Results of the Runoff: Major and Minor Changes in Louisiana Politics

People have asked me about the local races in New Orleans. Here is a brief synopsis that was also featured in Data News Weekly.

Charlie Turner @charliemichio

Can Also Be Read in Data News Weekly, 11/22/2015 Edition…

For those who did not receive 50% or more of the vote in the open-primary were subject to a ‘runoff election’. The two highest vote-getters go head to head, majority wins outright. With the exception of David Vitter, every other runoff candidate belongs to the Democratic Party.

Louisiana Governorship: John Bel Edwards Defeats David Vitter

A Democrat will be the next Governor of Louisiana, a prospect that seemed unthinkable in a state that seemed to only get redder. Statehouses all over the South seemed beyond the reach for Democrats as moderate voices disappeared in lieu of Tea-Party Republicans. When Mary Landrieu lost her senate seat in 2014, everyone was reminded of the steady GOP takeover of the American south that began with the backlash from the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

During those 2014 midterms, Sen. David Vitter appeared to be one of, if not the most, powerful politicians in Louisiana. He was a loud and disruptive force in DC who increasingly became a voice for conservatives and anti-Obama sentiment. All the while Bobby Jindal’s building absenteeism in office, controversial budget proposals and refusal to expand Medicaid seemed to make him more divisive by the day. Once the budget busted in 2015 and voters began to see Jindal as having blind Presidential ambitions, Vitter became the de facto face of the Louisiana GOP.  But ultimately, Jindal’s descent to a 20% approval rating, 55% amongst Republicans, may have been what doomed Vitter who has near identical policy views as the term-limited Governor.

Attacks on Vitter’s involvement in the DC-madam prostitution ring clearly did not help the senator’s poll numbers, but it is difficult to say if they were the main reason for his defeat considering his smooth 2010 reelection. It is possible that voters simply act on different priorities in senate races compared to gubernatorial ones. But what seems undeniable is that the Jindal administration created a desire for political change which did not bode well for Vitter.

Besides bringing a new political party to the statehouse, an Edwards Administration will bring a push for Medicaid expansion, a higher minimum wage and more investment in higher education. If Edwards can get a majority Republican state congress to cooperate is another conversation. But he has political momentum behind him as well as a willingness to challenge the network of business tax credits and industry groups that defined the Jindal administration. Edwards is far from a radical progressive but does offer a change from the tea-party politics that have defined many statehouses over the past ten years, Louisiana included.

State Senate 7th District: Troy Carter Defeats Jeff Arnold

Rep. Arnold has a reputation for being a fierce advocate for Algiers even if it meant alienating the Mayor or his colleagues. His name recognition and political following easily got him past the primary, but not enough to beat Troy Carter in the runoff. Carter is a diplomat who has been successful in passing legislation on both the state and city level. His parliamentary skills coupled with his affable persona should make him an effective senator in Baton Rouge.

State Representative 100th District: John Bagneris Defeats Alicia Plummer Clivens

Bagneris beat Clivens despite her allegations that he owes over $200,000 in tax debts. While his family name (brother of mayoral candidate Hon. Michael Bagneris) surely helped his candidacy, he is a community leader and a knowledgeable legislator in his own right.  He plans on bringing commercial centers back to NOLA East and empower traditional public schools to prevent children from having to commute to charters in other neighborhoods.

State Representative 99th District: Jimmy Harris Defeats Ray Crawford

Jimmy Harris, longtime aide to US Rep. Cedric Richmond, handily beat the politically unknown Rev. Crawford to represent large swaths of the Ninth Ward. Like many politicians representing the Lower Ninth, Harris wants to focus efforts on developing the blighted neighborhood. He supports using certain tax incentives to encourage economic activity. But with a budget deficit largely caused by generous tax credits, it may prove hard to use such a legislative tool.

Member of School Board District 1: John Brown Defeats Keith Barney

Brown gets elected to a full term on the School Board after being appointed to replace Ira Thomas who was indicted on corruption charges. The board is in the middle overhauling the fully charter school system that has faced criticism for a lack of oversight. Brown will be in a position to affect a school system teetering between private and public management.

Food Deserts: A Dangerous Lack of Choice

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Can also be read at Louisiana Data News Weekly

With Thanksgiving approaching, people from all over the country will head to grocery stores to prepare for the US holiday. Every family has their own recipes, but just about every take of the tradition requires fruit and vegetables to make stuffing, salads- items that many in New Orleans do not have easy access to.

‘Food desert’ is a term that describes an area where residents cannot readily access affordable and fresh food. The Ninth Ward and New Orleans East are classic examples, profiled in documentaries and exposes, of neighborhoods with residents that are miles away from stores that sell fresh produce. The problem is lessened significantly for those who own cars and the gas money needed to drive to a grocery store outside of their food desert. But in a city where 30% living below the poverty line, according to the Brookings Institute, there are tens of thousands of New Orleanians who are subsequently stuck in their respective food deserts.

A Battle of Semantics

Since First Lady Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, that focuses on childhood nutrition, the issue of food scarcity is received increased attention. But with the majority of the Americans live in suburban sprawl settings, where long drives to commercial centers are common, it can be difficult to identify how many Americans are truly suffering in food desert conditions. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), overseer of everything from food stamps to farm subsidies, is the official designator in what is a food desert through the use of census data. An area is ruled a food desert if there are 500 or more individuals or 33 percent of a town’s population that reside more than one mile from a grocery store. (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

The USDA’s definition of food deserts is often criticized for its vague wording. Does a small corner store or large gas station constitute as a ‘grocery store?’ Also the role of household income is not addressed. A five-mile trek for routine grocery shopping is a weekly routine for residents of affluent suburbs, but near impossible for those who live in low-income housing on the outskirts of New Orleans.

The other obstacle in establishing access to fresh produce is providing it at an affordable price. A family that lives off of less than $25,000 a year will find little reprieve in a boutique grocery store close to their home. The complexities of poverty also make it hard to calculate what constitutes as affordable food. And similarly to the problem with distance from grocery stores, anything that is difficult to quantify is also difficult to rectify.

The USDA and ‘Let’s Move’ program has dedicated $400 million towards tax incentives for grocery stores that open in food deserts. But one new store does not guarantee that low-income residents in the area have legitimate access to healthy food options. The Upper Ninth Ward is a deemed food desert where most residents shop at the Dollar General on the corner of Poland and St. Claude Avenue. But with the high-end St. Roch market opening, known for quality premade foods and farm-to-table cooking, Upper Ninth’s may no longer be deemed a food desert.

Raymond Carter, resident of the St. Roch area, does not share the ill will towards the St. Roch Market that others have, but admits that the new store is not on his radar. “It’s a nice looking building, it’s just better for me to shop other places”.

Food Deserts Mean Poor Health

The inevitable result of living in a food desert is a poor diet. Gas stations and other small storefronts provide sustenance, not a healthy lifestyle especially with children. Children who are denied a well-balanced diet are highly prone to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and poor mental health- problems that are prominent and often untreated in the black community.

Devonte, who chose to not give his last name, can only go shopping for his family if a neighbor drives him the 4 miles to the grocery store in Chalmette. For daily eating, he usually buys poboy and some ramen packages from the nearby Magnolia Gas Station to cover his lunch and dinner meals respectively. He and his friends all appear to be healthy teenagers but this is not the case for many in the Lower Ninth, and is definitely not for New Orleans’s black community as a whole. A 2012 study conducted by Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that those living in zip codes comprised predominately of African-Americans had a far greater chance of heart disease and early death. Perhaps the most troubling were zip codes encompassing Treme and the Seventh Ward, largely black neighborhoods, that had life expectancies of 54 with a 5 times greater chance to die from heart disease.

Those who are passionate about ‘food justice’, the growing social movement to combat unequal food distribution, are tired of low-income communities waiting for market forces and government assistance to combat food deserts. These activists have instead opted to build off of the progress made in urban farming, particularly in low-income areas. Sankofa Market and Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) are examples of organizations located in food deserts that are attempting to provide fresh produce to neighbors. The long-term plan is to give these neighborhoods control of their own food similarly to a rural farm community.

The goal is admittedly quixotic for Alex Goldman, staff member of OSBG, but he rejects the common perception that organic farming is elitist. “Organic farming is often seen as part of the white, rich and privileged world- and for good reason since there is a long history of those who sell arugula for $15 just because they know that there are those who will buy it if it says ‘organic’. “

OSBG staff will be quick to tell you the importance of selling their produce for a reasonable price- $8 for a bag of arugula being their standard. While the return is not as much as it perhaps could be, OSBG sees the organic food market as filled with ‘price-gouging’ practices that make the product unattainable for low-income buyers. Even worse, high price produce instill the long-term impression that this kind of food is not meant for them- a mindset that food activists besides those in OSBG have tried to combat.

After working on the OSBG farm, Devonte sees organic food as something that he will always prefer to eat. “I think everyone should learn how to grow. If the power goes off or things get bad, we’ll know how to survive.” With more studies showing the corrosive effects of pesticides and processed food, food justice activists are hoping that more resources will be allocated to provide healthy alternative to these communities that have the least choice.

 

Runoff: Vitter Vs. Edwards

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Charlie Turner Tweet: @charliemichio

Can also be read at Louisiana Data News Weekly, a publication on African-American issues, November 4th edition.

UPDATE: Edwards leads Vitter 51% to 35% as of November 16th

The runoff election for Louisiana’s next governor will be held on November 21st between Rep. John Bel Edwards (D) and Sen. David Vitter (R), in what is arguably the state’s most important election within the last decade. If you are a one-issue voter on abortion or gun control, then this election has little value as both candidates hold the same positions on most social issues. But on healthcare, education and social equality there are serious distinctions between the two candidates. These stances are especially relevant considering that whoever inherits the $1.6 billion budget deficit will be able to decide the fate of several Louisiana universities and hospitals that may close to remedy the fiscal hole Gov. Jindal is leaving behind. Investments made by our government take years to bear fruit, so what happens now will reverberate well past a four-year term.

Funding and Support

It is surprising that Vitter almost did not make it into the runoff, (garnering only 4% points over the next GOP rival in the open primary), considering the senator’s name recognition and incredible fundraising figures. Vitter has more financial backing than all other candidates combined, a feat he accomplished by capitalizing on the unrestricted nature of US campaign finance laws after Citizens United- a Supreme Court decision that Vitter supports. In fact, Vitter has been more than just a vocal supporter of limitless corporate and union money in politics, his campaign has partaken in the tear down of regulatory walls in campaign finance. This past summer, a federal court ruled that campaign dollars for Vitter’s senate seat could be moved to the PAC supporting his gubernatorial race. The decision could easily open the door for presidential candidates, such as Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, to use contributions for their respective senate seats towards ambitions for the White House. Such a coup in an already lawless campaign finance environment was made possible from Vitter’s strong ties to national GOP figures. The Fund for Louisiana’s Future, the Vitter PAC in question, is managed by Charlie Spies who was an instrumental figure in establishing Mitt Romney’s fundraising apparatus in the 2012 Presidential election.

It is not hard to understand why Vitter has received such a strong backing from national GOP leaders that include John McCain, Chris Christie and others. During Vitter’s tenure in the US Senate, he has been a staunch ally of pro-business legislation as well as an effective disruptor of Democratic initiatives. For example, Vitter was the mastermind in defeating incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu by recruiting Rep. Bill Cassidy who was seen as the best option in the crucial midterm race. Vitter is undoubtedly more experienced with government, but the perception that an Edwards Administration would bring desired change could easily bring a Democratic governor.

Edwards has not served national office and is relying far more on local groups, which includes Republicans, which are tired of Gov. Jindal’s leadership and policies. While Jindal enjoyed wide support from state congress and national conservative pundits, Edwards remained a critic of the Governor’s reliance on tax breaks for big business and a refusal to increase taxes. Jindal like Vitter have both signed the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge. As a result, Edwards has received the support of unions, the sheriffs department and major education officials, groups that feel threatened by looming budget cuts and see a Vitter administration as the executor.

The differences in political background have been a major point of attack for both candidates, which has unfortunately distracted from their positions on the issues, especially those concerning poverty. The most prevalent distinction is Edwards’ unconditional promise to expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act, a policy change that 62% of Louisiana supports. Meanwhile, Vitter’s tenure in the US House and Senate could be characterized as a roadblock for federal anti-poverty programs, Medicaid included. The Senator has derided welfare initiatives in particular, from food stamps to the Lifeline program, for being wasteful and disincentives for full-time employment. In general, the issue of economic equality and the state’s role in combatting poverty may be the largest distinction between Edwards and Vitter.

Medicaid Expansion 

Vitter has stated that he may be open to expanding the federal-state partnership program once he began his run for the statehouse, but has previous stance of opposing the acceptance of the ACA provision. In fact, there are plenty of sound bytes on Vitter’s opposition to Medicaid expansion, including an appearance on CNN’s Crossfire two years ago. The Senator viewed the provision of the Affordable Care Act as another burden on the state’s budget despite the expansion being covered by federal dollars for 10 years. Now that Vitter has softened his tone since the governor’s race, he has been able to deflect Edwards’ attacks on the issue. Vitter’s argument is that everything must be on the table, and he cannot commit to expanding Medicaid until he has executive power. Vitter has made similar qualifications on other budget issues.

Edwards has joined the majority of Louisianans in stating the moral and economic responsibility to expand Medicaid with the other 40+ states that include many Republican governors. A Medicaid expansion will not solve the immediate issues in the state’s healthcare, but would greatly help emergency room and preventive care services that are facing cuts. Whether Louisiana will be able to handle the cost of expanded Medicaid 10 years down the road is a risk that Edwards, and the majority of current governors, have decided to take.

Minimum Wage

The movement for a higher minimum wage has not caught on in Louisiana as much as other states, but polls show that a significant portion of voters support a boost at the state level. Rep. Edwards has repeatedly stated that increasing the state’s minimum wage will be a number one priority. The economic argument being that Americans on the poverty line are more likely to spend increased earnings in order to meet basic necessities.

Vitter, along with the national GOP, see the minimum wage as an artificial levy on businesses that will prevent employers from hiring. But while raising the minimum wage may cause an immediate loss of roughly 500,000 jobs, almost every study shows that the increased consumerism from a higher minimum wage will improve the economy, which in turn will generate higher employment in the long run.

Welfare Programs

The term ‘roadblock’ was used previously to describe Sen. Vitter’s views on welfare programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but that may be an understatement considering the efforts he has made to restrict federal entitlements. Vitter proposed a bill in the Senate that would mandate food stamp recipients to show a photo ID to the cashier in order to stop abuse of the program. It is difficult to see a photo ID law saving the government much money since data shows that food stamp fraud is quite rare, and has fallen to the lowest rates of all time despite the surge in enrollment after the Great Recession. The real problem with photo ID laws is that they prevent those in need from using the service, especially African Americans. According to the Brennan Center School of Justice, 1 in 4 African Americans do not possess the identification required to participate in SNAP under Vitter’s proposed law because of the cost to purchase one. Meanwhile there have been no efforts to help distribute IDs to low income residents.

But when fully examining Vitter’s record on anti-poverty initiatives it is clear that his issue is more on principle rather than what is effective. He has proposed banning convicted felons who committed certain violent crimes from government-sponsored assistance. Non-violent offenders are not exempt from his quest to limit welfare either- Vitter supports measures to require drug-testing to qualify for federal assistance for anyone in need- a proposition that not only adds another layer of bureaucracy but also implies that those who have a history of drug-use should be cut off from safety-net programs. In a state with a highest-incarceration rate in the country, it is difficult to see how barring the most vulnerable from food stamps will help a sinking economy or improve public safety. However, as Vitter’s TV commercials attest, these stances help create an image of being ‘tough on crime’.

Perhaps most concerning for Louisiana’s black community is Vitter’s support for photo ID laws in federal elections. A tactic used in North Carolina and other states, admittedly to boost GOP candidates, has been barred from Louisiana to date. But Vitter has voted for a photo ID law in the US Senate in 2007 and has stated his support for mandating that everyone purchasing an ID if they want to participate in elections.

Edwards has not had the opportunity to speak on national welfare programs as much as Vitter. But he has effectively used his support for Medicaid expansion and public education to separate himself from Vitter’s incendiary rhetoric on safety net initiatives.

It is difficult to know whether Vitter would governor Louisiana with the same tone he displayed as a US Senator. After all, one can get away with symbolic votes and partisanship in congress where colleagues can override an individual’s decisions. But as Gov. Jindal has shown us, it is far harder to hide behind ideology in the statehouse where the level of influence is simply greater. While both are the same on many social issues, the two candidates have vastly different ideas of how to handle those living under poverty- an important distinction with Louisiana still being the second poorest state in the union.

Seawater=Fuel≠Less Greenhouse Emissions: Why the Pentagon Can’t be Trusted to Take on Climate Change on its Own.

The concept of fuel from seawater seems to be a tool against climate change… until you look into what it entails.

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After over a decade of research by the US Navy,  technology has been developed that converts the hydrogen and carbon from seawater into fuel. A scale-model replica airplane has been filmed flying using the new seawater fuel. A toy plane is hard to get excited about, but it shows that existing engines can use the energy source without being modified. It’s an impressive breakthrough that once again shows the scale of the Pentagon’s Research and Development wing. Pentagon projects, such as this one, can easily go undetected by mainstream media. The DoD doesn’t need the same level of press coverage that an Apple product requires for market purposes. However, companies just like Apple have benefited from federal programs like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which develop some of the world’s most cutting-edge systems. While these innovations came from national security concerns, they are often later applied commercially. (The application of GPS and other satellite-based systems is a perfect example). Seawater fuel may also become available to consumers down the road, but this shouldn’t be confused as good for the environment.

No one can predict with certainty the success of a new piece of innovation, but what is known is that the seawater-to-fuel process is years off from being ready for primetime. Navy researchers believe that US military ships won’t be able to produce their own fuel until the next decade.

This is where skepticism over the story has appeared from environmental activists, and why it’s warranted. Will deriving fuel from seawater actually help fight climate change? Researchers have disseminated the warning for years now that oceans are at their limits of carbon uptake, making the waters more acidic and less able to absorb manmade CO2. So the concept of fuel from seawater seems to be a tool against climate change… until you look into what it entails. The two main problems with this new fuel source is (a) even once we wait for it to be developed, is it worth it? and (b) a branch of the Pentagon controls the fate of the project.

The timeline, as mentioned earlier, shows that this technology is only a novelty for at least another ten years. The Navy has the raw ability to extract hydrocarbons from seawater, but when can we see a ship run off of the water that it takes in? (And in the case of the Navy, an aircraft carrier). It’s horribly counterproductive if the seawater is processed off site then transported to active fleets. The amount of petroleum required to just transport the seawater fuel product to deployed vessels would negate any carbon offset hoped of being achieved. Therefore, the next goal is to give military ships the capability of producing their own seawater fuel with an installation of onboard catalytic converters.

That said, even once on-site production becomes a reality ships will still rely on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, there has been no mention of the catalytic convertors operating off of solar panels- instead the system will run off good ol’ gasoline, the amount of which is currently TBD. So as you can see, seawater-powered fleets is a far cry from a green revolution. But it’s a mistake to think that the US Navy is in the green revolution business. The Department of Defense has been, and will always be, in the business ensuring military readiness and global dominance. When the announcement on this technology was made, an enthuasitic Vice Adm. Philip Cullom explained why this is such a big deal:

“It’s a huge milestone for us,” said Vice Adm. Philip Cullom. “We are in very challenging times where we really do have to think in pretty innovative ways to look at how we create energy, how we value energy and how we consume it. We need to challenge the results of the assumptions that are the result of the last six decades of constant access to cheap, unlimited amounts of fuel.”

I don’t mean to vilify the Vice Admiral, his quote is accurate and honest assessment on how this development will be applied. This article’s purpose is to bring down any giddiness on the prospect of this technology being a move away from fossil fuels. Because as mentioned earlier,  the Department of Defense is in the business of increasing military readiness and global dominance.

Watchdog groups like Project Censored have identified the Department of Defense as the worst polluter in the world, well above the usual suspects of multinationals. I’m sure there are some that see these sorts of reports as far-left hyperbole, but that does not detract from the fact that the US military has an extensive track record of toxic dumping and unprecedented use of fossil fuels. This can be traced from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam to  Camp Lejeune here in the US. The DoD has shown that the institution does not see a strong connection between protecting the environment and national security. Now climate change is a far greater issue since it poses as an existential threat, and to the Pentagon’s credit they have identified it as such.

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Erin Brokovich standing with prostesters in DC  urging Pres. Obama to help families of Camp Lejeune

So is climate change the issue that will finally get the DoD to start cleaning up its environmental record? There is some optimistic evidence to say yes. Besides the Pentagon’s plans to cope with ensuing rising sea levels, the Obama Administration has made a pointed stance expanding the military’s role in the fight against climate change. In 2010, the Obama Administration announced the directive to get 20% of the DoD’s energy from renewables by 2020. The same administration signed into law the Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act which grants medical care to those made ill by the Lejeune water supply. Has the Pentagon truly begun to see the national security implications of it’s heinous record of pollution? I argue that the answer is between ‘barely’ and ‘meh’. Climate Change is undoubtedly on the Pentagon’s radar, but so is a zombie apocalypse. Just because the Pentagon is aware of something, doesn’t mean it will act on it- especially if it requires sacrificing the military supremacy.

You know that the Pentagon is acutely aware of the research done on climate change because they have conducted several studies themselves. Establishment R&D groups like the RAND Corporation have been perfunctorily contracted to analyze how the military could reduce it’s carbon footprint. If you take the time to read the exhaustive papers, you can tell that its understood greenhouse emissions have serious consequences for the nation. (No ‘global warming is a hoax’ sentiment in these circles). Unfortunately for climate advocates, the reports that show concern with climate change also strongly advise a continuous reliance on fossil fuels. (If you have time, you should at least read the summary from the RAND report). There are calls for a marginal increase in wind energy, but overall a heavy reliance on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future is the general consensus in the DoD. All hesitancy to use more renewable energy stems from the concern that it will limit the might of the US military. Renewable sources are unable to sustain the growing energy needs and would come at an increased fiscal cost as well. In the same 2011 RAND study, the authors came right out to say that seawater-to-fuel technology would be not be fiscally feasible. (pg 39). Did the authors know about the Navy’s work on the new fuel source? Who knows. What can be assumed is that RAND would probably be opposed to incorporating seawater-to-fuel capabilities if it detracts from military strength simply for greenhouse gas reduction. I apologize for the cynicism, but if solar is considered too cumbersome for RAND, then I’m sure they aren’t going to wait around for seawater fuel).

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The guy from Dr. Stranglove was based on a real RAND Corporation adviser

On an optimistic note, there is reason to believe that the Navy won’t be the sole owners of seawater fuel technology forever. As mentioned earlier, the Pentagon has developed some of the most groundbreaking innovations that have instrumental in building our current day economy. (AKA private businesses). ARPANET, a communication system constructed in the 1960s to survive a nuclear attack, was constructed by on the Pentagon’s dime. While it was designed for military purposes it later went on to be the foundation for the world wide web. The internet has been improved upon and expanded through private investment, being fully ingratiated into the world economy. So it’s not farfetched to think that private groups will work to make the seawater-to-fuel conversion a zero-emission process.

The seawater fuel breakthrough isn’t the only prospect the military has in curbing greenhouse emissions. There have been reports that Pentagon is funding research on converting ocean waves and common algae into energy sources as well. They are all exciting projects that have potential to move the country away from fossil fuels. But ‘potential’ doesn’t mean anything until it actually happens. Ultimately, this story shows that the government alone cannot be trusted to solve all problems. A tempered summary but at least it’s accurate.