A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE EDITORIAL
Happy New Year, New Orleans!
Yes, we know it is practically the middle of the January. But this is our first print issue of 2018, making its pages the appropriate place to wish our dedicated readers a prosperous New Year, a fun-filled and safe Mardi Gras and a terrific Tricentennial as our city gears up to celebrate the 300th anniversary of its founding.
We are excited!
To be sure we have plenty of glad tidings, even a little praise to share, and we will start with big congratulations to our mayor elect on several stellar picks for her transition team…coupled with some unsolicited advice.
If you are reading this, Madam Mayor, we are particularly impressed with your selection of Minister Willie Muhammad, educator, member of the Nation of Islam and co-founder of the Peacekeepers, and Norris Henderson, the founder and executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), a New Orleans-based grassroots organization working to build the political and economic power of people impacted by the criminal justice system.
We are sure that all of your selections have been strategic, purposeful and planned, and we are eager to see how this coalition works together for the benefit of all of New Orleans and to make your transition a smooth and effective one. But we would be less than authentic if we didn’t plainly say that your selection of Minister Muhammad and Henderson are signs to us, here at The New Orleans Tribune, that your transition and, by extension, your administration will welcome, call on and serve all New Orleanians from varied walks of life. To be clear, we believe that both Henderson and Muhammad are stellar representatives of the Black community who will speak to issues in ways that no one else on your transition team can. Their voices are needed. Thank you for recognizing that.
In 2003, Willie Muhammad was appointed as the student minister of Muhammad Mosque #46 in New Orleans by Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. In 2009, he founded the New Orleans Chapter of the Peace Keepers, a group of men who spend one hour every Saturday canvassing the violent neighborhoods in the city. In 2011, Minister Muhammad launched the Squash the Beef Hotline, a conflict resolution service where members of the Peace Keepers serve as mediators between rivals. It’s clear that he has been in the trenches when it comes to addressing issues that impact our people and our neighborhoods.
For Henderson’s part, he has been a major force in criminal justice reform since his release from prison in 2003, he has championed the rights of the wrongfully convicted, fought for prison reform and focused on efforts to help those returning to society.
Yet, we know there are those in the larger community who question Minister Muhammad’s and Henderson’s roles on the Cantrell transition team. Henderson is an ex-offender who spent nearly 28 years in prison for murder. And Muhammad is a member of the Nation of Islam, led by the sometimes controversial and often outspoken Minister Louis Farrakhan. Even if they have not made their displeasure public, we have every reason to believe there are those that are displeased. But without apology or trepidation, you obviously chose these two resourceful, dynamic community leaders for your team because you believe they have something to contribute to the larger effort.
We love it! Thanks Madam Mayor. Here’s why we love it. These guys have done the work, particularly in areas of criminal justice reform and violence in our streets. They know the community and the issues that impact everyday people. They will be invaluable to your team, and we absolutely love that you chose them despite the naysayers.
Now, here is why we know there are naysayers—those who aren’t as happy and excited as we were when we heard Muhammad and Henderson would be a part of the Cantrell transition. Though they may not have made public statements against Henderson or Muhammad, they have already shown their hand.
They are the ones who mumbled and grumbled at the fact that former deputy mayor Michelle Thomas, who resigned her post in 2013 after it was made public that her then-fiancé was facing gun and drug charges, though she herself was not accused of any criminal act and was, by all accounts, a capable and stellar public leader, is a part of your circle of close advisors. They are the same ones who were mortified after they assumed that Derrick Shepherd was with you when he showed up at a meeting of state lawmakers. They were the ones horrified when they learned that Shepherd is the supposed author of a speech that you didn’t even deliver. Shepherd is a former state legislator from Jefferson Parish convicted of malfeasance in office. You say Shepherd was not invited by you nor does he have any role in your transition. And if any of that mattered to us, your word would be good enough on that topic
Madam Mayor, they are the ones who lodged what we would call unreasonable criticism about you taking too long to appoint a transition team though you wouldn’t be taking office for another four months—a criticism we found so ridiculous that we chose not to comment on it. Sometimes, you have to ignore the foolery. You had just ran a well-crafted, successful campaign. There is no doubt that you were laying the groundwork for your transition, interviewing contendors for key positions. But because you had not made your every move public, mainstream media used it as an opportunity to criticize. Mind you, they are the ones waiting—almost salivating—watching everything you do and say, looking for the slightest misstep, so they can pounce. They have been waiting eight years for the chance to once again attack Black leadership at the highest levels in this city. We already know the deal. Your tenure will not be afforded the allowances that have been granted by the mainstream media and the city’s elite these the last eight years. Our observation here is not meant to be critical of the current administration. It is just what it is. Beware.
Real quick, an aside on the Derrick Shepherd thing. Let’s just say he was an advisor of yours in some capacity and you did invite him to that meeting. So what? Though he is no longer allowed to practice, he is a trained attorney and a former legislator. After his conviction, he spent more than a year in prison and lost his license to practice law. Where we are from, that’s called paying your debt to society. That is more than we can say about many (maybe even some of the very ones in that room who snubbed their noses at Shepherd) who have done far worse.
There were 1900 non-violent offenders released last November as part of the governor’s criminal justice reform plan. More are expected. And when they are released, many of them will be coming home to New Orleans. Business leaders, elected officials and everyone else would do well to realize that if our community cannot accept those who have made mistakes back into the fold with access to opportunity and genuine second chances, they will fail.
And the double standard is not lost on us. Former Gov. Edwin Edwards returns from federal prison and is treated like some sort of folk hero or rock star. But Shepherd is castigated, unable to use his training and skills to make a life for himself. If Derrick Shepherd—a well-educated man with a skill-set—can’t catch a break, who can?
Returning citizens must be allowed—no encouraged—to get in where they fit in. And when they don’t fit in we must make a space for them. If they fail, our communities fail with them.
We digress. This column was all about applauding your selection of Willie Muhammad and Norris Henderson with the anticipation that it bodes well for our communities and our city. You chose Muhammad and Henderson knowing there are those you will not be able to satisfy, Madam Mayor. Let’s be honest, we don’t expect to agree with everything you do or say during the next four years (eight if you are re-elected). But we vow to support you so long as you are working in the best interest of all the people of this city, all of our neighborhoods and the communities we call home.
Even when we disagree we will do so, as we always do, in a manner reflective of the respect your office holds. And we will always search for solutions and common ground that strengthen New Orleans. Still, there are folk who will come for you—even when you haven’t sent for them. In a few months, you go from selecting the people to help you make your transition to selecting those that will help you lead the city. As this preoccupation with whom OUR leaders surround themselves seems to take center stage, know that there are some folk who are going to pick and poke at every decision you make. But when they do, we implore you to handle it in the same manner in which you have handled your appointments of Muhammad and Henderson and your relationship with Michelle Thomas, about whom you have reportedly said that while she is not a member of the transition team you are “proud to work with Michelle Thomas…a competent, experienced and knowledgeable professional with a specific background in managing cities’ governmental transitions.”
Make your decisions. Stick with them. We will have your back. Say what you gotta say, and do what you gotta do. And say it and do it with the mandate of the 51,242 New Orleanians that voted for you and the authority of all of the others that didn’t, because you will be their mayor too.
As long as you are working to make New Orleanians a better place to live and work for everyone who calls it home, you have our support.
Don’t bow. Don’t bend.