The scene in the lobby area of the Samuel DuBois Cooke Center on the campus of Dillard University for the recent mayoral forum said it all. In what could best be described as a take-your-seat, be-ready-to-listen high stakes political encounter, the rules of engagement were set, parameters defined and all matters of operation were executed by the women in charge.
Forget Women of the Storm, the overwhelmingly white group of Uptown women who formed immediately after Hurricane Katrina and took the early lead with local media help in establishing what they thought the city's agenda would be going forward. That is until realizing their membership looked nothing like the major portion of the city that had just been devastated.
This new group of women had organized earlier last year under the name of African American Women of Purpose and Power. Lead by Dr. Beverly Wright and other high profile African American women, this new coalition was the force behind one of the key debates of the entire mayoral campaign. These women, whose express purpose was to inform and educate the African American community about the election and key contenders, made sure that the six mayoral candidates clearly understood the conditions they were about to face. It would be bumpy but when all was said and done, what needed to be clear would be clear.
Because of their insight and determination, African-American women would have a major say in who the next mayor of the city of New Orleans would be.
For two and a half hours that January evening, the auditorium in one of the university’s crown jewels was transformed into a place where the images of the good ole boys’ clubs gave way to a new local order of African-American women making the points, African-American women asking the questions, African-American women leading the discussion and African-American women telling the mayoral contenders whether their answers cut muster.
Under the theme, “A Collaborative for the Future: Where Purpose Meets Power,” the forum brought together all the movers and shakers of the city’s African-American community, whether it was business, higher education, media, politics, publishing, community organizing, non-profit, civic or cultural arts.
It left no doubt for those in attendance that they were a part of an event that would not only help to shape the dialogue and discussion in the current mayoral contest but one where their issues and concerns would be addressed by each of the six major candidates in attendance.
This was all about business. This was about taking care of business. This was all about one group of individual groups putting together their collective resources and energies to pull off what was arguably the most comprehensive, best managed, best researched and fairest of all of the mayoral debates of the entire political season.
While a couple of the campaign season's debates – the Horizon Initiative at NOCCA and the Alliance for Good Government at Loyola – enjoyed the blessings of the local media via coverage and their perceived relevance, the debate, “A Collaborative for the Future: Where Purpose Meets Power,” was by all accounts the most insightful, most engaging, most testing and most comprehensive of all of the mayoral debates.
The top six major candidates – Rob Couhig, John Georges, Troy Henry, Mitch Landrieu, James Perry and Nadine Ramsey – each were questioned extensively by the panelists, and each had their moments to shine.
Couhig spoke often about blighted housing, and kept up his attacks on Police Superintendent Warren Riley. Henry may have made the biggest news announcement when he said he would seek to build the nation’s fourth African-American medical school in New Orleans East in a collaborative arrangement between Xavier and Dillard universities. The statement drew praise among those in attendance, but was mostly given short shrift in the press.
Henry also said he wanted minority contractors to be prime contractors on city projects, not subcontractors.
Georges, in one of the campaign’s surprising revelations, said he had met with former Atlanta mayor and native New Orleanian Andrew Young to get his take on what needs to be done to support Black businesses nad gtow a Black middle cass. This solidified Georges’ position as the one candidate least beholden to the city’s Uptown power interests.
Perry touted his role as a “civil rights activist” based on his work as a housing advocate. He highlighted his role in taking on St. Bernard Parish in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the parish attempted to keep certain people from moving into the parish through various housing ordinances.
Ramsey, the only woman in the field, said the city was “at a crossroads,” and that of all the other candidates, she was the only one who took a gamble by giving up her elected seat to run for mayor. She and Henry throughout the campaign mentioned Landrieu’s refusal to resign his position as lieutenant governor.
Landrieu spoke, more than the others, in broader, big-picture terms, discussing such entities as NASA, the Michoud Assembly Facility, Federal City and the Port of New Orleans.
The debate, based on the results of the Feb. 6, 2010 mayoral election won by Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, would become a harbinger of the city’s future and how a significant portion of the electorate, African-American women, would play a major role in issues of importance to the African-American community. With an African-American woman among the top six mayoral candidates, there was no way for the candidates to try to talk their way around the questions.