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Image Problem Is Costing Louisiana

Times Staff Writer

After battling in Congress for months to get more federal money for their hurricane-ravaged state, some Louisiana officials have come to believe they are up against something more than concerns about the budget deficit or conflicting visions of reconstruction.

Maybe, they speculate, their colleagues just don’t trust them.

Maybe they are right.

What is clear is that the initial outpouring of sympathy for victims in the state hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina has been replaced on Capitol Hill by a climate of suspicion -- even resentment -- toward what is seen as an increasingly demanding supplicant.

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Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) echoed sentiments expressed by many of his colleagues when he insisted recently that every federal dollar sent to Louisiana be strictly monitored.

“Louisiana and New Orleans are the most corrupt governments in our country, and they have always been,” Craig told a newspaper in his home state. “Fraud is in the culture of Iraqis. I believe that is true in Louisiana as well.”

The result of such attitudes, say current and former Louisiana officials, is that the reconstruction effort has been hampered as basic questions about the federal government’s commitment to the effort remain unanswered.

Louisiana officials testifying before Congress have faced so many questions about whether the state’s history of corruption made it a poor risk for massive federal aid that they developed a counter-response: They list other states where politicians have been charged with misdeeds and remind their questioners that Congress has its own ethical woes.

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These include the indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay [R-Texas] in his home state on charges of money laundering and conspiracy, and the federal investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist [R-Tenn.] for selling his stock in a family-owned healthcare business shortly before its value plunged. Also, the Department of Justice is investigating several lawmakers in connection with their dealings with indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

But some lawmakers say the Louisiana delegation has only itself to blame for the mounting tension over the federal government’s obligations for rebuilding Louisiana.

They single out Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), who has made angry speeches on the Senate floor and kept the chamber in session overnight in October, holding up other legislation, as she pressed her colleagues for more aid. Some Republicans say her tone, which they describe as “shrill,” has alienated her colleagues and undercut her efforts.

Privately, lawmakers unfavorably compare Landrieu’s in-your-face approach to that of the senators from the other heavily Katrina-damaged state, Mississippi. Republicans Thad Cochran and Trent Lott have gotten high marks for working quietly behind the scenes to steer resources to their constituents.

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Some Louisiana officials, however, contend the key difference between their state and Mississippi is political. Mississippi is a heavily Republican state, and its GOP governor, Haley Barbour, has close ties to the White House. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco is a Democrat, and the wrecked city of New Orleans is a Democratic stronghold.

It remains unclear whether the states’ political profiles and differing strategies for seeking federal aid have produced different results.

Lott said he had warned his colleagues: “Be careful about just becoming a green-eyeshades accountant when people are suffering and may die because of neglect.”

In interviews, Lott and Cochran said they too had been frustrated by the slow pace of the federal reconstruction effort in their state.

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But at least, Louisiana officials say, the Mississippians don’t have to endure insults.

“I question the political tactics of basically ‘kicking our state’ while it is down,” Lt. Gov. Mitchell J. Landrieu, the senator’s brother, wrote in a letter he sent to every member of Congress in October. “We have lost 40% of our businesses. At least 1,035 of our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors have died.... Yet, in the media, at the office water cooler, at the family dinner table and even in the hallways of the Capitol, we have been made to feel corrupt, selfish and unworthy of aid.”

Veteran members of Congress say they cannot remember another humanitarian issue that started out with such sympathy on Capitol Hill and then lost support so rapidly.

“I don’t think I have ever seen an issue flip so quickly as this did,” said Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.), chairman of a key subcommittee involved in reconstruction efforts.

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After the hurricane hit Aug. 29, “there was a nationwide outpouring of tremendous sympathy for the first two or three weeks,” he said. “Then, most people around the country seemed to feel that we were sending too much money too fast to that area, and there was great concern that some or much of it might be spent in scandalous or wasteful ways.”

Many lawmakers, some of them Louisianans, say the shift began in mid-September, when Sens. Landrieu and David Vitter (R-La.) unveiled a $250-billion, 20-year reconstruction plan for their state.

Dubbed the Pelican Project, the legislative package drew denunciations as a baldfaced grab by Louisianians for as much federal aid as they could get.

“That package was overreaching, and taken by many to be a sign of Louisiana trying to take advantage of the opportunity, of being a little greedy,” said Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.). “You overlay that on top of ... a subtext that Louisiana has a reputation for being somewhat corrupt -- New Orleans particularly -- and you lay all of that over the deficit.... It all combined to make the perfect storm for addressing the disaster in a way that probably is less robust and less timely than I would have preferred.”

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Sen. Landrieu said she did not believe that her actions, or those of anyone else in the state’s congressional delegation, were to blame for what she saw as the federal government’s failure to respond to Louisiana’s needs.

“I’m not sure it was ever the intention of this administration to really help,” she said. “I would say that really it’s a pattern of this administration to promise a lot and deliver very little -- to pretend like you care, but when it comes down to really putting your money where your mouth is, it doesn’t happen.”

Months after the hurricane, many survivors still are living in hotels and other temporary shelters, and many remain financially devastated.

“I’m ready to start a revolution,” said former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.). “This is an absolute outrage. Here we are in Month 4 of a terrible, terrible tragedy, and other than hotel rooms and meals-ready-to-eat and some reconstruction, we haven’t gotten squat.”

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Now a lobbyist in Washington, Livingston has joined other former Louisiana lawmakers to press congressional leaders to help the state. They plan an intensified push next week, when the House reconvenes, to try to wrest more money from Congress before Christmas.

“Has the mood soured? Yes,” Livingston said. “But are we just going to write off an entire region of the country? Congress ought to get their damned act in order and un-sour it.”

Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), has mounted a petition drive demanding that the federal government move more quickly. He hopes to get 100,000 signatures and then organize hurricane survivors for a march on Washington to demand congressional action.

Other Louisianians are concentrating on proving to legislators that their cause is just and that they are trustworthy, said Louisiana Recovery Authority Vice Chairman Walter Isaacson, whom Gov. Blanco appointed.

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“We have to earn our credibility back,” said Isaacson, a native of New Orleans who heads the nonpartisan Aspen Institute think tank and used to be chairman of CNN. “We sort of squandered our credibility

After months of bickering among themselves and introducing competing pieces of legislation, Louisiana’s congressional delegates are working together to craft bills and narrow its requests, Isaacson said.

“We’re not asking for $250 billion anymore,” he said. “We’re asking for things that at most would total one-fifth of that. Most of the rebuilding will have to be done by the people in Louisiana; we know that. But we are asking: Give us a pledge that we will have protection along the Gulf Coast in general against Category 5 storms.”

Blanco has turned to Isaacson, Livingston and other Louisianans to try to improve relations with Capitol Hill. Former Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), now a Washington lobbyist, volunteered. He recently convened a strategy session with Louisiana delegates over dinner at a popular Capitol Hill restaurant.

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Asked how he would describe the delegation’s mood, Breaux hesitated, then said: “The enormity of the situation is very much on their minds.”

Breaux said he worried that the window of opportunity for marshaling the enormous federal response needed for a years-long rebuilding effort might be closing.

“The further away you get from the emotions of the moment, the more difficult it gets to get the financial help for these kinds of events,” he said. “It’s a small window in these types of tragedies before people start to blame everybody.”


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