Monday, September 12, 2005

PHOENIX — Some Democratic state lawmakers from around the country are beginning to buck their party leadership’s claims that Republicans failed to respond properly to the hurricane destruction in New Orleans.

They also dispute the charge that racial insensitivity factored into the Bush administration’s relief efforts.

“The Democrats and a lot of the press are trying to paint it that President Bush and the Republican Party did not go to the rescue of poor blacks who had not evacuated New Orleans,” said Arizona state Rep. Cheryl Chase, a Democrat.

“But my thought is that the first line, the first people who should have been taking care of them — the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana — are Democrats,” she said in an interview during the 67th annual conference of the bipartisan National Foundation for Women Legislators over the weekend.

Missouri state Rep. Juanita Head Walton, a Democrat and the NFWL president-elect, agreed with the criticism of local officials, including New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, but had considerable difficulty in accepting the idea that the federal government could be just as incompetent.

“I don’t know why it took the federal government forever to respond, but the African-Americans I’ve talked with feel it was racially motivated,” said Mrs. Walton, who does not believe race factored into the response. “They feel that if these people were not poor African-Americans, the feds would have been there right away.”

Republicans attending the NFWL conference said Hurricane Katrina has dealt a blow to their party’s efforts, led by Mr. Bush and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, to attract black voters.

“This is going to be a huge setback,” said Louisiana state Rep. Diane Winston, a Republican. “We were moving that black recruitment forward in Louisiana, where 97 percent of our African-American community is Democrat.

“But now you have the Jesse Jacksons and the Louis Farrakhans and Al Sharptons coming down and inciting people to blame the Republicans in general and the president in particular.”

Mrs. Winston says the irony of Hurricane Katrina is that local Democrats, who she said botched the response to the hurricane, will now benefit.

“And all this public assistance that will be streaming in is going to benefit the Democrats, and I resent it as a Republican,” Mrs. Winston said.

None of the Republicans interviewed at the conference defended the response of the Republican administration in Washington as adequate. Several speculated that the federal government’s role in dealing with local and regional emergencies will grow significantly, eliminating some distinctions framers of the Constitution created to ensure state autonomy.

“When you have desperate need and no one is there to meet that need, as happened in New Orleans and other places hit by Katrina, people look for someone to blame,” said New Mexico state Rep. Anna Marie Crook, a Republican. “Some people blame the federal government. It’s easier to blame a level of government farther away from you than a local government.”

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