On TV: Hard Politics in the Big Easy

New Orleans is a wonderful city…until you start getting into how it has often been run, and then that part really is not so good. C. Ray Nagin, the mayor during Hurricane Katrina, was just sentenced to 10 years in prison for bribery and kickbacks, and he was the reform guy.

Getting back to Abnormal,” a documentary making its broadcast premiere on WETA at 10 tonight, is a fabulous introduction to N’awlins-style politics. It’s a snapshot of the post-Katrina city as seen through the volatile 2010 election campaign of Stacy Head, an effective but often caustic white politician, who is running for reelection in a central city district where black politicians have been dominant for three decades.

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Head’s tin-ear political style is to get things done, without an abundance of finesse for people who may not be, in her opinion, terribly effective, even when those people are African Americans in a predominantly African-American district.

That is going to make sparks fly, and they do, but not necessarily in the way you might think. The early footage portrays a fistfight at a city council meeting and plenty of name calling. “She was real nasty,” one black constituent says of Head. “Racist,” says another.  When Head addresses the council with an information-laden poster, a black colleague sneers, “Why don’t you sit down, Ms. Head, you and your prop.”

Head, now 45, grew up in a small town in Louisiana not far from New Orleans. She’s a lawyer, lives Uptown and is apparently both competent and not corrupt. Her director of constituent services is Barbara Lacen-Keller, a veteran of the embattled district Head represents, and seems to single-handedly give her pol street cred on the block.

Stacy Head and her director of constituent services, Barbara Lacen-Keller
Stacy Head and her director of constituent services, Barbara Lacen-Keller

But as the campaign, and the city itself, rolls through Mardi Gras and the  Saints run to the Super Bowl, the city’s interwoven racial history and character begins to emerge.  Head is not, it turns out, a cartoon or easy political pickings. Her opponents, she says, “don’t like me because I challenge their political base. There is a large group of people who don’t feel empowered and they are told time and time again — the only way you’re going to have somebody speak for you is to have somebody who looks just like you.” (This also applies to voters everywhere, it should be noted.)

Still,  the challenges the city faced during this election, and now, are enormous. New Orleans is about 20 percent less populous than before the 2004 devastation of Katrina, down to about  343,000 people.  But because far more blacks have left than whites — about 118,000 and 24,000, respectively — the city is now about 60 percent black, as opposed to over two-thirds before the storm.  The number of children has dropped almost in half.  Public transportation has dropped by two-thirds. These are huge culture shocks.

“One of things we proudest of is after 90 minutes you’ve gotten to the DNA of the city,” says Paul Steckler, one of four directors and producers of the film. “We allowed New Orleanians to talk instead of taking sides.”

Steckler and fellow directors Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian all have long experience with New Orleans and have frequently collaborated on political documentaries. Their confident hand shows here, guiding the viewers through a city where labels are often misleading and the truth, if it’s obtainable, is never easy. Both New Orleans and Stacy Head are now at places, we learn at the end of the documentary, where you might not expect them to be.

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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