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Blame-Shifting in New Orleans

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON--Mardi Gras is coming, but life is still hard in the Big Easy. Almost a year-and-a-half after Hurricane Katrina, the murder rate is up, tourism is nervous and the poorest neighborhoods still look miserable enough to make inviting backdrops for aspiring presidential candidates.

Dressed in a crisp new pair of jeans in front of a ravaged home, former Democratic Senator John Edwards of North Carolina declared he was "exploring" a presidential run just after Christmas.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama from Illinois, who also is "exploring," performed his usual starring role among other senators as they held a "field hearing" in New Orleans Monday on Gulf Coast reconstruction efforts.

Can Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was busily getting acquainted with Iowans Monday, be far behind? After all, it would be a lot easier for her to beat up the Bush administration for its slow response to Hurricane Katrina than to face yet another question from Democratic voters about why she voted for the war in Iraq.

President Bush made himself an inviting scapegoat for New Orleans' woes with his slow Katrina response. His unfortunate omission of New Orleans from his recent State of the Union address only handed his critics yet another convenient domestic policy stick with which to beat him.

As a result, when Mayor Ray Nagin faced the senators Monday, he predictably found three familiar targets on which to blame the city's woes: race, class and President Bush.

"I'm not asking for more money," Nagin told the Senate panel. "I just want the money you've already allocated to my citizens to help them."

In fact, as the hearings indicated, Bush moved hell and high dollars to help New Orleans, once he was rudely awakened by the crash of his own plunging approval ratings. Congress has allocated more than $110 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast region, yet most of it has not reached residents who are trying to rebuild homes and businesses.

What's the holdup? State and local officials point fingers at each other. State officials say $595 million is waiting for the city to complete the application process. Mayor Ray Nagin says the state's documentation process is too cumbersome.

Well, nothing personal, Mr. Mayor, but that's not much of an excuse. Free money without safeguards and accountability is an invitation to waste, fraud and abuse. If the nation is going to help New Orleans get back on its feet, as it should, new New Orleans needs to let the nation know where the money is going.

Yet, when speaking to the senators, Nagin, the black mayor of a mostly black city, focused on how Katrina exposed "an ugly underbelly" of poverty, particularly among the area's black population. He questioned whether the country had "the will to fix it" because of, guess what?

"I think it's more class than anything," he said, "but there are racial issues associated with it also."

Conspicuously omitted from the mayor's list was another familiar thorn in the city's side: the mayor.

If the state is being unreasonable in its demands for information or documentation, the mayor should explain what the problem is. It's certainly not unreasonable for the state or federal government to ask for accountability.

The recovery of New Orleans could hardly be a more worthy cause, but the worthiness of the cause does not justify a free hand with public money, regardless of the recipient's race or class.

Remember last year's highly publicized reports of frivolous expenditures by a few displaced Katrina victims of their emergency checks? In their case, cash handed out too casually not only wasted resources but also gave the truly needy a bad name.

If anyone deserved the mayor's criticism, it would appear to be someone closer to home like Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. Nagin and Blanco have seldom gotten along. But it would not be polite for the mayor to discuss his strikingly personal dispute with his fellow Democrat in public. It's easier to blame Bush first; he's such an easy target these days.

When I visited New Orleans' neighborhoods on my own fact-finding trip one year after Katrina, I was dismayed by how little faith the remaining residents had in their political leaders or in the city's recovery. Months later, I can see the reasons for their dismay. The governor has not fully explained what steps the city still has to take and Nagin has not explained exactly what is so unreasonable about what the state is asking.

It's long past time for state and local officials to sit down together and hammer out their differences. New Orleans is more than a backdrop for politicians. It's a place where people in genuine need are waiting for their leaders to show real leadership.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) By The Chicago Tribune | Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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