- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Open it, and they will come.

Maybe not just the politicians, either, but the children and their mamas, papas, sisters, brothers, cousins and aunts.

New Orleans threw open the doors of Benjamin Franklin Elementary School yesterday in the neighborhood called Uptown, the first public school to open in the city since Hurricane Katrina and the flood shut down everything Aug. 29.

In Washington, Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, announced that he would take 400 Democratic pols to New Orleans in April, for the first convention since the storm. He got permission from the AFL-CIO to meet at the New Orleans Sheraton, which, like most of the hotels in town, has no unions.

“They gave us a full pass on that one,” he said. “We are deeply committed to the resurgence of New Orleans. And we’ve been looking for ways to help in tangible ways.” New Orleans, in fact, is one of 33 cities invited to bid for the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

Like the city, the Democrats in Louisiana need all the help they can get. New Orleans has always been the source of Democratic strength in Louisiana. One Democratic pol describes New Orleans as “the ATM machine for Democrats.” Sen. Mary Landrieu in particular has used the automated teller machine to overcome Republican margins in the conservative, Protestant upstate counties. New Orleans, ever plastic, has always delivered.

But thousands of Democrats, particularly blacks who comprised 70 percent of the population of 490,000 before the storm, are gone with the wind to 41 states, and it’s not at all clear that Miss Landrieu and the party can find the missing wheels and absent cogs to put the ATM together again.

Democrats in the Legislature are trying imaginative ways to manipulate voter eligibility, either by loosening absentee requirements or postponing elections until someone can think of something. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, ever eager to help, suggested early on that an abandoned Air Force base at Alexandria should be outfitted, with tents as necessary, as a “temporary” home to lure refugees who fled to nearby Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee to come back to restore the Democratic stronghold. This would uproot refugees trying to make a new and better life elsewhere, but that’s a small price for the hapless and the homeless to pay to keep certain pols in the style to which they have become accustomed.

The Democratic gesture is one Republicans might well copy, even if the accommodations just now are a bit Spartan, with the Sheraton the only hotel available for a convention even as small as a routine meeting of the Democratic National Committee.

Howard Dean is making no promises about the national convention three years hence, even though nobody in the Big Easy, where everybody “has been to some big towns and heard me some big talk,” takes a pol’s promises at face value. “Of course,” said Mr. Dean, meeting in New Orleans in ‘08 “depends on the ability to come back all the way. That’s a long way back and that’s a huge endeavor.”

The opening of Benjamin Franklin Elementary School illustrates just how far back the city still has to go. Franklin was a magnet school before the storm, with an enrollment of 500 and a waiting list. Now anybody who shows up can stay, but only 120 of the 200 or so who signed actually showed up. The cafeteria serves only granola bars and canned peaches for breakfast.

Franklin is one of only about a dozen schools still operated by the school board. The rest of the system, a cesspool of corruption and mismanagement, has been taken over by the state, and only about 4,000 children are expected to attend public schools through the spring semester, down from 60,000 before the storm. Some private schools, mostly Catholic, together with two charter schools have been up and running for a month.

It’s enough to push a Democratic politician sharply toward the center. If there’s nobody in New Orleans to service the ATM, Louisiana might finally turn Republican with the rest of the South. Mary Landrieu’s vote on the Alito confirmation will be a key.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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