Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Blakely- Mayor, Problem Solver, Recovery Tsar, Police Chief and Heartbreaker

In December 2006, New Orleans hired someone to lead the Recovery. After more than a year of planning, there was a glimmer of hope when Dr. Ed Blakely arrived. He appeared to be confident, emotionally stable, and seemed to have the technical skills to take the planning and turn it into implementation. As an Americorps volunteer, I went to listen to him, on January 29th 2007, introduce himself to the people of New Orleans.

"Tonight at the University of New Orleans Alumni Center, Ed Blakely spoke to New Orleans residents about his new role as "Recovery Tsar." He began by apologizing for having to run out early, but the mayor had a "fire drill." Several interpretations of that phrase could be made, but it was actually supposed to mean a meeting between the city and the tourism industry. But his main point for the twenty minutes that he spoke was, he was the new sheriff in town, " I've been involved in post disaster planning, California after the earthquakes and New York City after 9/11...rebuilding cities is my kind of bag, it's what I do."

At that point, the 150 people in the room gave a huge sigh of relief and at least for one moment, thought the city was going to be rebuilt tomorrow. A few minutes later, Blakely stated his three vital necessities to improving and rebuilding the city. On each necessity, he received a couple forceful claps from a man in the back of the room, but the rest of the crowd was not ready to worship the newest man to take the heat away from Nagin.Vital necessity #1- Rebuilding of our port to support international trade. Vital necessity #2- Make Health Care a Major Export. Vital necessity #3- Tap into the Digital Economy-export New Orleans music. Once the floor was opened to the public for questions, just two, because Blakely had to go to his fire drill, reality set back in.

The first question, asked by a professorial-type middle aged white man, was about how HANO was not allowing
people to return to their public housing units. Blakely said firmly that he is going to Washington to figure it out. Next question. A middle-age black woman, asking what he was going to do about people stealing copper from her home? Very quickly and confidently, he told her that the "police can't do the work the community must do themselves...take a picture," then he got ready to walk out, " and send it to me, and I will put them in jail." Blakely marched over to the woman, shook her hand, and as she tried to kiss him on the cheek, he stormed out of the building as if there was a fire alarm. Mayor, problem solver, recovery tsar, police chief, and heart breaker!"

Almost three years later, he made some alarming comments in an interview conducted by the Cal-Berkeley public access station. Maybe he didn't think New Orleans would see it. The video was posted on October 16th. We almost missed it. But the Times-Picayune analyzed his inflammatory interview yesterday, and it set off a firestorm. I can only imagine the frustrations he faced when he tried to implement his vision. Yet, he was never able to build the diverse coalition that is mandatory to push for reform.

There is always a fine line between emitting confidence and acting arrogant. I know there were people who really respected his work, his intellect and his hope for the city, but he always seemed to over promise to the citizens. We needed hope, but we also wanted public officials to be honest with us about the reality of the recovery. Too many times in New Orleans, public officials promised us the world, but then couldn't even get a major intersection light fixed. As you can see above, he may have been correct about our "vital necessities" for recovery. But by saying in his recent interview, that he wanted to leave more than a year earlier than his summer of 2009 departure, Dr. Blakely mentally checked out prematurely, and ultimately, acted his role, as heartbreaker.