Single-issue voters might need to find an issue other than culture to find meaningful daylight between the mayoral frontrunners.
MaCCNO and The Ella Project (with OffBeat Media and the Recording Academy) tried to find out where our mayoral candidates stood on music and culture before Saturday’s election. MaCCNO sent the candidates (as well as candidates for City Council seats) questionnaires on the relevant issues, and got responses from Latoya Cantrell, Desireé Charbonnet, Troy Henry, Matthew Hill, Johnese Smith and Tommy Vassel. The Ella Project arranged a candidates forum last month at the Carver Theater with Cantrell, Charbonnet, Henry, and Vassel participating, as well as Michael Bagneris, Ed Bruski, Byron Cole, and Frank Scurlock. The two efforts combined suggest that if music and culture has a strong impact on your decision, you have little to choose from.
In short, none of the candidates appear to have thought seriously about the relationship between the city and its musicians and culture bearers. As moderator Lolis Eric Elie observed in his opening remarks before the mayoral forum last month, “When you talk to politicians about music, they talk to you about tourism.” When the mayoral candidates speak though, it’s clear that they see musicians and culture bearers as just another constituency, not one at the heart of the entire tourism marketing effort. Their efforts to help musicians, Mardi Gras Indians and social aid and pleasure clubs come in the form of bulletpointed to-do lists and not reconsiderations of the place of musicians in New Orleans. When Elie told the candidates, “Please focus on policy,” few if any did at the Carver or in their questionnaire responses because it’s clear that they don’t have a music and culture policy.
An indicator of this came when MaCCNO asked candidates, “Will you maintain the Office of Cultural Economy? If so, what is your vision for that agency under your leadership?” The office is an extension of Mitch Landrieu’s efforts to support culture by tying it to business, which itself comes with controversies. None of the respondents see that. Most favor changing the office to make it work “better”—or something equally vague—and to the extent that any have a vision for the office, it’s the same as Landrieu’s. The office will serve as a coordinator, and the way Cantrell and Charbonnet envision change is to have more musician voices in the conversation. Troy Henry advocates the creation of a “Chief Community and Cultural Officer,” which would “promote the arts, support community cultural programs, and evaluate new ideas and as they come along.” It’s a job description that sounds a lot like Scott Hutcheson’s current one as Senior Advisor for Cultural Economy.
Similarly, when asked how they would partner with the communities behind New Orleans’ varied artistic expressions—across genres and disciplines— to craft “impactful policies and decisions that reflect both the values of that community and our local government,” the candidates envisioned more eVites to more meetings. Cantrell “would like to look at expanding the Mayor’s Office on Cultural Economy and creating a city-recognized committee for our music, masking and other culture bearer communities so that government is listening, collaborating and building consensus before implementing policies and decisions that affect these communities.”
Charbonnet found an answer squishier than that—“I’ve focused my career on being a bridge builder, and that will not stop when I become mayor. I will work with our many diverse communities on policies that take into consideration the values of each of these groups”—while Troy Henry, to his credit, at least considered the fundamental question. “The best thing that the City government can do to foster artists is to leave them alone to be creative in their own ways. Too much government involvement could stifle creativity,” he wrote in his MaCCNO questionnaire. That hands-off approach means a lot of musicians will struggle, but it’s a genuine philosophy and not a checklist. But when he writes, “If anything, we can make sure that the laws of the City enable a decent supply of performance spaces and times so that artists can perform for their audiences,” it suggests that he hasn’t thought much about the issue. Specific artistic communities may lack venues, but for most, that’s not the problem.
The problem with the coordinator-in-chief model for mayoring is that when you get all the stakeholders at a table, you don’t necessarily get the platonic best solution. The last effort at a noise ordinance didn’t die because the intrinsic value of music and culture won the day, or the value of music to the city’s tourism efforts were suddenly convincing. It went down because bar owners on Bourbon Street realized that at 4 in the afternoon before crowds arrived, they were all already in violation of noise thresholds that sounded fine on paper. History shows us that in the battle of artists vs. businesses and property owners, the artists lose. Getting everybody at the table simply makes sure that the process by which they lose seems more democratic.
With that mindset, it’s no surprise that the answer the mayoral candidates have for how to “ensure that a greater percentage of tourism revenue finds its way to the people and communities that create the culture that attracts these visitors” is to be better businesspeople. Desireé Charbonnet wrote, “Many musicians work not only in the music industry, but also as creative business owners, in the hospitality industry, and in many other unique jobs. The city can work to help musicians develop everything from a business plan to connecting them with other musicians can help increase revenues.”
That answer, like many on this topic, condescends to the musicians, as if none of them thought of working together in some way. Collectively, the candidates blame the victims, who would all be better off if they were just better business people. To be fair, they would be, but unless the financial pipelines are rerouted, the same money’s going to flow the same way regardless of how well musicians conduct their business.
Latoya Cantrell wrote, “We already have organizations like NOTMC, that are well-funded to market our culture, why can’t they be leveraged to educate businesses and create opportunities based off of these tax incentives? We need to be more collaborative and strategic.” If by that she means using tax incentives or other tools to leverage better pay for performers at venues around town, that’s an interesting idea. Maybe Charbonnet’s for that too. Her answers are too open-ended to repel or hold any meaning, so you can see everything or nothing in a line like, “As Mayor I am willing to take the next step to work together with musicians and stakeholders in the music industry to determine what is the best way city government can help facilitate economic growth for artists working in our cultural economy.”
On nuts and bolts questions, the candidates do better. In the mayoral forum, everybody believed that fees for second lines and Mardi Gras Indian parades should be fairer, and some thought they should be lifted entirely. Michael Bagneris very generously volunteered someone else to pay the fees—the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. In general, candidates are against the 8 p.m. curfew for street musicians, though Cantrell and Charbonnet favor taking this conversation back to the table. That says they understand the issues and not just the question, even though their answers promise more of the same. Cantrell’s right—you can’t separate the curfew from the noise ordinance discussion, and as carefully triangulated as Charbonnet’s desire to find a “middle ground” sounds, she’s right. If some sort of agreement isn’t found, a different group will complain about the results. Is it possible to make everybody happy? Or equally unhappy? And is that the best solution? Those are the kinds of questions I wish we got insight into.
Because affordable housing is an issue that challenges many New Orleanians and not simply musicians and culture bearers, it’s no surprise that the candidates’ answers on the subject are best thought-out. Troy Henry thinks “subsidies that are available for the construction of affordable housing units in larger developments should be made available to help people of modest means into ‘Rent-to-Own’ programs. Loan subsidies can be forgiven over time as the owner stays in the house.” This is interesting as it seems to get the city in the middle between landlords and tenants as it apparently shapes the terms by which a landlord eventually sells his or her rental property to the tenant.
Charbonnet is right when she worries that “we are losing our natural Musicians’ Village with fewer and fewer musicians living in Treme, the birthplace of Jazz,” but she picked the wrong verb tense. The changes in Treme came after Hurricane Katrina when no effort was made to preserve it for musicians and culture bearers then. Could anything have been done without the city getting into the housing business? I'm not sure, but she’s also right when she says, “It is apparent that this city is in an affordable housing crisis, this crisis hits our cultural economy the hardest.”
In the MaCCNO questionnaire, she points to her website, where she maps out her plan. In it, her “plans” are broad, unassailable goals that only the meanest of the mean could dispute. “Focus on quality of life issues.” “Prioritize the development of safe, healthy and affordable rental units and homeownership near jobs and essential public services.” “Emphasize improving energy efficiency.” “Make a concerted effort to assist seniors in securing the property-tax freezes they are entitled to.” And so it goes. All are good goals, but none of them address the real question. How does a city intervene in the housing market to help low income families rent or buy?
Cantrell has some similarly soft planks in her housing platform with more verbs like “prioritize” and “encourage” and “focus,” but she also has something more specific. “Offer incentives for landlords to moderate rent.” “Transfer remaining Road Home properties to new homeowners / Incentives for local citizens.” I’m not sure how to read around the slash in that sentence or if these are actually good or doable ideas, but they have some solidity to them.
If one thing is sadly clear from the forum and the questionnaire, it’s that New Orleans’ music culture is not upmost on the minds of any of the top candidates. The mayoral forum took place on September 11, and few candidates sounded like they had done their homework. Many seemed to rely on what they remembered from the conversations around noise and zoning that emerged in 2012, as if nothing had changed in five years.
Bagneris passed on the opportunity to spell out his thoughts on MaCCNO’s questionnaire, which is itself revealing, and as much as I love a good outsider, no long shot candidates revealed themselves as diamonds in the rough for the music and culture community. After Uber and Lyft changed the people-moving business, Matthew Hill is on to something when he suggests that RTA “needs to be more flexible, more proactive, and reach more people.” What will that change look like? Hard to know, but like taxis, busses seem like an old technology problem that someone should be closer to cracking.
On the other hand, Johnese Smith wrote of the phrase “culture bearer”:
I have never heard of this term before. This terminology may have emerged after Katrina. It has no place in this musical culture.
Since candidates are rarely able to fulfill campaign promises in the tidy ways they present them, I listen to those promises more as signs of how well they understand the issues and the mechanisms of government. In the mayoral forum, Cantrell showed the clearest grasp of the issues affecting New Orleans’ music and culture community because as a councilwoman, she has had them come before her at City Council. Bagneris and Charbonnet require you to at some level believe in them and their proposals. Of the two, Charbonnet inspires more confidence, but it’s not clear that any of the three are prepared to transform New Orleans’ relationship with its culture community and bring about the kind of change that I think people are looking for. Their positions give us some insights, but none views culture in a way that should make it the single issue that voters can safely cling to.