sampling error for whites was plus or minus five percentage points.)

Edward F. Renwick, a retired professor of political science at Loyola University and a pollster himself, said he found that figure surprising. “I have hardly ever seen 5 percent,” Dr. Renwick said. On the other hand, he added, “I have never met a white person who doesn’t hate him.”

That sentiment can be seen in a $2 bumper sticker that has become popular in the city’s souvenir shops. In vivid Mardi Gras colors, it says: “May 31, 2010: Nagin’s Last Day. Proud to See Him Gone.”

The creator of the bumper stickers and of a “Nagin’s Last Day” Web site that features a countdown clock asked that his name not be revealed because he is a local businessman and worries about retribution. But, he said, the intent is to turn frustration into laughter. “At funerals, we dance and have second-line parades,” he said. “We’re dancing out the Nagin era.”

A spokesman for Mr. Nagin, Terry Davis, said the mayor had questioned the methodology of the poll. But two days after the interview with Mr. Davis, a poll from Tulane University reported similar numbers.

Why is dissatisfaction so high? People have learned to take in stride Mr. Nagin’s tendency to shoot from the hip with a howitzer and have tended to draw some satisfaction from his ability to avoid the serious taint of corruption that has dogged many Louisiana politicians.

Now, however, that sense is coming to an end, after accusations arose in a civil lawsuit concerning city technology contracts. In a deposition, a former city official said he took a Hawaiian vacation with Mr. Nagin and their families in 2004 that was paid for by a company whose owner did extensive business with the city through other companies. Claims of other trips raising ethics questions were raised in later testimony.

At a news conference on April 7, the mayor defended the Hawaiian vacation. “I don’t see it as a violation of any law, any ethics rules,” he said, because he had been told that the city official — Greg Meffert, the former chief of technology for New Orleans — was paying for the trip, not the contractor.

“It’s been cleverly portrayed that there’s something wrong here, and no one has proven that yet,” Mr. Nagin said at the time. He acknowledged, however, that “there’s still a question whether this is illegal or unethical.” He declined requests for an interview.

Mr. Nagin has also been in a long stalemate with the City Council over budget issues and a struggle with news organizations over public-records requests for his e-mail messages. After a judge ordered the messages released, it emerged that thousands of messages had been deleted.

But the biggest issue is the state of the city. Dr. Renwick, of Loyola, said that despite positive signs of rebuilding in neighborhoods like the French Quarter and the Garden District, enormous areas of the city were still crippled and government services were balky at best.

Fixing a streetlight, Dr. Renwick said, can take months and repeated complaints. Over time, he said, “you build up a mass of people who are irritated.”

Ruston Henry, a pharmacist who lost his business in the Lower Ninth Ward to Hurricane Katrina and who works on economic development issues in the city, said residents were frustrated.

“They see tremendous opportunity, and they see not much getting done,” Mr. Henry said, though he added that the Council must share part of the blame.

Part of what initially got Mr. Nagin elected, Dr. Renwick said, was his reputation as a businessman, rather than a professional politician. But in the crisis, the city needed something more.

“The mayor is not a hands-on administrator,” Dr. Renwick said. “He’s more a big-picture guy. And fixing streetlights is small picture. There’s a bit of a disconnect there.”

The authors of the Tulane poll, including the political consultant James Carville, said voters believed by two to one that the city was “on the wrong track,” and they compared the city’s mood to that of the nation “in the final year of the Bush administration.”

One of the mayor’s top aides, Edward J. Blakely, executive director for recovery management, said in an interview that, to some extent, Mr. Nagin was a victim of his times.

“Everything that was broken before Katrina is now magnified, and the mayor has to be held accountable for it,” Mr. Blakely said. Housing may be blighted, the streets pothole-strewn and the infrastructure crumbling, he said, but “these things were broken long before Katrina.”


Acorn Charged in Voter Registration Fraud Case in Nevada

New York Times

LAS VEGAS — A prominent antipoverty organization that drew criticism from Republicans during last year’s presidential race was charged by Nevada officials Monday with engaging in voter registration fraud.

Two former leaders of the group’s Nevada branch were also charged in connection with the submission of thousands of bogus voter registration forms.

The organization, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn, is accused of paying canvassers only if they registered at least 20 voters per shift and providing bonuses of $5 for registering more than 21.

Under Nevada law, it is illegal to attach incentives to such work, in part because it encourages canvassers to submit fraudulent forms, Secretary of State Ross Miller said.

Acorn submitted 91,002 completed forms in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, of which 23,186 turned out to be valid new voters who voted in November, according to data provided by Mr. Miller’s office.

Mr. Miller investigated Acorn at the behest of the Clark County registrar of voters, Larry Lomax, who noted a high number of forms turned in featuring the names of famous football players and cartoon characters.

“This is not a case of voter fraud, it’s a case of voter registration fraud,” Mr. Miller said. “I’m very confident that none of these fraudulent voter forms found their way into the voter registration rolls or to cast votes.”

The indictment includes 13 counts each against Acorn and its former Las Vegas field director, Christopher Edwards, who is accused of creating an incentive program called “blackjack” because $5 was paid for signing more than 21 prospective voters.

Also indicted was Acorn’s former deputy regional director, Amy Busefink, on 13 counts of principle to the crime of compensation for registration of voters. Each charge carries a potential one- to four-year prison term and a $5,000 fine.

Acorn’s national spokesman, Scott Levenson, called the indictments “political grandstanding” by Mr. Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, both Democrats.

Mr. Levenson said Acorn had fired both employees and has cooperated with investigators.

“This is in complete violation of Acorn national policy, and to indict us is a clear case of blaming the victim,” Mr. Levenson said. “We had an errant employee who violated our policy and he was ordered to stop.”

Neither the former employees nor Las Vegas Acorn officials could be reached for comment.

In the final month of the campaign, supporters of Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, charged that Acorn was trying to fraudulently enroll Democratic voters likely to support Mr. McCain’s opponent, Senator Barack Obama.

Yet on Monday, Nevada Republicans said they doubted Acorn’s activity had any impact on the outcome of the 2008 election in Nevada. Mr. Obama won the state by 12 percentage points.

“It wasn’t that close,” the state Republican chairwoman, Sue Lowden, said.

But Ms. Lowden added, “This is just the sort of thing that we need to be cracking down on now for a clean 2010 election.”

Capitalism a Recession Victim

Washington Times:

Capitalism has taken a beating lately, as it often does in a prolonged recession, even though government precipitated the crisis in the first place.

But this time the enemies of capitalism have grown bolder, maybe more persuasive, and arguably more effective than its defenders – certainly more devious in cloaking increasing state controls, central planning and federal ownership with softer terms to beguile voters into giving those enemies the power to manage and control much of our economy.

Increased spending for every problem is now called “investment.” Reregulation of the nation’s financial system and centers of production is called “reform.” Demand for more control over economic decision-making is called “fixing the economy.”

Disturbing signals that capitalism has been losing ground in our body politic can be seen in a recent Rasmussen Reports poll finding that just 53 percent of American adults think capitalism is better than socialism. Twenty percent disagreed, saying socialism is preferable, while 27 percent said they were not sure which was better.

The younger they are, the more they liked socialism. People younger than 30 were about evenly divided: 37 percent favored capitalism, 33 percent said socialism was better, and 30 percent were just undecided.

Support for capitalism grows with experience and age. Among people in their 30s, 49 percent said capitalism is the best system, compared to 26 percent who supported socialism. People 40 and older overwhelmingly support capitalism – a mere 13 percent said socialism is better.

Capitalism’s popularity rises and falls with the economy. It was hugely popular in the Roaring ’20s, when the economy was running flat-out, taxes were low, government spending was modest and regulation was minimal.

Then capitalism became the enemy with the crash of 1929, which heralded the Great Depression. Politicians and people blamed Wall Street, bankers, speculators and anyone with money.

Capitalism experienced a resurgence in the 1950s with the boom of the postwar years that weakened in the 1960s, when President Kennedy ran on getting the economy “moving again” by cutting income-tax rates. To those who criticized cutting taxes for the rich, Mr. Kennedy replied, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” By the end of the decade, the Treasury was flush with cash and the budget was in surplus.

However, no president in recent memory was a greater champion of capitalism than President Reagan, who redefined it in heroic terms. The people who ran it and made it work for everyone were entrepreneurs, risk-takers and bold investors who dreamed of building great enterprises that would span the globe.

He declared the 1980s “the age of the entrepreneur” and was capitalism’s biggest cheerleader, delivering economic sermons in praise of the free-enterprise system that would expand wealth, jobs and opportunity if only government would get out of the way. As the economy plunged into the recession of 1981-82, Mr. Reagan told a dispirited nation that government wasn’t the answer to our problems – government was the problem. As it is now.

He cut taxes, eliminated burdensome regulations, turned on the spigot to increase oil exploration, opened global markets to U.S. goods, started the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the economy took off.

Newspaper headlines said Mr. Reagan had made capitalism “fashionable” again.

Now we are again in a deep recession, and President Obama has ridden it to the pinnacle of power by saying the economy has been gunned down by Wall Street, bankers, speculators and unfettered capitalism.

Mr. Obama became the anti-Reagan. Government, he said, is the answer to all our economic problems, and we need lots of it. Income taxes will have to be raised on those very entrepreneurs, investors and risk-takers whom Mr. Reagan saw as the pioneers of economic progress. And the government will “invest” those taxes as it sees fit in government-run green technology and nationalized health care. Oil exploration and use of all other fossil fuels will be taxed and curtailed. Trade will be restricted and demoted. The heroes of Mr. Obama’s centralized economy will be administrators, czars, regulators and overseers in Washington.

“What Obama proposes is a ‘post-material economy,’ ” and that’s not good, writes The Washington Post’s economic columnist Robert J. Samuelson.

“He would de-emphasize the production of ever-more private goods and services, harnessing the economy to achieve broad social goals” like curbing global warming and creating government health insurance. “In the process, he sets aside the standard logic of economic progress.

“Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, this has been simple: produce more with less,” i.e., increasing productivity, Mr. Samuelson continues. “Mass markets developed for clothes, cars, computers and much more because declining costs expanded production. Living standards rose. By contrast, the logic of the ‘post-material economy’ is just the opposite: Spend more and get less.”

Mr. Obama is betting $9 trillion in debt that it will work. Wise economists like Mr. Samuelson know it can’t work.

Mr. Obama thinks the age of free-market capitalism is ending and we are entering the age of the managed economy, when government will redirect the nation’s resources and its capital to achieve broad, untested social reforms.

“Those who predict capitalism’s demise have to contend with one important historical fact,” Harvard University professor of political economy Dani Rodrik writes in the current issue of the International Economy. It “has an almost unlimited capacity to reinvent itself.” It has survived countless crises over the centuries and has outlived all of its adversaries. It will survive Mr. Obama, too.

For political comedians, the joke’s not on Obama

From the Washington Times

What’s so unfunny?

That’s what some comics – citing the scarcity of satire directed at President Obama and his administration – want to know.

Claiming that his peers are “panicky” about “being called a racist,” stand-up legend Jackie Mason said too many once-fearless satirists are settling for “hero worship” of the new U.S. president.

The Great Presidential Comedy Drought of 2009 can’t be chalked off to a lack of satirical fodder, said comic Jeffrey Jena, founder of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy blog. (“Looking at politics and life from the right side,” proclaims its motto.)

“Letterman used to do a ‘Bushism of the Week.’ ” Why hasn’t he started one with Obama?” Mr. Jena said. “There’s plenty of those moments, the ‘Ohs, and ‘Umms’ or ‘I don’t speak Austrian.’ ”

“Late Show” host David Letterman was scathing in his mockery of President George W. Bush. But on his show recently, he scolded those who would mock the new president’s reliance on the teleprompter for “political nitpicking,” saying Mr. Obama is “at least out there trying” to cope with “impossible” political challenges.

“What really can you say wrong” about the determined new president, Mr. Letterman asked rhetorically while introducing a short film called “Teleprompter vs. No Teleprompter.” The segment contrasted a clip of a fluent passage of rhetoric from a formal Obama address to Congress with one of a tongue-tied Mr. Bush trying to extemporize in a televised informal question-and-answer format.

Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show,” another erstwhile scourge of presidential foibles during the Bush years, has morphed into a political loyalist, rising to the defense of Mr. Obama with angry rants against critics of the president such as CNBC’s Jim Cramer and Internet news aggregator (and Washington Times columnist) Andrew Breitbart.

To some, like self-identified Christian comic Brad Stine, the kid-gloves treatment of Mr. Obama is blatant political cheerleading.

“Because their candidate was elected, they’re hesitant to mock that thing which they approve of,” Mr. Stine said.

Others see comics simply deferring to the sensitivities of audiences who aren’t ready to a laugh at a president who’s not just a political leader but a transcendent historical symbol of black achievement.

“In New York, nobody wants to hear anything anti-Obama,” said Linda Smith, a stand-up comic, Obama booster and teacher at Caroline’s School of Comedy in New York. “And even if they do, right-leaning comics must walk through a historical minefield to mock the first black president.”

Radio and Fox News Channel talk show host Glenn Beck, who kicks off a six-city stand-up comedy tour on June 1 in Denver, suggested that both fear and political calculation are inhibiting factors. Comedians like Mr. Letterman are “either afraid, or they know the power of comedy as a weapon and they like using it as that,” he said.

“We’re now into biased comedy. We can’t even laugh without a political agenda,” said Mr. Beck, who cites “The Simpsons” as a show that skewers both sides without fear or favor.

Mr. Mason, for one, has no qualms about tweaking the new president, explaining that it’s all a matter of striking the right tone.

“People love it. I don’t do it with hate. Even liberals laugh at it,” he said. “The truth of the matter is, if it doesn’t sound like hate, and it sounds like a legitimate joke, it’s OK.”

Julia Gorin, an avowedly conservative comic, is also careful to create the right atmosphere. She said she begins the Obama part of her act by reminding audiences how her fellow comics have been taking flack for the lack of Obama jokes.

“That orients people the right way,” Miss Gorin said. “I’ll run into problems, sensitivities, without doing that.”

Can the vacuum of uninhibited presidential satire create an opening within the comedy ranks for a new breed of right-leaning comics?

Comedian Nick DiPaolo said that although the new administration provides an opening for conservative humorists, that won’t mean they suddenly start appearing on Mr. Letterman’s couch.

Mr. DiPaolo, who mixes conservative-friendly material into his act, said the people behind the major entertainment shows “aren’t going to let someone right of center jump into the arena.”

Lee Camp, a left-leaning stand-up comic and Huffington Post contributor, questions whether the pool of right-leaning comics is big enough to take advantage of any opening created by the election of Mr. Obama.

Creative types tend to lean left, both in comedy and in other art forms, Mr. Camp said. Comics typically try to identify with the “everyman,” while conservatives tend to favor big business, Mr. Camp said, which is a turnoff to the average comedy club habitue.

All bets are off, though, should the president have an intern malfunction or similar scandal. If that happens, right-wing comics will “be popping up everywhere,” he said.

Mr. Beck said society needs comedians to skewer those in power, no matter the party affiliation.

“We deflate everybody. As a guy who’s been deflated lately, it keeps you in check,” Mr. Beck said. “Whoever the president is, they have to know that they’re not a king.”

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