What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Debate commission releases its evaluation of city's application

Posted by November 20, 2007

Three Democratic presidential candidates Tuesday chided the Commission on Presidential Debates for not selecting New Orleans for one of four nationally televised debates next year.

Meanwhile, amid speculation that partisan politics dealt New Orleans out of the mix, the commission's co-chairman denied that the decision was based on anything but the merits of the 16 cities that applied to host the debates.

Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., one-time chairman of the Republican National Committee, brushed aside speculation that Republicans vetoed New Orleans as a presidential debate backdrop for fear that the Bush administration's hapless response to Hurricane Katrina would reflect poorly on them.

"That's stupid," Fahrenkopf said. "This isn't a bunch of fly-by-night politicians making these decisions. We don't play games."

New Orleans, the acknowledged sentimental favorite in the competition to host one of four debates in 2008, lost out to Oxford, Miss.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Hempstead, N.Y. St. Louis was chosen to host a vice presidential debate.

The decision prompted criticism from three Democratic presidential candidates. Five Democrats and two Republicans running for president had urged the commission to schedule one of the debates in New Orleans.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said the commission "missed a golden opportunity to show New Orleans that the entire country is committed to its recovery," while Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said the event would have provided "an economic boon to the city" and reminded Americans "about the unmet promise to rebuild and restore the Gulf Coast."

Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who launched his presidential bid in New Orleans, urged the panel to reconsider.

"As a nation, all of us have a responsibility to do everything we can to help rebuild this great city, and holding national events in this city, like a presidential debate, will help New Orleans move forward," Edwards said.

Private group, private files

A day after the decision was announced, questions continued to swirl about why post-Katrina New Orleans -- which successfully played host to the 2007 Sugar Bowl, has staged numerous conventions and was chosen as the locale for the 2008 NBA All-Star Game -- didn't make the cut.

Contributing to the confusion is the secretive way the commission operates. It provides no formal explanation about why certain cities are chosen and others are not, leaving the losing bidders to speculate about how their applications were deficient.

Asked whether the commission would be willing to make public its evaluation of New Orleans' bid, Fahrenkopf declined.

"We're a private group. We're not going to produce our files," he said.

The only document made available Tuesday was released by Anne Milling, founder of the hurricane recovery group Women of the Storm, which spearheaded the debate application. It was a Sept. 24 e-mail from Janet Brown, executive director of the commission, which indicated that the panel was concerned that promises made by the city would be kept.

"Important questions have arisen concerning the bid from New Orleans," Brown wrote. The e-mail went on to say that given the "unique configuration" of the New Orleans bid, the commission wanted to know which organizations would "accept legal responsibility for performing which tasks."

Norman Francis, president of Xavier University, said Fahrenkopf gave him a specific reason for the denial Monday before the decision was announced. Francis said he was told that New Orleans' primary arena for the debate, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, lacked the necessary technological capabilities. Francis, whose school would have been one of four colleges hosting the event, dismissed the suggestion as nonsense.

Milling said she was told by the other commission co-chairman, Paul Kirk Jr., that the city had not recovered sufficiently from Hurricane Katrina to stage the event.

Kirk, former head of the Democratic National Committee, didn't return phone calls, but denied that account in an interview in The New York Times. Milling on Tuesday stood by her version of the conversation.

The paucity of details led to speculation about the reasons for the snub. Francis suggested that the city was too dramatic a setting for members of the commission who may have been nervous that scenes of destruction and despair more than two years after Hurricane Katrina would be embarrassing.

"There is no rational earthly reason that we weren't ready to host a presidential debate," Francis said. "If the word was that New Orleans wasn't ready, that's not the issue. They weren't ready for us."

No disrespect intended

Fahrenkopf said the decision not to pick New Orleans "should not be interpreted as an attack" on the city or its "ability to handle an event."

He could point to no specific criterion -- facilities, transportation, hotels, communications -- that the city would be unable to provide.

Like Fahrenkopf, Mike McCurry, another commissioner and the former spokesman for President Clinton, brushed aside suggestions that politics played a role in the decision.

McCurry, who has rebuilt houses in Gentilly and the Lower 9th Ward since the 2005 storm, said "so many of us had sympathy for New Orleans. We really wanted to make it work."

He said there was "no stronger advocate at the beginning than Frank" Fahrenkopf, who organized the 1988 Republican presidential nominating convention in the city.

"At the end of the day it's not about giving community a boost, but letting every American voter see the debate," McCurry said. "Fundamental things have to come together and they weren't coming together in New Orleans."

He added, "Everyone (on the commission) said we will actively solicit New Orleans four years from now."


Bill Walsh can be reached at or (202) 383-7817.

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doctorj2u said...

Ana Maria,
You are amazing! How did you get the inside scoop before the papers? Keep up the good work. I went to Bay St. Louis this weekend. I DID see improvement. Slowly, slowly things are returning. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Ana Maria said...

Yo, doc!

Next time you are coming to town, email me and we'll meet up at Mockingbird!

Thanks a bazillion for the compliment on the scoop. You are the best!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours as well. ;)

- am