When I launched this website nine years ago, I intended to write almost exclusively about my hometown of Alexandria, Louisiana, and for the first few years, I made good on that. But the more I wrote, the more I broadened my horizons. This story may seem hyperlocal, and if you’re unfamiliar with the cast of characters, it may even seem petty. But after considerable reflection, I think it’s important to share.
A couple of years ago, after the movie “12 Years a Slave” came out, a family friend of mine- a wealthy, older white man who owns land not far away from where Solomon Northup once lived and toiled- said he didn’t understand why the film needed to be made. “It’s like we’re picking at an old wound,” he told me. I listened to him politely, and even though I disagreed with him profoundly, I wasn’t in the mood for a debate. A few weeks later, though, I alluded to my friend in an interview with the BBC. The inheritance of slavery, I told them, is a profound psychic wound inflicted on the entire community. The problem is not “picking at” the wound; it’s that we never really treated it in the first place.
We cannot merely “pretend” racism away. We must confront it head-on, call it out for what it truly is, and do all we can to guarantee that everyone is treated fairly and equally under the law.
My hometown is majority African-American, around 57%, but its Mayor, its Police Chief, and a narrow majority of its City Council are white. But Alexandria, Louisiana isn’t Ferguson, Missouri. Our white mayor is a graduate of Southern University Law School, an HBCU, and he has appointed the most diverse staff in city history.
Yes, I worked for the mayor, Jacques Roy, for several years, and I still consider him to be a close friend of mine. To some, that may make me biased, but I believe it qualifies me as an expert character witness. He’s annoyingly ethical, intensely smart, and passionate about justice and equality.
A few years ago, when he met President Obama in the White House, he knew he’d only be able to exchange a few brief words, and he wanted to make them count. He told the president that his famous speech on racism in America, the one he gave during the 2008 campaign shortly after video surfaced of Rev. Jeremiah Wright delivering an incendiary sermon, was one of the finest and most moving speeches in American history. The president thanked him and complimented his tie, one of those Mardi Gras ties made famous by Perlis, and without so much as blinking, he unknotted the tie and offered it as a gift, which President Obama gleefully accepted. The White House photographer was able to capture the whole encounter on camera.
Mayor Roy may be a little upset with me for sharing this particular story, but I think it’s a testament to his character and his generosity of spirit. I know he has treated former President George W. Bush and former Speaker Newt Gingrich with the same type of respect and good humor. However, I mention this encounter because of a key passage in President Obama’s speech, the one Mayor Roy admired so much. Quoting:
I can no more disown him (Jeremiah Wright) than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
I’ve always been a stubborn and dogged believer in my hometown’s potential. It’s why I moved back after college. It’s why I spent nearly five years working in public service with the mayor. It’s why I stayed up late almost every night helping to dream up policies and programs. It’s why I pestered experts in urban development, crime prevention, and smart growth from all over the country and the world to help with our projects and to speak to our community. By the time I left for law school four years ago, I knew that I had done some good, that all of us had done some good. There were new and renovated parks in neighborhoods that had long been neglected or passed over. Two of our most historic and important inner-city corridors were springing back to life as a result of investments in simple, elegant infrastructure- landscaping, repaving the roads, building sidewalks. There was a crime prevention program that focused on empowering residents to become block captains and to reclaim their neighborhoods, and people were showing up to those meetings and happily volunteering to contribute their time and effort.
None of us are saints or perfect, and not everything we did worked. But we tried together. Half of the staff were white, and half were black. We were, I think, an accurate reflection of the community we served, and that still holds true today.
Here, though, is the uncomfortable truth: My hometown’s greatest threat, its biggest liability, isn’t the shameless, selfish, entitled “blue blood” crowd or the vitriolic, idiotic, white racists who believe that no one has ever helped them in their lives; its greatest threat is its current African-American elected leadership, men who have continually undermined their constituents- the very people they were elected to serve- by being negligently unprepared during meetings, openly divisive, and brazenly unprofessional and disrespectful.
Don’t get me wrong: Alexandria needs and demands its African-American leaders, and I hope that once Mayor Roy decides to embark on another phase in his career, my hometown will elect its first-ever African-American mayor. But none of the African-American men who currently hold public office (and yes, they’re all men) are even remotely qualified.
If my hometown is ever going to thrive, it must do all that it can to attract and encourage smart, ethical, accomplished, educated, and professional African-Americans, men and women, to become leaders in their neighborhoods and their city. It shouldn’t be that difficult, but it has been. I think that, partly, this is due to a generation gap, and it’s partly due to distrust.
I wasn’t the only person interviewed by the BBC that year. So too was Edward Larvardain, Jr., the father of current City Councilman Edward Larvadain, III. The elder Larvadain has lived a remarkable life. He was an early pioneer of integration in white neighborhoods, a civic leader, and like his two sons, a lawyer. But in his interview, I was struck by his deep, persistent resentment against those he believed wronged him and his intransigence and outlandishness. He had spent a career fighting against racism, and perhaps ironically, he now comes across as a virulent racist himself. His son, the Councilman, seems to have inherited many of these attributes, which has made him one of the least effective public officials in Alexandria history and, arguably, one of the worst legislators in the state.
My hometown, like the state of Louisiana in general, needs to develop and cultivate its bench. In order to do that, we must first get real about the purpose of government. Government is not a weekly television show that airs on Channel Four. Elections aren’t auditions for acting gigs. And if you manufacture a crisis, ratings may go up, but confidence plunges.
Government, even local government, is serious business, in need of serious leaders. In my hometown, those leaders are particularly needed and necessary in majority minority districts.
I could give a laundry list of examples: (1) The recent and unsuccessful attempt to block the redevelopment of a city-owned hotel to a white developer who was willing and able to invest more than $6 million in favor of an African-American businessman who, after two years, was still unable to come up with the necessary financing. That had nothing to do with what was best for the city; it was, instead, based on some ill-conceived notion of racial equity. (2) I saw the same thing occur a few years ago, when African-American members of the City Council attempted to award a million dollar grant project for comprehensive planning to the lowest ranked firm, not because the rankings were flawed but because the lowest ranked firm was owned by a black man who, notably, had no connection to the community. In that case, the State of Louisiana had to intervene and forcefully remind the City Council that we’d lose the funding entirely unless we could prove a legitimate reason why all of the other firms who applied should be passed in favor of the lowest-ranked company. Thankfully, they reversed themselves. It’s also worth noting that the grant was awarded to the city by an African-American state director and that he was particularly appalled by the way in which the City Council had attempted to subvert the process. Given the amount of money involved and the stories passed around about backroom meetings at a local bar, we all had questions about the real motives. (3) I also saw the same type of frustratingly dumb and self-defeating policymaking when African-American councilmembers inexplicably sabotaged a $10 million multi-use development in the heart of the poorest part of town (back then, the Council was majority African-American).
I will never forget, after the defeat of the $10 million redevelopment project, staff members who kept a straight face during the meeting breaking down in tears once we all returned to our offices upstairs. We had all- white and black- simply wanted to do the best possible thing for the people who were most in need. We’d put in hundreds of hours. The development would have contained a grocery store, a strip mall, a pharmacy, a park, and around three dozen moderate-income apartment units, and it would have been paid for, almost entirely, by a private investor. But four African-Americans on the Alexandria City Council killed the most significant investment in any majority African-American neighborhood in city history. And for what? I’m still not certain. Perhaps the answer is: It was defeated by political pettiness, ignorance, and misplaced greed.
I appreciate the risk I’m running here: I am a white guy, who was born into a well-known family, writing about the failures of African-American leadership in my hometown. I’m lambasting the pervasive ignorance and divisiveness that dominates what should be a respectful and sensible exercise in policymaking. That may strike some people the wrong way. I get it. But I know what I’m talking about here. I grew up there. I went to public school there. I came back after college and worked in the Mayor’s Office there.
This, I know, is a complicated discourse, filled with cultural land mines and rhetorical traps. But I earnestly want Alexandria government to adequately reflect the people it represents. Again, now more than ever, my hometown needs young, passionate, intelligent, and fair-minded African-Americans to reclaim and redefine leadership positions that, for too long, have been held by men almost entirely motivated by generalized racial animosity. We must grow up and heal, together, and, for that to happen, we need leaders who care more about redevelopment and renewal than resentment and race, who value community empowerment over their own political empowerment.
This session offered a good illustration of my thesis. It’s a story about State Rep. Jeff Hall, the newly-elected African-American Democrat representing House District 26.
In 1999, then-State Rep. Israel “Bo” Curtis (D-HD26) authored legislation creating the Alexandria Central Economic Development District (ACEDD). Gov. Foster signed the bill into law, and ACEDD became a politival subdivision of the state. It had been pitched as a commission that would somehow crack the code and open up downtown to catalytic reinvestment. In order to do so, ACEDD was capable of engaging in cooperative endeavor agreements and raising ad valorem taxes, with the approval of the City Council and voters, in order to cover its expenses. Unfortunately, the late Rep. Curtis’s bill was sloppy, nakedly political, and unfeasible. Because it was completely impractical to raise revenue for ACEDD through increasing taxes on the very properties it sought to redevelop, the organization became almost entirely reliant on securing federal earmarks.
As I understand it, ACEDD was promised funding in three different phases.
Jeff Hall, who resigned as the chief diversity officer for the large electric company CLECO on June 1, 2012, served as ACEDD’s chairman for many years.
Under Hall’s leadership, ACEDD was singularly focused on the development of a comically impractical and absurdly expensive Red River marina project. Suffice it to say, when I first saw ACEDD’s plans, I thought they were grossly offensive: This was supposed to be an organization focused on redevelopment of a critical area that contained more than 400,000 square feet of vacant property, blocks and blocks of blighted single-family homes, and struggling small businesses. ACEDD’s solution? Well, it called for as much as $60 million for a new marina on the Red River.
To me, the whole thing seemed like a scam, an example of government at its worst: Naively ambitious, egregiously expensive, completely unnecessary, and, more importantly, something that couldn’t possibly solve the problem ACEDD had been ostensibly charged with solving.
Jeff Hall, acting in his capacity as ACEDD’s chairman, had allegedly traveled to Washington D.C. with at least one employee of an engineering firm in order to pitch the project to Sen. David Vitter, and they, in turn, were able to secure federal earmarks totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars just for planning the project.
After receiving the first round of funding, Hall apparently did not even bother to issue a Request for Proposals for the project. Instead, the same engineering firm that had lobbied with Hall in D.C. was allegedly simply handed the contract. I have yet to encounter a publicly available publication of ACEDD’s request for proposals for the planning and engineering of the marina project, and I have a strong reason to believe that a true community-based process never even existed.
The firm had been paid a ton of money, and it billed for even more. In exchange, Hall and ACEDD received a series of unimaginative CAD renderings of a spartan series of boat slips built into the side of the Red River levee, in an area that wasn’t accessible to downtown.
On July 15, 2008, a few months after Bobby Jindal was first elected governor, Mr. Hall resigned as chairman of ACEDD; Jindal’s changes in state ethics laws required practically everyone serving in the state to disclose his or her personal finances. As a result of Hall’s abrupt resignation, ACEDD quickly went defunct. It is both disturbing and perhaps not too surprising that Hall had been running the ship almost entirely on his own. There had been a large amount of money exchanged, and to many, Hall’s resignation seemed suspicious.
I’ll put it another way: It’s probably never good when an organization secures hundreds of thousands of dollars in a federal earmark and then becomes defunct the moment its chairman resigns over sharing his finances. Perhaps there’s a reasonable explanation for all of this. But it’s also worth noting that, not long afterward, Hall’s sister, Wanda Davis, was forced out of her leadership role at the Alexandria Housing Authority after accusations of financial impropriety.
I decided to air all of this dirty laundry for a few reasons. First, Jeff Hall ran for Mayor last year, and no one said anything about it. Then, he ran for State Representative, and again, it never came up. Alexandria is a small city, and understandably, people prefer to play nice.
So, back to the story: This year, during his very first legislative session, Mr. Hall introduced House Bill 364 in an attempt to completely restructure ACEDD and almost entirely eliminate city appointments and oversight. Remember, this is supposed to be a public organization that works with others in an effort to bolster redevelopment in downtown and throughout the district. Instead, it seems to have served as nothing more than a money drain, an organization that squandered their own opportunities and resources as a result of incompetent leadership and consultant-driven, not community-driven, priorities.
Mr. Hall proved himself to be woefully unprepared and revealed himself to be a huge part of the problem. He was forced to acknowledge that his bill failed to receive the support of the Alexandria City Council, the Mayor of Alexandria, or the Rapides Parish Police Jury. He claimed that the reason ACEDD had become defunct was because the Mayor refused to name appointments, which is easily disprovable and which completely ignores the real story: ACEDD went defunct because Mr. Hall, serving as its chairman, refused to disclose his personal finances to the state’s Ethics Administration and was therefore forced to resign. He left the organization rudderless, though that may have not been a bad thing after all, considering their extravagant spending of taxpayer dollars on plans for a marina.
Mr. Hall introduced three key witnesses to the Senate Committee, all of whom may be familiar to folks from Alexandria: Former Councilman Myron Lawson, Councilman Jules Green, and Councilman Ed Larvadain III.
Mr. Larvadain’s testimony was especially rambling. He argued that Alexandria had invested the bulk of its money near its airport and its port on the river, to the detriment of his district. Restructuring ACEDD, he suggested, would make things more equitable.
During the last 9 and a half years, my hometown has dedicated and spent exponentially more in majority minority neighborhoods than anywhere else– on parks, roads, sidewalks, beautification projects, utilities upgrades, signage, and quality of life programming, among other things. And none of this has anything to do with Mr. Larvadain. In my experience, he is the kind of part-time politician who is magically available for every ribbon-cutting but cannot be bothered for a business meeting.
I’ll spare you from my assessment of Mr. Lawson’s and Mr. Green’s testimony, but suffice it to say, both men grossly misrepresented the facts, and thankfully, the Senate Committee saw right through it.
Senators on the committee were perplexed by Mr. Hall’s bill and his complete lack of support from key local stakeholders: The downtown business community opposed him; the head of the convention and visitors bureau opposed him; the majority of the City Council opposed him; the majority of the Police Jury opposed him. He admitted that he never even attempted to meet with the Mayor.
This wasn’t a black versus white issue, though. As Jeff Hall’s effort proved to the entire state, the problem in Alexandria is due to an incompetent, inflammatory, and small group of so-called leaders attempting to undemocratically accumulate political and economic power.
And that is why my hometown is in desperate need of a new generation of African-American leadership, folks who value service over self, community over cash, cooperation over division. Alexandria has a good and decent Mayor who has assembled the most qualified and most diverse administration in the city’s history, and as successful as they have been, they would be even better if they were able to work with true champions of their districts.
We don’t need to pick at the wound. We need to treat it.