With a disastrous election for national Democrats barely a week in the rear-view mirror and speculation about the upcoming New Orleans mayoral race already intensifying, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and other top local Democrats rallied Thursday night in support of state Sen. J.P. Morrell.
Edwards’ first 10 months in office have not been short on challenges, he noted — from the budget crisis left by former Gov. Bobby Jindal, the controversial police shooting of Alton Sterling and subsequent killing of three police officers in Baton Rouge, and the unexpected rainwater flooding that inundated the state in August. Edwards, however, said he remains optimistic about the state’s future — particularly because of leadership like Morrell’s.
Morrell, the governor noted, is chair of the senate’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, which will be a crucial role as they continue to try to patch the remaining holes in the budget in the coming year.
“We are going to have to make some hard decisions, the decisions that Bobby Jindal refused to make the last seven years he was in office,” Edwards said. “There’s nothing easy about it, but it’s the right thing to do.”
In a similar vein, Morrell began his remarks describing recent accomplishments in the state legislature — such as the passage of a bill that reclassifies most 17-year-old offenders as juveniles instead of adults for prosecution, bringing the state in line with national norms and attempting to change its status as the “incarceration capital of the world.” Morrell also described the the ongoing battle for equal pay for women, and challenge of trying to reform the state budget.
“When we talk about budget reform, that means reducing the burden on those people who are paying too much and making the people who are paying too little pay their fair share,” Morrell said. “The top 200 companies in Louisiana pay no taxes.”
After a moment, however, Morrell pivoted to the Presidential election that “saddened” so many of the Democrats in the room, so surprising that he had to discard the notes he had been preparing for his remarks at the fundraiser. What he has drawn from the election, Morrell said, is the importance of listening carefully not only those you are inclined to agree with, but also people with whom you don’t.
“When you look at this election and the toxic way it played out, you see that people live in these ideological prisons, these walled Facebook gardens and these Twitter cliques. Everyone feeds off this negativity,” Morrell said. “As a society, and a state and a city, we’re better than that. Until we break out of these self-imposed limitations, we are not as a society building toward something that we can all be proud of.”
Morrell noted his own interracial marriage — made possible by the famous Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case in 1967 — and says he sympathizes with the gay and lesbian activists facing vitriol similar to the civil-rights. Likewise, he says, ongoing racial divisions in the nation, state and city of New Orleans concern him specifically for his own children.
“When you look at the raw racial divide in the state and in the city, it’s terrifying to someone who has children who are going to have to walk in two worlds,” Morrell said.
Locally, Morrell said, the short-term rental debate before the City Council showed a similar tendency. Residents across the city feared the effect of allowing whole-home rentals on neighborhood cohesion and housing prices, but city government largely barreled forward regardless without listening — exacerbating the sense that the recovery in New Orleans benefits only the wealthiest, at the expense of the long-term residents.
“In the short-term rental piece, for example, you had a room full of people with concerns, and rather than address them, they just ignored them,” Morrell said. “The city is kind of breaking down. We all identify with our neighborhoods and our individual smaller communities, but they’re becoming increasingly isolated. … Part of being a leader is, you’ve got to engage everybody. You got to make people who don’t want to talk to each other, talk to each other.”
In addition to Gov. Edwards, the $250-per-person fundraiser at businessman Jimmie Woods’ home on the bank of Bayou St. John drew a host of other Democratic officials — U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond and Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, who is running for U.S. Senate, as well as City Councilman Jared Brossett and current and former members of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. The packed event suggested an unusually strong coalition around a term-limited state senator, and Morrell acknowledged there is widespread speculation around who will run in New Orleans’ upcoming mayoral race.
For now, Morrell said, his sole focus is the next legislative session, and any decision about the future will follow that.
“Everybody’s thinking about it,” Morrell said of the mayor’s race. “You see the challenges we have on the state level. My number one job going into this session is to help the governor right the ship. I’ll make a decision about what I do after that, but I can’t be distracted. I’ve got to do the job I’ve been elected to do.”