During the 1960 presidential campaign between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, televised debates were used for the first time. There was a total of four, each focused on different topics; all presented an opportunity to answer on a wide range of issues. As innovative as the debates were, it would eventually be noted that there was one issue that was never mentioned: Vietnam. Yet that would become the dominant issue well into the next decade.
That story comes to mind in thinking about the local mayoral campaign. From the beginning the consensus has been that crime is the major issue. But it is not a major issue in the sense of there being any division of opinion. Everyone is against it. All seem to agree that having more police on the streets is part of the answer, though there is vagueness about how that will be paid for.
According to an interview in the New Orleans Advocate there is a controversy that the major candidates do not think is an issue, and that is the monuments question, even though it polarized the community. The candidates’ consensus seemed to be simply that the issue is over, let’s move on. We do not blame the candidates for not wanting to talk about it, because there is a racial tinge that makes the issue difficult.
Nevertheless, regardless of where one stands on the controversy, there is a related issue that should be addressed: the limitations, or abuse, of executive power.
New Orleans’ government was designed for a mayor to be strong; we don’t think the law intended for the mayor to be a dictator.
From the beginning, the monument removal issue was designed and pushed through by one person, Mayor Mitch Landrieu. At the beginning, some agencies and public officials who are under the mayor’s control endorsed the issue. The city council, which politically cannot say “no” to an issue that is presented as being racial, voted (with the exception of Stacey Head) six to one to remove the monuments.
That vote was used as the validation of all else that would follow, although we are confident that had the council been asked instead to create a commission to study the issue and to make recommendations on a comprehensive monuments plan, its members would have voted even more willingly.
We understand that there are times when chief executives have to make the tough call and to act unilaterally, especially in the face of an emergency. But there was no emergency here; no public outcry. Because the issue was socially sensitive that was all the more reason to have an informed study with the verdict reached at the end, and not before, the conclusion.
We should at least learn from the monuments imbroglio. We urge the mayoral candidates not to ignore the issue, but to suggest a plan on working on such matters—a plan that is sensitive to the past yet that allows for diversity, not just by race but by historical contribution.
There also needs to be a broader discussion about power; when it is used and when it is abused.
As for the monuments, New Orleans is one of the nation’s most historic cities. It is a monument into itself of being America’s first truly international city. We may not always respect the past, but we should be better at understanding it.