- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

Enough Mr. Nice Guy. The politicians who have been playing patty-cake over Katrina for a fortnight, making polite small talk as if they were at an ice-cream social at the Presbyterian church, are eager to get down and dirty (and make like Baptists at the monthly congregational business meeting).

Barely hanging on to their fragile control of state offices, Democrats in Louisiana are terrified of the lasting effects of the hurricane and subsequent flooding — not of the human suffering, which they can cheerfully abide, but of something really serious, the loss of their remaining stronghold in the black precincts of New Orleans. Louisiana and Arkansas are the last Southern states nurturing lingering Democratic strength, as if indulging a wistful if embarrassing longing for a husband repeatedly caught in bed with the nanny.

“It would not take a large shift of population out of New Orleans to tilt the political balance in favor of the Republican Party,” Jim Nickel, the former Democratic state chairman in Louisiana, tells the Financial Times. “Although there are large African American populations in other Southern states, they have not been as concentrated and organized in a large metropolitan area. New Orleans has been a veritable ATM machine of votes for the Democratic Party.”

No one hits that ATM machine like Sen. Mary Landrieu, who won re-election last year with a bare majority after she was forced into a runoff. Kathleen Blanco, the hapless Democratic governor, defeated Bobby Jindal, the Republican nominee, by a similar razor-thin margin. Mrs. Landrieu first came to Washington with tainted credentials after that New Orleans ATM machine delivered just enough votes to count out the probable actual winner, a congressman from upstate Louisiana.

Her debt to the ATM machine is the explanation for her remarkably churlish ingratitude for the public and private help heaped on her state in the wake of Katrina. First she threatened to punch out the president, and then, after the mayor and the governor made up with George W., continued her rabid attack on him.

The hurricane blew her ATM machine to Texas. Plans are afoot to force the black refugees to return home even if there are no homes to return to, so they can continue to vote — not in New Orleans, but in refugee camps elsewhere in the state.

“There are people right now … building tent cities and trailer parks in other parts of the state to basically deal with political issues,” Mayor Ray Nagin told interviewer Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” Earlier the Rev. Jesse Jackson suggested that an abandoned Air Force base near Alexandria, 220 miles north of New Orleans, could be turned into a vast refugee camp.

This is breathtakingly cynical, of course, but cynicism flavors everything in Louisiana — the crayfish etouffee, the jambalaya, the red beans and rice, and especially the politics. Besides, there’s precedent. The man who would understand Louisiana, the critic A.J. Liebling wrote in his portrait of Earl Long, must understand that Louisiana is not Southern, but Middle Eastern. The Arabs have exploited the Palestinians for two generations, stuffing them into squalid refugee camps to seethe with exploitable rage, so why not here?

Nearly a quarter of a million refugees from Katrina landed in Texas; another 65,000 are thought to be in Arkansas, with much smaller numbers in Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia. Nobody knows how many will return. The poor blacks who lived in public housing are least likely to return because such housing may not be rebuilt for years. “By then they will most likely have got settled somewhere else,” says Jim Brown, a former Democratic state senator and Louisiana secretary of state. “Unless they have strong family ties, there may not be much incentive to return. Working as a taxi driver or a hotel cleaner in Detroit is much the same as in New Orleans.”

Floods have changed demographics before. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 sent thousands of blacks from the delta counties in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana to Detroit and Chicago. This erased the political power of the planters, who typically kept their field hands’ poll-tax receipts in the plantation safe, to be brought out on election day with precise instructions on how to vote, and for whom.

So when Mary Landrieu tosses her blond locks, stamps her little foot and threatens to punch out the president, we should try to understand that she’s fretting over her ATM card. Besides, she is cute when she’s mad.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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