When Dana Kaplan soared into position for a December run-off election, it became clear that something big is happening in the city of New Orleans- the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated nation in the world. Many of us know Dana from her work as executive director of Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, or as co-founder of Safe Streets Strong Communities, or further back when she worked with Center for Constitutional Rights and the Prison Moratorium Project. Although we often see ourselves as “community leaders,” ironically we rarely see ourselves as politicians.
I asked Norris Henderson, her co-founder at Safe Streets, what this election means. He pointed out Dana’s ability to bring such a diverse coalition together, and how even the Mayor and the Sheriff (her most frequent adversaries) endorsed her. Respect for Dana Kaplan runs deep, and one has to believe the integrity of Mayor Landrieu and Sheriff Gusman just scored a few points in that they were willing to elevate her into a position with authority over the police and the jail.
But I think it is bigger than Dana Kaplan and New Orleans. What I see in this campaign is the ability to run a campaign “from the Left,” and make no apologies. When half of America stays home on election day because they aren’t motivated by the messages or (more importantly) by the actions of two Wall Street political parties, this election shows that politicians need not go to the Center-Right positions just to get the financial contributions.
New Orleans is the center of crime, or at least one could believe by watching the media. It is a place where “Tough On Crime” and racism have deep history. It is also a place still struggling from Katrina and BP, and not just the disasters but also the cronyism and corruption that misappropriated relief efforts. The education system is an experiment being conducted upon “other people’s kids.” Dana Kaplan is someone who expertly understands the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and how we systemically funnel our kids along it. JJPL started a program (Stand Up For Each Other) where law students from Tulane and Loyola would represent kids in discipline hearings. The fact that this became a need, one met by volunteers and not the city, is telling as to the status of boys in New Orleans.
While some politicians are still railing about crushing everything and everyone with anything to do with drugs, or while our presidential campaigns managed to avoid the Drug War entirely, things were being spoken on by The People. Washington and Colorado voters decided to treat marijuana like alcohol. Massachusetts’ choice to allow medical marijuana leaves New Hampshire as the only New England state that does not. Arkansas voted against this homeopathic medicine being legal, yet 49% of the voters wanted it legal. When the turnout is under 50% of eligible voters, it makes you wonder what the other folks would have voted for. [Insert pot smoking joke here.] Clearly, the feds will be last to know: Americans smoke pot, and don’t think it is such a big deal. Those with a problem should deal with it in some way other than sitting in a cage for a few months or few years.
New Orleans only has five districts and two at-large seats. A council position can be quite powerful, particularly where someone advocating for new directions can make persuasive arguments like Dana Kaplan. Last night’s four-way race left her in a statistical dead heat, at 31% to 39% for the frontrunner. Depending on which way the supporters of the other candidates re-vote, or if turnout can rise above 47%, she could even win in a landslide. In a city where the jail and the police are under federal supervision, it would be nice if the City can usher the strength to reign those entities in for themselves.
Stay tuned for December…
*Full Disclosure: I volunteered for Dana Kaplan for City Council, and even was the DJ at last night’s celebration party. Of the few politicians I have volunteered for in my life, I have never had any regrets about how they performed in office.