Interview With James Perry
Written by Joe Longo
Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:34
|Interview With James Perry|
In 2004, James Perry became the Executive Director of Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, shortly after earning a law degree from Loyola University. Perry first came to the attention of NOLAFugees in 2006 when we made fun of an ordinance in St. Bernard Parish that required landlords to rent only to blood relatives. In our fake story, we attributed some fictitious quotes to Mr. Perry, who was in the process of leading a successful lawsuit against the ordinance.
Given the fact that we've put words in his mouth, it only seems fair to let him have his own say, as he explains his campaign for Mayor of New Orleans.
NF: You just got back from extensive travel throughout the Northeast, the academic community. Tell us a little about that.
JP: Well, we have kind of a tough strategy in our campaign around contracts where… it seems like it’s gonna be a stretch but it’ll all make sense in a minute. The issue is that we think that a lot of the problems in the recovery have to do with the wrong goals in contracting, basically patronage affecting the contracting process. So we want to have blind contracting, so a request for proposals comes out from the city and anyone who wants to submit a proposal does so, but then their name and all identifying info is redacted from their proposal by the Inspector General. So, the result is that when the proposal is actually considered, and hopefully it'd be by a committee appointed by the mayor and by the council, they don’t know who submitted it and they only consider it based on the merits.
So, the way that gets into our travel is it means that a lot of the business interests who do business with the city won’t be able to get guaranteed contracts through our campaign, right? Usually folks will donate to someone and say “well we’re gonna give you this money but we want a particular contract,” but we can’t promise any contracts, so it means that we have to do a much broader outreach. There’s a second thing though, and it’s that we are a real civil rights-minded campaign, so we looked at New Orleans and its role and what became really clear is that what’s at stake isn’t just what’s important for the people who live here, but its something that’s at stake for the whole country. And it’s the reason that so many people come here to work and to dedicate time. Last night we talked to probably 100 or 200 student attorneys who are coming to volunteer over their spring break, and so why do they all come here? It’s because this is social justice’s ground zero for this generation.
We looked at the last huge social justice movement which was the civil rights movement and what we saw was that when Martin Luther King wanted to change the south he couldn’t really do it only with people from the south because he had to finance it. He had to find a way to find the money to change the south and therefore change America. So business people in the south didn’t want to change the way business was done in the south. He went to the north and he looked to people with good conscience in the north and said, "will you help us to finance this movement? Because if we can start this change here in the south then we can change America." Essentially, we're making the same argument.
The last reason why travel was so important is that there are a lot of people from prestigious universities and so forth that have dedicated a lot of time and a lot of money into ideas around New Orleans recovery, and all those plans are usually sitting on someone’s desk collecting dust. We wanted to hear about what those plans were and to find out whether or not they’re things that we could really implement. We don’t have to go and reinvent the wheel on a lot of this stuff because so many people have been trying to come up with the best answers for us, so we wanted to find out what many those answers were.
NF: Do you anticipate any hazards relying on northerners and welcoming them in?
JP: You know I think that the opposition would use whatever they can if they think that there’s an argument, but we have an inclusive campaign and we also have, at least I have, a long track record of performing and working for the citizens of New Orleans, and I’m a New Orleanian and if people think because I’m open to outside advice, that there’s a problem, then I suggest that that’s the precise reason why you shouldn’t vote for them.
NF: I’ll bring up one of the people who’s helping you quite a bit, (Princeton professor and media pundit) Melissa Harris Lacewell. At the event that I was at last Winter, while she was introducing you she drew comparisons to the Obama model of campaigning and fundraising, and its true that he received a lot of small donations and got a lot of momentum from that but it’s also true that he drew heavily from Silicon Valley and Wall Street money, do you have any hopes or strategies for tapping into the big money, as it were, that you really need for a successful campaign?
JP: We do, and as a matter of fact that’s one of the areas where Melissa becomes extremely important because she has a lot of those connections, and the idea that one of the leaders in African-American political thought would jump in at the very earliest stage in the campaign and say that she supports it says a lot and does a lot. So at some of the fundraisers in the northeast there were people from really large corporations who turned out to donate and a lot of that had to do with them really taking Melissa’s word for it, and so that gets them there. And then once they get there I have to make sure that they understand that we really can make change in the city, and so once that happens they donate. It has worked so far and we think that the momentum will continue to build.
NF: What are your plans, aside from going outside, which is one of your strategies, for dealing with the traditional political power sources in the city, black and white: the uptown Audubon Place money, the black machines like BOLD and so on and the Morial Creole “aristocracy,” for lack of a better word. What are your plans for dealing with those power bases?
JP: I think that for a number of the political machines we don’t have to do much because they’ve already been dealt with. I think that Katrina really dispersed their power significantly, and the evidence is, for instance, the second district Congressional race where none of those machines were able to get a real hold, and there are a number of races that have happened so far where none of, particularly the African American machines, have been able to really get a firm grasp and make something happen. So I think that demonstrates that a lot of their lists are pre-Katrina, that a lot of their contacts and connections and so forth are all pre-Katrina, and that they don’t give them the kind of power that they had before, and so that provides the opening. The fact is that there isn’t a strong African-American leader or organization that is really engaging politically. So that’s that side.
On what you described as the Uptown kind of Audubon group I think that we still have great opportunities there. You know, in spite of the fact that I’m a civil rights advocate, my first work in New Orleans was at the Preservation Resource Center. I worked to help people buy and renovate vacant and blighted properties mostly in historic neighborhoods, and so while I was there, I worked with some of the folks who people often times stereotype around preservation; so a lot of times it was, frankly, rich white women, or at least well off, and I found that I had lots in common with them. A lot of the advocacy work that I do and a lot of the tools that I use and the way that I use them I learned working at the Preservation Resource Center and I realized that we have much more in common than we think, and so I think that because of those initial connections and those initial bonds that I’ll be able to get some traction in some of those neighborhoods, so we’re not particularly worried about or conceding that we can’t get votes there. We think that we have some good connections.
NF: Something that seemed to galvanize Obama’s campaign was a generational difference as much as the fact that he was going be the first black president. You look back at it now and you saw that the biggest conflicts he had in his campaign were with some of the civil right leaders of the previous generation. Do you have a plan or an idea for how to deal with the older generation of civil rights folks who may be uncomfortable with the direction you are going and what you’re trying to accomplish?
JP: We are having conversations with those folks all the time and I think that what will happen and what is happening is that people look toward the work that I’ve done. Even before hurricane Katrina, but especially after hurricane Katrina, if you compiled a list of some of the most effective civil rights work in the city, it’s hard not to include a number of the cases that the organization that I run has litigated. So if that’s the case, I think it’s difficult for a civil rights leader to argue that we’re not really committed to this cause and not really committed to social justice. So I think that we’re gonna have great headway there. I know that I’ve talked to a number of people who have been involved in civil rights in New Orleans for a long time and its become clear to a lot of them that it's time to train the next generation and then pass the reins of leadership to the next generation and so what were saying is that this is the opportunity and this is the time, and a lot of folks are open to that idea.
NF: Every candidate hopes to “transcend” race during the campaign but it seems unreasonable to think that race won’t play a role in the 2010 Mayoral election if any of the previous few elections and the tone of the City Council is any indicator. Are you prepared for that eventuality? Do you have a way of dealing with that when you get to it?
JP: Yeah, absolutely. It has in some ways a lot to do with my decision to run, and we just have not had someone who has ever been in the city of New Orleans who has provided leadership around race where they focus on uniting rather than segmenting parts of the population. My social work is as a civil rights advocate and one of the keys in our advocacy work is that we couldn’t be successful in litigating any of our cases without a partnership along race lines, right? We needed white folks and black folks frankly to win every case that we’ve won, and we’ve won every case, so that’s the approach that we would take if we were running the city is that we would come in and we would want everybody to participate. I’ll give you a very specific example of how that plays out or how that would have played out with how things happened recently with the City Council, because you’re probably very familiar with this transparency issue and with Councilman Fielkow trying to get the ordinance passed to change the transparency rules. What happens is, of course, that Councilman Fielkow is unable to really get, particularly, African Americans on his side right? And so mostly conservatives and white folks say “yes, lets get transparency in this contracting process” and mostly African-Americans say “well, why now with this mayor when it hasn’t been the case with any other mayor?”
NF: Sort of the same thing that played out with the Inspector General?
JP: Right, same arguments. So now the argument is right, that we do need more transparency, but the problem was that he couldn’t build the alliance. He couldn’t make the argument effectively to both communities. He could only make it to one community, right? Well, a civil rights advocate, I think, can make the argument effectively to both communities. And it really comes up around this issue of racial mistrust. The reason why people are antsy on both sides is about mistrust across race lines, and so our thinking is that you make all the information available, and when you demonstrate that you have nothing to hide, that’s how you create trust across race lines, when you put all the information out there. And so we actually think that transparency is a great thing and it’s actually the way that you get people of all races involved and engaged because they realize, well hey, there isn’t anything that’s going on that’s mischievous or illegal or anything because we can see every bit of data, and so that’s the argument that he (Fielkow) needed to make in every single community, but failing to do neighborhood meetings where he talked to people in every single community means that it doesn’t get through and it’s certainly to the detriment of the city. I think that that’s something that I would have particularly been able to do.
NF: Does some of the mistrust come from the straight inability to communicate? One of the things we do at NOLAFugees when we’re sitting around the office drinking beer in the daytime is watch the City Council. On a pure level of watching people not understand each other, there’s no better example. When Veronica White talks to Stacy Head it’s like they’re on two different frequencies and they feed off one another’s hostility toward each other. It’s not so much mistrust. It’s almost as if they don’t have an informal area to communicate with each other, so that when they do step in front of the microphone when the cameras are on them in their formal mode, they don’t have any sort of relationship. Is that part of the problem?
JP: I think so, and when you talk about mistrust I think that you can easily replace that with miscommunication, right? Or you can say that mistrust is the result of bad communication or bad data. It could be a number of things that result or cause the mistrust to happen. I think that that’s a factor, but whichever one it is I think we still come back to the same answer which is that making more information available makes it easier for people to get over the communication hump. For instance if these two folks sit here and speak the wrong language to each other and don’t understand each other but then the data is there and they look at the data and they can both understand the data then they say “oh I get it” and it works out now. And so it’s all the more reason, be it mistrust or miscommunication, that all the data should be available.
I would say at least about that initial encounter between Ms. White and Ms. Head is that, at its most basic level, all that was happening was that Councilwoman Head was saying was "can I get this information? Can I get this data?” She may not have been saying it in the most reasonable way, but that’s all she was saying, and Mrs. White was saying, “Oh, well, I’ve done my best to make it available.”
In a Perry Administration she wouldn’t have had to ask because all the data would have been available, not just to the City Council but to every citizen, because it would’ve been open-sourced information available online and so there wouldn’t have been the opportunity for the mistrust to even build. And here’s the case. It might be that you see that data and see that there are things that the administration is doing well and there will be times where you look and see that the administration isn’t doing well, but making the data available is how you figure it out, and once you can assess that then you can perform better, but I think it goes back to making all of the info available.
NF: Your campaign seems to have the potential to galvanize new arrivals to the city, the post-Katrina idealists. Your campaign coordinator (Nathan Rothstein) is a new arrival himself, relatively speaking. If you rely on new arrivals to sort of help you get elected, what are your plans for giving them incentives to stay?
JP: I’ll say first that we don’t intend to exclusively rely on new arrivals. We intend to target every single group, and so some of the early work has been with a lot of new arrivals simply because a lot of them are engaged in a lot of the online networking we have done. But we think that our base is really New Orleanians who have been here and lived here for some time. Now, when it comes to this idea of getting people to stay, it’s not just the young professionals who are from out of town, but it’s also locals. Why should they stay if the economy is failing? But we desperately need them because we have this huge infrastructure problem where we have enough infrastructure for 625,000 people, the peak population of the city, but we only have 300,000 or so citizens, so there are a few things that we want to do.
The first is that we want to invest in some of the things that have already been successful here. For instance, the Louisiana film tax credit we think is an incredibly successful program, but it works anywhere in the state. So what is it that draws a company to come and do their film here in New Orleans instead of in Shreveport? So we would do a physical tax district for the film industry and we put it in a storm-damaged neighborhood, and so there would be additional incentives for companies that shot their films here and then even more incentives, tax incentives and finance programs, for folks who want to relocate their physical businesses here to New Orleans. So that’s one example because you have a lot of young professionals who are coming here because of the film opportunities. Once we saw the film tax credit do well, we shouldn’t have stopped there. The state of Louisiana should’ve passed additional tax credits. We should have passed them in internet technology, we should have passed them for social entrepreneurship, any area of industry we can think of we should have passed tax credits for them.
Of course all of them wouldn’t have been successful, but really quickly, just like with the tax credit, we’d have seen a few of them be successful and as soon as any of them becomes successful on a state level then we should make another physical district and we should locate these physical districts mostly in storm damaged areas of the city so we cause investment in the storm damaged areas, but we also cause investment in the city in general. And, so that process is one process that will ensure local jobs and ensure jobs in the city, and most of those jobs are going to be jobs for college educated folks and there will also be, of course, jobs for folks that aren’t college educated. So that’s one way that I think you end up getting people to invest in and to stay here.
The other thing is, I think, the Port of New Orleans. I think that mayors have not historically put enough focus on partnering with the port. So, there are just millions of dollars worth of goods that come through New Orleans in the port on a daily basis and for the most part they come in and go right through and we don’t even touch them, right? Well, I think that there are two main investments that we can make that will cause us to be able to get some business from the port. The first is that when ships are coming through, they have to get their goods off the ship and either onto either on to a truck or onto a railroad car, right? And we don’t have the kind of intermodal tools that gets stuff from the boat to the truck or the boat to the railroad. So, people actually come through New Orleans and go to another port because they have better intermodal processes. So we should invest in the intermodal processes and the city should actually make an investment or back the investment so that the city actually gets a cut of it, but it’s also that we create some business opportunities there, because there are businesses at every other port in the country and all that they do is just move goods from one mode of transportation to another.So I think that’s one investment for us to make.
The second is that a lot of these goods come in as raw goods and they go onto some other place in America so that they can be made into something. And so we need to add value to the raw goods so that they can be used, so that whatever is being done somewhere else, they can say you can do it right here in New Orleans. And I think that the best place for us; we have this vast area in New Orleans East that’s completely underused and I think one of the best things we can do is to figure out what most of the goods are that are coming through the port and then offer business incentives for folks to do production that adds value to those goods. And so we’ll have to set up, again, physical districts that wait for those goods, and I think New Orleans East is a great place to do that because we have so much vast, vacant land.
NF: Back to the film industry. The cynical view, and this comes from some friends of ours who work as extras and that sort of thing, is that the incentive to film here in New Orleans is that the labor’s very cheap. And obviously we’re not going to unionize anywhere south of New Jersey, but what steps can be taken? Bringing them here with tax incentives and all that sort of stuff, but at the same time paying the citizens of the city something that they can actually really live on and give them some security in these jobs.
JP: You know I had a great conversation with a gentleman who worked heavily on increasing the minimum wage here in New Orleans and he had moved on from the idea of increasing the minimum wage and was instead focused on how you give strong incentives for companies to increase the amount that they pay. So, for instance, in these tax credits, these tax programs that we make available, one of the ways you could take advantage of the credit is if you had, if this percentage of your job pays more than x, right? And so, in order to get the incentives, there were these additional steps that you have to take that made sure that you are really investing in workers in the city.
That really gets back to this issue of what a mayor’s principles are, right? And so if you have a mayor who’s really comfortable with the way that things operate in the city right now, for instance the tourism industry that survives basically on the backs of poor people, then of course we have a mayor that just says when the business comes it’s fine and we’re happy. But if you have a mayor that’s an advocate for poor people, then what happens is that each of these tax incentives includes specific regulations that require the company, in order to get this great benefit, to help move people out of poverty. And it’s not that difficult to do. You don’t have to be a brainiac to do it. It’s just that you have to actually care about poor people.
NF: NOLAFugees doesn’t particularly endorse anything, but we do support three sort-of "platforms," or three legs of the stool: gambling, miscegenation and insurance fraud.
NF: The theme of miscegenation we’ve talked about in terms of race relations. But gambling: Harrah’s, with a little hiccup there at the beginning, seems to me a good employer. I don’t say that because I like to play poker there. I spent the last five years there and I know people who like their jobs. And these are people who, if that place didn’t exist, they would be working in the Walgreens and the lower paying jobs on the ladder. So, they’re a good employer. Right after Katrina, Nagin sort of threw up a trial balloon about making Canal Street a sort of gambling district. Is that such a bad idea?
JP: I think so, actually, and the reason is that I think that…I’ll back up for a second and say that we can go down about this and come up with a number of different ideas that came up over the last ten or fifteen years to attract people to New Orleans that weren’t really inherent to New Orleans culture. So, Jazzland, which later became Six Flags and of course went out of business, is an example. For instance, opening the Riverwalk. Which is a fine shopping area and so forth, but when you look at it, all these things that don’t really relate to our culture just don’t attract people to the city, right? It just hasn’t been what they’ve done. I think that in terms of attracting people to the city, people come really because of the culture. I think that it’s a strong investment in our culture that actually attracts more people and that gets more money.
The second thing is that I think you have to look at the market for gambling and see whether or not we really can sustain a whole district. So before Harrah’s was here, we had a riverboat casino that docked off the Mississippi right at the end of Canal Street, and we had the Bally’s Casino out in New Orleans East, right. So Harrah’s comes in and both of those essentially go out of business, which perhaps indicates that we didn’t have the market to sustain both or all three, right? And who knows, perhaps great marketing could make us that we could, but on its face we couldn’t sustain all three. So it makes me very cautious about investing a whole lot of money in placing the whole essence of the economy on this kind of thing that we’ve seen already not do well. I think that we have a track record of investing in things that aren’t part of our traditional culture and seeing them not do well, but not investing in our culture, and then it still carries the day. So I think that, in terms of tourism, I think that’s really where it lies for us. And, you know, who knows? If some study comes across my desk that demonstrates that we can sustain another casino, then perhaps, but it’s hard for me to see it right now.
NF: I’d argue that gambling absolutely is part of our culture.
JP: (laughs) Well…perhaps historically, right? I think you’re right about that.
NF: To what extent are you into that “Reinventing The Crescent” planned riverfront development stretching from Poland Avenue up to Jackson. Does it all seem like a good idea? Would you tweak it?
JP: I think that on the whole, it’s a good idea. My hesitation is about the financing, and I think that this beautiful space along that stretch hasn’t been fully taken advantage of and that we could. My hesitation has been that so far folks have sought to use Community Development Block Grant funding in order to make it go forward. And that’s really money that was set aside to create housing opportunities in the city and it can be used to deal with creating housing opportunities, be it rental or home ownership. It can be used for job training, and it can be used to deal with blight. I can see how people can make the argument that you’re remedying blight, but that’s not the real intent of the CDBG money. And I think until you have more progress in the recovery of regular citizens’ homes, that’s not the appropriate place to use Community Development Block Grant money. I think perhaps that would have been a great shovel ready project in the stimulus package. I think that there may be some ways we can use…
NF: So we get it, right? And not send it back.
JP: Right, right. But I think that there’s also the case that if a private developer wanted to step in and partner, we could provide some public financing assistance to help a private developer do it so there could be some tax increment financing or something like that to help bridge the gap. But I’m really cautious about using the Community Development Block Grant money to do it, but I think it’s a great idea and a great plan.
NF: Have you looked at previous elections in New Orleans as maybe a historical model for getting elected in the fashion you’re hoping to get elected? Some sort of seismic change? Not to suggest your election would be seismic or anything, though you’re going to be coming from somewhere other than where previous Mayors have come.
JP: I’ve certainly looked at other campaigns, but I do think that this election, there’s nothing like it. I think that the election right after Hurricane Katrina was a new and very different realm and there wasn’t anything like it, and I think that’s where we are again. I think it’s going to be a while before people have a road map for the mayor’s race or for other races because of the kind of constant change and flux in the recovery. So, you know, when you look at Moon Landrieu’s race it’s very interesting, but different because he’s a white candidate who, for the first time, really offers civic opportunity to African-Americans in the city.
Dutch Morial’s race is, of course, very different because he’s the first African-American mayor, right? He had been the first in a lot of different areas, so again it’s very different and it’s a creation of the modern political machine that I just talked about essentially dying. And Sidney Barthelemy and Marc Morial are extensions in many ways of Dutch Morial’s win. But the city was just very, very different from the way it is now and the political territory was very, very different. I don’t see that many parallels. I’d love that if you see some of them to point them out, but I haven’t seen them and I’ve studied them, I think, fairly closely.
NF: Who are you anticipating for opponents?
JP: It changes every day; I’ll tell you who I think today, but if you would have asked me yesterday or if you ask me in a week it will eventually be different. I think that either Arnie Fielkow or Mitch Landrieu gets into the race. Before I had been feeling that it would be Fielkow and now I’m feeling like it would be less likely to be Fielkow. I really just don’t know either way about Mitch Landrieu. I’ve tried to get some commitment from him either way from him a number of times and haven’t been able to get anything. I think he legitimately doesn’t know.
think that also Austin Badon and Ed Murray are definitely in the race, I think there’s no ifs ands or buts there, I think they’re definitely going to get in. I’m curious to see what Roy Glapion Jr. is going to do. He certainly has a fundraising opportunity because his sister is in the Obama administration, but he hasn’t done anything civically engaging, particularly post-Katrina, but I think probably ever. So I find him to be a tough candidate to have an opportunity, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I hear a lot of rumbling about Rob Couhig and about John Georges and one or two other candidates who kind of come from the Uptown area. They haven’t really confirmed much either way, and I think for some of them because of name recognition and because of money they can afford to hold off and see how the race shapes up and then make a decision. I’ve also heard Judge Lombard is considering getting in, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.
NF: So it’s way too early.
JP: Yeah, you really just don’t know. And that had a lot to do with our decision to decide early to get in. Frankly, I wasn’t interested in running for mayor, but a group of us knew what we wanted in a mayoral candidate. All these names kept circulating, maybe a few more or a few less than the ones that are circulating now, but the things that we wanted in a candidate weren’t coming out of those names. Let me back up and say that the recovery hasn’t been successful, but where we have had success it has often been non-profit organizations and regular citizens that have led the success. So, we knew that if that’s what works, then we should promote what works. It should be someone from that sector, which makes it inherently difficult for a number of candidates who are already elected officials.
We also knew that New Orleans is essentially being crippled by the question of race and our inability to really address it, and I think that’s what we’ve seen around the e-mail debacle and the transparency debacle. None of these candidates seem prepared to stand up and say anything real about race and really confront it. Even if they’re wrong or right, just tell us where you stand so we can move on on the issue, and we couldn’t get that out of those folks. It’s stuff like that that gets us to the point of saying, “well, we have to make a decision to stand up and demonstrate leadership since other folks won’t.”
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