New Orleans Contrary to popular opinion, it is actually a very, very rare event for a New Orleans city politician to go to jail for some kind of corruption, regardless of our reputation. The hometown paper, The Times Picayune, campaigned mercilessly for investigations and convictions of Mayor Marc Morial and his troops, largely to no avail, and in one of the rich ironies of politics and life, the biggest pillar to fall was their once lavishly touted fair haired boy and tech-reformer under the next Mayor Ray Nagin, who they had promoted as Mr. Clean. One that did not get away was Stan “Pampy” Barre, a former cop, all around fixer, and owner of a popular politician hangout spot. He fingered the even more popular – and populist – Councilman at Large Oliver Thomas for taking $20K to help grease a parking lot deal.
And, that was a shock. Oliver was a friend and supporter. Mayor Morial’s blessing and Oliver’s work on the inside when I ran the multi-union project, HOTROC, for SEIU, the AFL-CIO, HERE, and the Operating Engineers, ended up being the big success of our inside “leverage” campaign with the Piazza de’ Italia public corporation that built the Lowe’s Hotel, the only major post 9-11 property, and now the only union hotel in the city. Earlier Oliver had been the key we needed when he cast the deciding vote preventing the privatization of the Sewerage and Water Board. He has been one of our most vocal champions when we fought to raise the minimum wage. Believe me, if he had been for sale, developers, hoteliers, and the privateers all would have paid way more than $20,000 chump change to take him out of those fights. So of all the trees to be toppled and fall, the looming, large Councilman Thomas was the surprise never expected and the disappointment most deeply felt and impossible to replace.
When caught with the cookies, Oliver manned up, pled guilty, didn’t rat, and did his time. We got some letters from him from the fed penitentiary in Atlanta that were moving and well thought out. Big believers in redemption, when the bizarre news came out that he and his old friend, Anthony Bean, director of a community theater uptown had written a play about all of this, called “Reflections: A Man and His Time,” I immediately went on line and bought six tickets so we would be well represented from the top (Local 100 ULU’s President Mildred Edmond) to the bottom (the rest of us organizers).
The play was sold out and my guess is that the theater should have cleared $6000 conservatively the night we attended, and that’s a very good contribution and says something about rehab right there. What do I know about the theater? Not much, but the play was sprightly up to the intermission. Some of it was even funny. The crowd got a tremendous kick out of the satire around the preachers advising and arguing with Oliver before his public announcement. The second half focusing on his prison time was preachy and boring with one good song, which might mean it was realistic, but it didn’t offer much to most of us already off parole.
A politician slipping and falling and then doing something as public as a play to try and “explain” himself is a rare thing, so it’s hard to judge. Having read Oliver’s prison letters, I don’t doubt his sincerity, yet watching all of this on a stage inevitably and by definition takes some of the reality out of both insight and contrition. The sense of “I did wrong” was never diluted, but the play allowed there to be curious mitigations around the inadequate pay in politics, the puny level of the bribe, the generosity shown to needy constituents, the lack of benefit to his family, and the couple of times that problems with racetrack gambling floated out in snippets of dialogue without explanation or amplification, as if the very mention was a trial balloon for an alternate reality.
Some things can’t be explained and Oliver and Bean were sharp enough to not try to defend something that was just plain stupid. The play also left the future cloudy and confused for our friend and now banned politician. The very drag of the second act made it hard to believe that there as a clear path for Oliver working with young people, which was part of the hint drifting there.
New Orleans is not like other cities. Thank goodness! Former governor Edwin Edwards just came out of jail after a decade as the play was hitting the boards. Here he maintains a reputation after four terms in office as delightful rouge regardless of the evidence. In our city Oliver can still be an advocate what needs to be done. A son of the lower 9th ward and a long time representative of uptown housing projects and neighborhoods, Oliver can still find a voice speaking truth to power. He did wrong, and he paid his debt to society. Now he needs to find a new stage and talk about what he really knows and what really matters. Maybe that will be with young people, maybe it will be a broader role in helping cement the coalition that continues to try and build real power for the majority of people in this city.
After a slip and fall, what’s most important is finding a sure path to continue on making progress as you make your way.