Political Corner: Update on Gulf Coast Rebuilding

NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams is joined by political consultant the Rev. Joseph Watkins and Democratic political consultant Donna Brazile to talk about progress in reconstruction of the Gulf Coast following the devastating 2005 hurricane season.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS AND NOTES.

It's Thursday, and NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams is back with a recap of news from inside the Beltway at our Political Corner.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

I'm joined now by Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in the year 2000. Donna Brazile now runs her own political consulting firm here in Washington.

And with us is Reverend Joseph Watkins, member of the Government Relations Group at Buchanan Ingersoll. He was a member of the first President Bush's White House staff. Reverend Watkins joins up from WPHT in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Thank you both for joining us on Political Corner.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Political Consultant): Thank you, Juan.

Reverend JOSEPH WATKINS (Member, Government Relations Group, Buchanan Ingersoll): Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Let's start with just a quick check-in with Donna Brazile. Donna, you went home to Louisiana to see how things were going down there. What's the political situation?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, first of all, I think efforts are now underway to begin the rebuilding process. The federal government just released an additional $4 billion to help homeowners replace their damaged home, rebuild it, or even sell it and relocate somewhere within the state. You also know that the National Guard has been called in to help...

WILLIAMS: Well, I was just going to ask you about that. Ray Nagin, the mayor, calling for the National Guard because of a crime spree.

Ms. BRAZILE: Look, there's no question that there is a new criminal element. Some people say, well, it's the return in a criminal element. No, it's a new criminal element. And the reason why I say it's new is because I was out at after midnight. Of course, I love to travel after midnight in New Orleans because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRAZILE: ...I wanted to see what restaurants and what bars, you know, are back in business. And driving around at midnight, I kept thinking - I said who are these people? I mean, you know, they were like positioned in areas where there's hardly any homeowners back in the neighborhood. And yet they've taken up space on the neutral ground, they've taken up space in abandoned homes.

So I applaud both the mayor and the governor for making this decision. This is a good decision. The Orleans Parish Police Department, they're under a lot of pressure now, the fire department, to try to rebuild its ranks. And at the time when we're trying to do all of that, I think it's important that, you know, the mayor and the governor get the essential help they need to tamp down on this crime before it gets overblown this summer.

WILLIAMS: Rev. Watkins, it's now almost one year since the hurricane blew through and the political consequences, as they've played out here in Washington, seem very interesting. It seems as if at this point there's a consensus that the Bush Administration feels this happened on their watch, and they are going to try to do all they can to repair. Is that right?

Rev. WATKINS: I think that's right. I think the president - what I really admire about his position on all this is that the buck stops with him. And it's not about assigning blame to anybody else, but it's a matter of looking at what we can do, since it happened under our watch, to get things done and to bring about positive change.

And it doesn't have to do with Republican or Democrat either. It's about making sure that Americans everywhere, and specifically Americans in the areas that were most hard - that were hit most hard, get the satisfaction that they need. So he's working very, very hard, and has a number of his agencies working very, very hard to provide satisfaction.

And I'm really pleased with the - some of the bipartisan stuff that's happened, some of the bipartisan work that's been done to make - to bring about positive change.

WILLIAMS: Well, one of the things that has made the news recently is that some of the people who were given emergency spending money use it on things like Girls Gone Wild and other kinds of frivolities. Is that going to undermine support for future spending on recovery in the Gulf Coast region, and especially to people in need, Rev. Watkins?

Rev. WATKINS: I don't think it'll undermine it. I just think that people will be a lot more careful in the future as to how dollars are spent and where money is going. Obviously, because resources are so scarce, you want to make sure that every dollar that's allocated goes some place where it's needed and that it's not being ill spent or poorly spent.

WILLIAMS: Well...

Ms. BRAZILE: You know, Juan, I...

WILLIAMS: Donna Brazile, are you worried about that issue?

Ms. BRAZILE: Absolutely. Look, it - right now, the current projection's up to possibly $2 billion. That is just an absurd amount of money to have slipped out of the hands of the people who really desperately need it to rebuild their homes and to get back on their feet.

And when you hear that prisoners - I mean God knows, somebody should have checked the P.O. box and said oh, wait a minute, it's going to a prison. I mean, when you hear that prisoners were able to get $2,000 debit cards - we must have proper safeguards and procedures so that we do not lose one nickel of this money. This is so important to the people...

Rev. WATKINS: Absolutely.

Ms. BRAZILE: ...coming back. And they need this money. And to have a couple of you know, and, Rev. Watkins, you probably...

Reverend WATKINS: Bad apples.

Ms. BRAZILE: ...know a better word. Bad apples, yeah. I was going to call them pimps. But they have a couple of people out there, you know, using the system this way to hurt the whole process of recovery. It should - they should be -they should be brought to jail and serve time for their crimes.

WILLIAMS: One last question on this topic: where do we stand in terms of delivering on the promise of fully funding that recovery, and is it sufficient? Donna, why don't you begin?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, let me just, first of all, applaud both the president and the Congress for keeping their word to help us rebuild, in terms of the resources needed to rebuild the levees. When I sat down with President Bush, along with others last year, there was $1.3 billion in the budget. Today, over $3 billion have been allocated to restore the levees. I want to say thank you to everybody who's been involved. Chairman Don Powell has done a fantastic job.

Now, the president also committed to giving us about $10 billion in homeowner assistance. That's for the state of Louisiana. We now have the money; it's in the bank, and the process is underway. And this summer, homeowners will get that money, so we're pleased with that. There's also additional money for restoring the colleges and universities, money to begin the restoring some of the hospitals, the roads, the transportation, the infrastructure. There's also money from FEMA to remove all of the cars that have been - that were abandoned after Katrina.

So I'm going to say thank you to not just to Congress and the president, but to the American people for their patience and for their generosity in helping us, you know, have the resources necessary to begin the rebuilding.

But here's the problem: we now need a plan in New Orleans. We got to figure out what neighborhoods can be restored, what the requirements are to rebuild those homes. You know, we got new, strict building codes. And we need to help homeowners find their way back home. And there's a toll free number. It's 1-888-762-3252. That is the number that people can call so that they can, you know, get this homeowners assistance and begin to rebuild.

WILLIAMS: Joe Watkins, you know, that sounds like good news, a good report from Donna Brazile. But on the front page of The New York Times recently I saw that FEMA is spending like millions to just hold onto some trailers in Arkansas that should have been designated for use to help storm recovery victims in Louisiana and Mississippi. Is there a sense that some of this money is just going up in smoke?

Rev. WATKINS: Well, obviously, as Donna said, the - we've all got to be more careful. There's got to be a lot more scrutiny with regards to how these precious dollars are spent. We want to make sure that the money that's being allocated gets to the people who really need it. That's what it's all about.

And this is - there is a complete bipartisan sense of this. This is not about partisan politics. It's about making sure that the people who have been put in harm's way and who have really suffered because of what happened there get the help that they need.

No matter what happens, clearly, there is resolve on the part of both Democrats and Republicans to get it done, to make sure that the people in that part of the country get the aid that they need. And it's all about helping Americans, really. That's what it's about.

Ms. BRAZILE: But, (unintelligible)...

WILLIAMS: Joe Watkins, let me move - I'm sorry.

Ms. BRAZILE: Governor Blanco has proposed that Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states share in the royalty for offshore leases. This will give us sufficient resources to restore the wetlands and to continue our rebuilding process.

WILLIAMS: Rev. Joseph Watkins is a member of the Government Relations Group at Buchanan Ingersoll, a member of the first President Bush's White House staff. He joined us today from WPHT in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And in Washington, Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000. Ms. Brazile now runs her own political consulting firm in Washington. Thank you both for joining us today on Political Corner.

Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you, Juan.

Rev. WATKINS: Thanks, Juan.

CHIDEYA: Every Thursday you can join NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams and his Washington Insiders right here on Political Corner.

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