Congratulations to my friend Jerry W. Jones, Jr. who, on Tuesday, was appointed to serve the remainder of Jonathan Goins’s term on the Alexandria City Council. I first met Jerry about two years ago, but I really got to know Jerry well after he was selected as a fellow at the New Leaders Council. Jerry, by the way, is the second member of the NLC Louisiana chapter to assume political office. Last month, NLC fellow Ted James was elected to the Louisiana State House of Representatives.
I have no doubt that the citizens of District Three and the people of Alexandria will be well-served by Jerry. During the last few years, Alexandria has been consumed and plagued with political divisiveness. The Alexandria City Council is where good ideas have gone to die. Only a few months ago, the City Council rejected a multi-million dollar development project in District Three, a project that included a neighborhood grocery store, quality and affordable apartment units, and at least one restaurant. It would have been a real game-changer for the neighborhood, which has been clamoring for better housing and a grocery store for years now. Before that, the Council attempted to improperly award a federal grant to the bottom-ranked firm, and in so doing, it jeopardized a $500,000 program that will result in a comprehensive drainage, transportation, and development plan. And the list goes on.
Suffice it to say, Roosevelt Johnson’s tenure as City Council President was a failure. It may have created great fodder for local commentators, talk radio hosts, and bloggers, but it did not, to borrow the cliched phrase, “move the City forward.” It held us back. While the Mayor and his staff have earnestly and steadfastly attempted to resolve the Downtown Hotels project, Council President Johnson and Vice President Larvadain have used every opportunity to undermine the project’s credibility and viability, culminating recently in a sham investigation that, ironically, only further exposed Mr. Johnson and Mr. Larvadain’s complete ignorance and naked political agenda.
At times, it has been difficult to look at the antics of the City Council’s leadership and still have hope that they truly believe in serving the needs of our community. During the last few years, I have experienced, first-hand, the kabuki theater of City Council meetings; at this point, it’s become predictable. On issue after issue, the same small handful of citizens take to the lectern. By now, anyone who has been following the City Council knows these people by name. When they claim to represent the community or their neighborhood, no one ever challenges them. When they say something maddeningly ignorant or absurd, no one ever corrects them. They are welcomed and even encouraged. The more divisive, the more hyperbolic, the more absurd, the better. This has absolutely nothing to do with what is best for the people of Alexandria; it is designed and scripted to accomplish only one thing: To carve out political power by any means necessary.
Alexandria is a majority-minority city, and it is temptingly easy to define our political discord under the rubric of race. Alexandria has a majority African-American City Council and a white Mayor. For years now, I’ve been reading and listening to people who believe that the acrimony between the City Council and the Mayor should be understood almost allegorically. It’s not that simple. It never has been that simple. And we do ourselves a disservice when we perpetuate this meme. If it weren’t for the support of white voters, Roosevelt Johnson would not be a City Councilman, and if it weren’t for African-American voters, Jacques Roy would not be Mayor. Alexandrians do not vote for candidates strictly along racial lines. Indeed, in the most recent Mayoral election, Jacques Roy won a majority of voters in several majority African-American precincts.
The real divide in Alexandria isn’t between African-Americans and whites; it’s between people who peddle in racial divisions in order to advance their own personal agendas and people who reject that approach altogether.
Alexandria was founded by Northerners, two lumber barons from Pennsylvania. During the Civil War, it was somewhat of an anomaly, a small city in the American South that somehow was home to a significant number of abolitionists. Right before the war, William Tecumseh Sherman, the famed Union general, lived here. That said, Alexandria doesn’t have a pristine track record when it comes to race relations. It was just as much of a part of the Jim Crow South as any other place. Two of America’s most important literary works on slavery were based on or inspired by the plight of slaves in and around Central Louisiana, Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years A Slave. In the 1940s, we endured the tragedy of the Lee Street riots, and more recently, Alexandria has been the staging ground for protests about school desegregation and the Jena Six. It is also impossible to ignore the former presence of the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups. A few years ago, when thousands and thousands of people descended into Alexandria to protest the attempted second-degree murder charges against the Jena Six, a white kid from DeRidder tied a noose to the tailgate of his truck and paraded in front of the protesters. It made national news.
Yet, despite all of this, Alexandria has always had a progressive streak. It’s a different kind of small city. With less than 50,000 people, it’s still the largest urban area in a 90 mile radius, and because of its network of highways and its location in the dead center of the state, it’s a place that almost anyone who travels around Louisiana must encounter. Before it was burned down in the Civil War, it was, at one point, the second biggest city in the state. Alexandria’s history and its exposure to the rest of the state and region have informed its zaniness. But, for some reason, we’ve never been able to properly capitalize on it. For decades, we’ve presented ourselves as the crossroads of Louisiana. We’re not a gumbo; we’re a mishmash. We’ve struggled to frame the community coherently. Alexandria has marketed itself as a roadside stop, instead of the destination it could become.
During the last fifteen years, Natchitoches has completely reinvented itself. It has become a tourist magnet, and it has done so without a major convention center and without a full-service hotel. Steel Magnolias helped to put Natchitoches on the map, and it’s a real shame that Alexandria was not provided the same opportunity with The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a sub-par movie, to be sure, but one that was based in Alexandria yet filmed entirely in North Carolina. Still, the interesting thing about Natchitoches is that it has been able to promote itself as a regional destination; the Cane River National Heritage Trail ends less than twenty miles north of Alexandria– the place with the vast majority of the region’s hotel rooms, yet Natchitoches seems to own and control this asset almost entirely. We can do better. We’re sitting on a giant ten-year-old convention center, featuring sweeping views of the Red River and connecting to over 350 hotel rooms, and while our City Council attempts to undermine the value of these assets (which are currently the subject of a private-sector competition for redevelopment), Natchitoches is trucking ahead with its own Request for Proposals for its first-ever full-service hotel. Put simply, when it comes to tourism and marketing, they are running laps around Alexandria.
I absolutely believe that Alexandria is being held hostage by a very small group of primarily unelected political opportunists and that the only way this can change is through determined and principled leadership. We are in desperate need of unifiers, particularly African-American unifiers. It makes zero sense to reject the development of the stockyard property in Lower Third, and it makes zero sense to stand in the way of the redevelopment of the Downtown hotels complex.
Which brings me back to Jerry W. Jones, Jr., our newest Councilman. Jerry may not agree with me entirely on all of these issues, but I know that, fundamentally, Jerry understands the forces that are holding all of us back. With Jerry Jones on the City Council and with Harry Silver as its next President, it’s a new day for Alexandria. If you don’t already know Jerry, then you should be forewarned: He is a fiercely independent thinker. I’ve read some of the commentary about Jerry simply being a “lapdog.” These people don’t know Jerry Jones. When he was a fellow with the New Leaders Council, he had no problem asserting his own opinions- forcefully, respectfully, and almost always with a healthy dose of light-hearted humor. He’s also really smart. I’ve known him to predict election results within one-tenth of a percentage, and it’s not blind luck. He understands his constituency and the electorate. He doesn’t have an ax to grind. Unlike his opponent, he wasn’t fired from his job with the City; he resigned from it in order to throw his hat in the ring. Jerry is driven by his own ambition and his own call to service, and I admire him for that.
Tuesday was a great day for Alexandria. Things are going to change. Stay tuned.