The Politics of Post-Katrina Rebuilding in 2007

GOP strategist Joseph Watkins and Democratic strategist Ron Walters talk to Juan Williams about rebuilding along the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

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TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox.

Earlier this week, a Senate committee met in New Orleans to see firsthand what's up after Katrina. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams and his panelists in Political Corner discussed another possible move to see what's going on.

JUAN WILLIAMS: We're joined this week by the Reverend Joseph Watkins. Reverend Watkins is part of the government relations group at Buchanan Ingersoll and a former White House aide to the first President Bush. Also with us, Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. His latest book is called "Freedom is Not Enough." Gentlemen, thank you for joining us on Political Corner.

Professor RON WALTERS (University of Maryland): Thanks, Juan.

Reverend JOSEPH WATKINS (Associate Director of Government Relations, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney): Good to be here.

WILLIAMS: The Congressional Black Caucus has asked Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, to form a new committee to look in to why the federal government is not doing more to help with the reconstruction of New Orleans. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Democrat for Michigan, says that the Bush administration is not doing enough and she blasted the president for not mentioning Hurricane Katrina in his State of the Union speech.

Joe Watkins, is this a political hot potato now and why is the Black Caucus deciding that there is a need for an additional committee?

Rev. WATKINS: I don't know that there is a need for an additional committee. Obviously, everybody in the country is sympathetic, I think, toward the challenges that face people who live in the Gulf Coast area, and certainly people in New Orleans who've had a terrible rough time of the last year and change in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But also this is about political posturing. A lot of Democrats, both on the House side and the Senate side, are having fun teeing off at the president and the administration on this. The bigger challenge has been, at least for Ray Nagan and the city of New Orleans, has been with the state of the Louisiana, which is run by a Democratic governor, and it's the inability of those Democrats to get along and to get things done. I mean, after all FEMA has allocated some $334 million for the Hurricane Katrina effort, and to date only less than half of that money has been collected by the city of New Orleans. And the state says the reason why is because the city has not filled out the necessary papers. And then Nagan says, well, the papers are too cumbersome to fill out.

COX: Ron Walters, is this political posturing, as Joe Watkins says?

Prof. WALTERS: Well, I don't think so. I think here is a question that has` been, I think, nagging on the minds of a lot of people. Joe says that all of Americans are sympathetic. That's one thing. But if you have that urgent priority, which the president does not seem to have with respect to what's going in the Gulf, this Gulf, then I think Americans have a right to ask the question, you know, where are your priorities?

Right now the president's priorities are over in Iraq and that has caused the Congressional Black Caucus to say, well, if you're going to make rebuilding and reconstruction of Iraq a priority, rather than your own country, then there's something wrong with that. So it's one thing for the president to lead as he did in appropriating money for the Gulf Coast, $110 billion, but it's quite another thing for the president to use his political capital - and I might add, with the Republican-controlled assembly there in the state of Louisianan - to get things done.

COX: Well, here's a thing. Mayor Nagan, speaking to a Senate committee Monday - these hearings were held in New Orleans - said that, you know what, if this was Iraq, it would - billions would have been spent, the money would have been there; and then he went on to say - and here I'm quoting - I think it's more class than anything, but there is racial issues associated with it also. So Ron Walters, how does race play in this? What is he talking about?

Prof. WALTERS: Well, he is saying that if this were an area of - that were predominantly white, that the response of the administration - because this area probably would also have been Republican - would have been far swifter.

I think there is a tendency to try to blot out racial aspect of this. And yet it's very difficult for African-Americans to feel that if this were an area that were predominantly white, that the country would have been far more attentive.

COX: Joe Watkins, in fact, one of the points of criticism is that Mississippi seems to be leading in terms of the rebuilding effort, seems to have gotten a disproportion share of the money, and the claim is that that's happening because they have a Republican governor, Haley Borbour, the former head of the RNC, the Republican National Committee. Do you buy it?

Rev. WATKINS: Well, what I will say is that certainly you haven't heard the kind of complaining for Mississippi that you've heard from other places. And you haven't heard about the local authorities complaining about the state moving slowly in the state of Mississippi, because the governor has been working with local authorities to get things done. And he hasn't put the blame on anybody. He just, well, put his nose to the grindstone and has gotten it done for the people of Mississippi, which is very admirable.

In the state of Louisiana, of course, we've consistently, since the beginning, engaged or seen an engagement of the blame game. Why is there no mention of the governor in this? Why is there no mention of the responsibility of state officials and the need for city and state officials to work better in this incident?

Prof. WALTERS: There is something behind this more than simply ineptitude. There's a lot of high politics behind this, and there is still a desire on the part of a lot of people to use this money to change New Orleans the way they want to see it changed. And I've been down there several times, especially around the election.

And listening to people in the business community talk about the new New Orleans - and they really want a New Orleans that has a very strongly beefed up tourist sector as the basis of its economic development - for those people, they obviously want a lot of the people who are stuck in the mire of poverty in the 9th Ward and other places, they want them gone.

They want enough of them to remain - and one time that I went down there I had a very long discussion with a restaurant - a white restaurant owner - they want enough of them to stay so they can work in the restaurants. But the normal resident, that's - for poor residents, that quite another issue.

WILLIAMS: Reverend Joseph Watkins, part of the government relations group at Buchanan Ingersoll, a former aide to the first President Bush. And Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. His latest book is "Freedom is Not Enough." Gentlemen, thanks for joining us this week on Political Corner.

Rev. WATKINS: Thanks so much, Juan.

Prof. WALTERS: Thank you, Juan.

COX: NPR's Juan Williams checks in every Thursday with a recap of the news on the Hill on Political Corner.

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