Archive for May, 2013

Brigadoon Politics

Why Barack Obama struggles to mobilise the majority that won him the White House
Lexington column @ the Economist

IN THE 1947 Broadway hit “Brigadoon”, an American traveller is haunted by a brief encounter with a Scottish village that comes to life for a day every 100 years, before vanishing once more into the mists. It is a hokey Highlands tale, crammed with dodgy kilts and still dodgier lyrics—“Don’t ye ken, There’s a fair, Down on MacConnachy Square?”—but the premise is oddly moving. Back in his bar-hopping Manhattan life, the hero cannot shake off memories of the magical village and the girl he loved there.

Barack Obama shows signs of being similarly haunted. The president’s yearning centres on the more than 65m Americans who elected him in 2008 and again in 2012, rallied by his life story and flair for campaigning, then brought to the polls by a get-out-the-vote operation of nearly magical brilliance.

Tantalising glimpses of that America keep appearing. It must be maddening for Mr Obama. Shades of his winning coalition—which includes young voters, black voters, suburban women, unmarried women and Hispanics—can be sensed whenever majorities of Americans tell pollsters that they support such second-term priorities as increased background checks for gun-buyers or bold immigration reforms. Even on the most wonkish questions, such as the proper balance between spending cuts and tax increases for the rich, Mr Obama can point to polls and argue that he has a nationwide majority of voters on his side, including Americans of both parties. And then, time and again, the political mists swirl and his majority somehow vanishes. Since his re-election Mr Obama has been thwarted, defiantly, by Republicans who, in effect, kept a lock on Congress in 2012. He has endured a quieter, more scurrying sort of abandonment by congressional Democrats anxious about getting re-elected in Obama-sceptical bits of the country.

For the rest of the essay, click here.

Maginnis: Newspaper Rivalry Good for Readers

By Louisiana-based political columnist John Maginnis

When I was growing up in Baton Rouge , after my family moved there from New Orleans just before I was born, the Times-Picayune was thrown in our yard each morning. After school, I would get on my bike to deliver the State-Times, the afternoon counterpart of the then-called Morning Advocate.

Besides the paper route, I’ve never worked for either paper (this is a syndicated column), but like most of their dual readers, their newly engaged business rivalry holds my attention as much as any stories they publish these days.

On May 1, both papers ran front-page banner headlines announcing their big changes: GEORGES BUYS ADVOCATE and T-P ADDING NEWSSTAND TAB 3 DAYS A WEEK.

The great south Louisiana newspaper war is on. This one is unlike those from the early 20th century in big cities, when the struggle was between two established papers rooted in the same market. New publisher John Georges plans to expand on the Baton Rouge Advocate’s recent incursion into New Orleans , while the Picayune prepares to defend its turf with its new tabloid, TP Street , to be published on three of the four days of the week on which it has stopped printing. The Picayune also is making a foray into the capital with its new tabloid BR, while both companies will compete digitally through their websites.

It is an audacious move by Georges to buy a newspaper that one member of the owning Manship family said was not worth what he was offering to pay. Such an assessment by a seller would give the ordinary buyer pause. But Georges is nothing if not confident, optimistic and driven.

He built a family fortune into a much bigger one that supplies grocery and convenience stores and services cigarette and video poker machines. He will say that gambling makes up only a small part of his holdings, but Georges Enterprises, which he founded, is a major player in the state’s video gaming industry.

With those businesses producing enormous cash flow, Georges has estimated his net worth at about $100 million. But men richer than he have lost more than that by trying their hands at newspaper publishing. (Ask Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell what owning the Tribune did to his bottom line.)

Georges becomes a publisher after running unsuccessfully for governor in 2007 and for mayor of New Orleans in 2010, making him a Louisiana-style William Randolph Hearst in reverse.

In his brief career as a politician (who’s to say it’s over?), he distinguished himself as one of the more colorful characters of the post-Edwards era. The man would say anything, and on the record. My favorite quip of his came after Bobby Jindal, then running for governor in 2007 as was Georges, delivered his wife’s baby in their Kenner bedroom when there was no time to get her to Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge . While others heralded Jindal’s heroics, Georges faulted him for “poor planning.”

In those days, Georges loved talking to political reporters, helpfully telling them how they should write their leads. To succeed as publisher he will need to resist that temptation, mighty as it is.

The daunting challenge facing him is to publish separate editions for two vastly different communities. The two cities have grown somewhat closer since Hurricane Katrina, but the remaining gap can still be as wide and impenetrable as the great swamp that lies between them.

To increase its New Orleans circulation to the point where it can compete for advertising, the new Advocate needs to offer a product that is embraced and not just accepted, while not losing the connection to its hometown readers.

TP Street needs to be more than a day filler if the Picayune is to woo back former subscribers who feel jilted by not having their daily paper on their front steps every morning.

The solution for both, of course, is to beat each other to the best stories and to better capture the cultural vitality of both cities. Doing so will require big long-term investments for both companies, with the dividends to be reaped by better informed and entertained readers. How this all plays out could foreshadow the future of daily journalism across the land. The whole newspaper world is watching. Gentleman, start your presses.

The Mayor of New Orleans Has the Wind at His Back

Mitch Landrieu is presiding over a major economic turnaround.
by Adam Kuschner for National Journal

NEW ORLEANS—Among the many other changes unfurling in this town, its chief executive is another kind of break from the past. Mitch Landrieu is the first white mayor since his father left that office in 1978; to get the job, which he began in 2009, he had to assemble a broad-based, multiracial political coalition. The Landrieus may be a political dynasty in Louisiana (the mayor’s sister, Mary, is a three-term U.S. senator), but these are tough times for political machines in New Orleans, and Mitch has been able to slough off patronage awardees from city posts and contracts, inching closer to a meritocratic administration. He talked with National Journal’s Adam B. Kushner, a New Orleans native, about how the city’s economy is transforming, and how to make it last. Edited excerpts follow.

NJ There’s a sense of optimism I’ve felt in my reporting that I don’t remember from growing up here.

LANDRIEU Anybody who comes to New Orleans right now feels a palpable spirit of energy and hopefulness. They see physical manifestations of that transformation taking place in front of their eyes. You can see the medical complex going up, designed not just to take care of people’s health care needs or train doctors or do research, but also as a fairly aggressive step toward information and economic development. You take the smart thing coming out of the research and turn it into a product; we’re going to take the technology and transform it into a industry sector. The second thing is that we now have a working system of schools. We’ve redesigned the governing mechanism, and consequently you’ve seen the scores—which are what counts—begin to grow exponentially from the inner city. The achievement gap between kids here and in the [rest of the] state is closing rapidly. Graduation rates are now better than the national average, and that’s a structural change.

The people in New Orleans are not just deciding to build the city back the way it was. They’re accepting responsibility to build it the way they always wanted it to be. It’s amazing how many young people we have from around the country who are starting to create stuff.

NJ How do you build a knowledge economy? And how does it serve upwardly mobile New Orleanians who don’t have elite educations?

LANDRIEU Generally, we’ve been a place with a lot of raw material and talent and intellectual capital, and we’ve extracted it and exported it. Think of Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center. So if you want to have a knowledge-based economy, you’ve got to create the kind of jobs. GE Capital basically said, “I like what you’re doing down there.” They put 300 jobs downtown. Gameloft [which develops smartphone games] did the same. Pre- and postproduction film work is happening here now. All of a sudden, you’re attracting these industries, and then you’ve got to supply them with workers. Kids are coming to New Orleans and don’t want to live in the suburbs; they want to live downtown, so we have a construction boom, restaurants opening up.

NJ Are the young people who move here staying?

LANDRIEU Yes, they’re becoming citizens and leaders of New Orleans. I have a bunch working in my office right now. They’re moving into government, running for office, starting businesses. And because those jobs are here now, there’s a pathway to prosperity, a pipeline to success, through primary and secondary education, from college and tech schools to [knowledge-economy] jobs. You want to train people so that an older, African-American woman living in [a new, mixed-income development downtown] can walk down the street and have the job as phlebotomist at the new health center. You’ve got to train workers on the low scale, the medium scale, and the high scale. The same thing can be true about high schools and colleges.

NJ Violent crime here is 80 percent worse than the national average. Does that put a ceiling on economic growth?

LANDRIEU You have to know the difference between the crime rate and the murder rate. For the crime rate, we’re number 73 in the nation, meaning that major American cities are much less safe than New Orleans is. But the murder rate is 10 times the national average. Both those things are depressors, which is why we’re spending so much time working on that. Who’s killing, who’s being killed, where they are, and how to change that—it’s a complicated problem that has provided no easy answers for a long time. We hope, as the police department and the school system get better, and culturally we identify where the problems are, we can change it. But there’s no question that it has a negative impact. It should not be a ceiling. It is absolutely possible to change that trajectory. New York City did it; Chicago did it to a certain extent, though they’re having trouble now.

NJ How can you tell whether the gains in the tech and entrepreneur sector are lasting and will take deep root? These haven’t really begun to represent a major share of growth yet.

LANDRIEU When Forbes says we’re the most improved and best for jobs, when The Wall Street Journal says we’re best for business, something’s happening. [New Orleans was the most improved metro on The Journal’s “Best for Business” list last year, up 44 places from 2010. Forbes ranked Louisiana most improved on its “Best States for Business” and gave New Orleans the top spot for “America’s Brain Magnets,” attracting college graduates under 25.] They’re looking at objective data on a sea change of how a place operates. U.S. News & World Report says Tulane is the most popular school. All this stuff has nothing to do with culture and tourism and food. Now, seven years on, they’re beginning to see how change works.

NJ How can the improvements outlast your tenure?

LANDRIEU There’s probably no more important structural change for the future of the city than how the schools work. At some point, the governance of the school system has got to come back to local control [it is now administered by the state]—but not until we have absolute stability. We don’t have that back yet. When it comes back, the new school board must be designed as an oversight board of schools that are run at the site, where the principal has autonomy, where he can fire and hire based on merit, students are accountable, and parents have choices. Those are the kinds of inputs that will close the achievement gap.

This article appeared in the May 4, 2013, edition of National Journal.