First, Party Politics in the South is ALL about Race.
A few days ago, in this post, my friend Tony Fazzio wrote:
Too often we forget that race is a matter of parity not party.That statement is accurate only if one is willing to ignore the history of the rise of the Republican Party in the South. That rise began with Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Republican Party has ridden white racial anger and resentment since then.
Nationally, that has manifested itself in the so-called "Southern Strategy" in which the Republicans learned to speak in code to white Southerners. It was no coincidence that Ronald Reagan's first campaign event in the 1980 election campaign was the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, within miles of where three civil rights workers were killed and buried by white racists in the mid 1960s.
In our state, Republicans took up the rebel yell of "states' rights" with the rest of their southern political brethren. And, while Dave Treen hid his prejudice behind a veneer of country club Republicanism, Mike Foster paid David Duke a hefty fee for voter lists (and, some say, to stay out of the 1995 governor's race). Upon taking office, one of Foster's most significant early acts was to eliminate affirmative action. There's that signal to the good ole boys that Big Mike was one of them.
While Republicans were out of power nationally, they could claim the mantel of conservatism; you know: 'small gov'ment, balanced budgets, low taxes.' To hear them talk, you would have thought that Republicans believed that government should be a lean, mean, fighting machine. Then, they came to power. As the past few years have shown, Republicans in Congress were neither for smaller government, nor balanced budgets. When George W. Bush became president, the Republican-controlled Congress gave up its constitutional responsibility to provide oversight on the actions of the executive branch, and allowed Bush to make unprecedented grabs of unchecked power. So, let's see: under Republicans, government grew, as did its power, deficits exploded, Congress nearly allowed a re-ordering of the Constitution without so much as a whimper, and corruption has become rampant on a scale never seen before.
And, still, we see local Republicans claiming to be conservative.
I think they're talking in code. What they're really saying is they are anti-black.
There's some voting analysis to back this up. In his book, Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, author Thomas F. Schaller says that Republicans are successful in the South because they have mastered the art of appealing to Southern racists.
Some of his case is based on voting research contained in a paper entitled: "Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South." The paper is by Nicholas Valentino and David Sears. The heart of the work is summarized in this paragraph from an article in The New Republic:
Running regressions on a massive data set of ideological opinions, Sears and Valentino demonstrate with precision that, for example, a white Southern man who calls himself a "conservative," controlling for racial attitudes, is no less likely to chance a vote for a Democratic presidential candidate than a Northerner who calls himself a conservative. Likewise, a pro-life or hawkish Southern white man is no less likely--again controlling for racial attitudes--than a pro-life or hawkish Northerner to vote for the Democrat. But, on the other hand, when the relevant identifier is anti-black answers to survey questions (such as whether one agrees "If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites," or choosing whether blacks are "lazy" or "hardworking"), an untoward result jumps out: white Southerners are twice as likely than white Northerners to refuse to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. Schaller's writes: "Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters ... the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past."So, it is racism that created the basis for the Republican Party in the South, and it is racism that enables the party to hold onto its white base in the South despite the fact that the party has proven conclusively that it is not conservative by any standard by which it had set for itself.
Durel's Failure to Lead
Which brings me back to the matter of Joey Durel's silence in the face of the Martin Luther King street renaming controversy. First, I believe Durel received absolutely no pressure from his Republican base to get involved, defuse or otherwise provide leadership on this issue. Why? See above.
Instead, Durel allowed members of the parish's legislative branch to embarrass themselves and the parish by turning the issue into a display of pettiness and, yes, racism that has no place in a community that aspires to call itself progressive.
What has resulted is a series of decisions by the white majority on the Parish Council to defund projects in districts 3 and 4, which just happen to be the districts of the council members who have been pushing for the renaming of Willow Street after Dr. King.
Now, Tony Fazzio (and, aparently, Glenn Armentor) don't fault Durel on this. How can they not? I think it's got a lot to do with their failure to understand leadership and its responsibilities.
Yes, there was a deafening silence from many whom most consider leaders in the white community on the King Street renaming issue. But, the difference is that Joey Durel is the elected chief executive of this parish. That is, he is the leader of the public sector in this parish. As such, his actions and words speak to and for all of us, whether he wants them to or not; it's the nature of the job and, some might say, one of the burdens of leadership.
The fact that Durel did not intervene, did not try to prevent the dispute from becoming a controversy; nor from escalating from a controversy to a travesty, and not from escalating from a travesty to an embarrassment, undermines what he claims to be his broader agenda. It also is testimony to the fact that he never viewed this issue beyond anything but a political issue. His Republican base didn't think the escalations mattered, because they don't care about the issue, don't care for Chris Williams and Louis Benjamin, and, ultimately, Durel's supporters, in the famous words Kanye West's said about George Bush, don't care about black people. His silence on the King Street matter says Durel and his Republican backers don't believe the African American community matters to the future of the community.
The Economic Impact of Racial Intolerance.
Or, the price we pay for Durel's lack of leadership on race and Why it matters.
It matters because, as economist and author Richard Florida wrote in his book Rise of the Creative Class, the communities that will prosper in this century are those that have what he calls "the three T's: technology, talent, and tolerance."
Durel has postured himself as a leader trying to turn Lafayette into a progressive community that can attract the creative class that Florida profiled in his book.
So, let's look at the standards based on the Three T's. We've got technology (the fiber project, when it gets built will cement that piece, though we have many other assets along those lines). We've got talent (we've got UL Lafayette, the community college, the technical college and other talent-grooming assets in Acadiana). But, as the street renaming controversy has demonstrated, we've got a hell of a lot of work to do on the tolerance piece. More importantly, Durel is not working to make it better.
Not Up to the Challenges at Hand.
Lafayette is competing in a global economy. Many of the communities that we compete against are bigger and have equally good mixes of technology and talent (although maybe in different proportions). But, to think that we can compete successfully against these communities while declaring up front that we are going to ignore 25 percent of our population and, in fact, we're going to compete without them, is the equivalent of the Knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail who, after having both legs and an arm cut off said, "it's only a flesh wound!"
"Visionary" is a cheap title in this town (some people have it on business cards). I don't think Joey Durel comes close to qualifying as a visionary — even at the cheapened level to which it has fallen in Lafayette.
His brand of leadership (the kind that will not challenge the biases of his backers) will not take take Lafayette to new, higher levels of community and economic success. In order to go there, we will have to use all of the talents and technology that we can muster. That means we can't afford to shut out or leave out any segment of our community in this competition. The challenges are too great and the competition is too fierce to think otherwise.
The white members of the council don't get it. Durel's Republican base doesn't get it. So far, Durel hasn't given any indication that he gets it either.
Considering the stakes for the community and its future, in my view, this disqualifies Durel as a suitable leader for Lafayette at this juncture in its development. It is about race. It is about party. And it is about the ability of this community to respond to the challenges it faces.