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Community Organizer v. Corrupt Politician: The Dec. 6 New Orleans Congressional Election

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The December 6 New Orleans congressional election isn't just a local choice between a privatizing "minority" Republican, a notoriously corrupt Democrat and a caring, competent community organizer running on the Green Party ticket. In these times when anyone, anywhere can contribute to the efforts of real progressives with the click of a mouse, or volunteer to reach undecided voters, the days leading to this election are a test of whether there exists even the shadow of a national movement mature enough to hold any black Democrats the least bit accountable to the needs of his constituents.

As is often the case, the Republican and the Democrat represent more of the same. But this time there's another choice.

The congressional election in Louisiana's 2nd district was delayed to due Hurricane Gustav, and will take place on December 6, 2008. What was once an overwhelmingly black district containing most of New Orleans and a sliver of neighboring Jefferson Parish is probably still majority black, but with a much thinner margin.

The Republican is a Vietnamese American who almost never mentions his party affiliation when campaigning inside New Orleans. The Democrat is disgraced nine-term incumbent William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson, under indictment for bribery after the FBI discovered $90,000 stashed in the plastic containers of his home freezer. The Green Party candidate is longtime community organizer Malik Rahim, a co-founder of Common Ground Relief Network, a grassroots organization brought together in the wake of Katrina to open medical clinics, distribute flood relief supplies and repair and rebuild homes damaged by the flood. With a projected low turnout, it's shaping up as a three way race that could go in a surprising direction. “We are shooting for 30,000 votes here,” a Rahim campaign spokesperson told BAR, “and we think we can win.”

Hurricane Katrina along with the series of man-made disasters ethnic cleansing and wholesale privatizations of the city's school and health care systems in its wake have changed the face of New Orleans, and determine the fault lines for its politics even today. Accordingly, their responses to the Katrina disaster provide us with a useful and telling contrast between Rep. Dollar Bill Jefferson and Malik Rahim.

On the second day after the levees broke, hundreds of starving, dehydrated New Orleans residents (and some tourists) attempted to walk out of their drowned city toward the lights of neighboring Gretna. Their paths were blocked by lines of local law enforcement officers who menaced them with shotgun fire, cursed them, buzzed them with helicopters and drove them back into New Orleans. If ever there was a time when the relative wealth, the connections, the prestige and authority of a congressman might have done his constituents some good, this was it. But Dollar Bill Jefferson was not that kind of congressman.

Malik Rahim lived in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, one of the few places that wasn't flooded, and where water supplies were not compromised. Ignoring orders to evacuate, Rahim was one of many local residents who remained in New Orleans to save lives and assist his neighbors, since the authorities would not. He helped other families evacuate, tried to get white vigilantes to stop shooting random black people and began organizing shelter and assistance to the victims of the flood.

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While thousands of his constituents were swimming for their lives, trapped in attics, on rooftops and expressway overpasses, or penned up in the Louisiana Superdome, congressman Jefferson commandeered six Louisiana National Guard MPs and a five ton truck to drive to his home in the flood zone and linger there for an hour or more while he removed personal belongings including a laptop computer, suitcases and several boxes. According to ABC News:

The Louisiana National Guard tells ABC News the truck became stuck as it waited for Jefferson to retrieve his belongings.

Two weeks later, the vehicle's tire tracks were still visible on the lawn.

The soldiers signaled to helicopters in the air for aid. Military sources say a Coast Guard helicopter pilot saw the signal and flew to Jefferson's home. The chopper was already carrying four rescued New Orleans residents at the time.

A rescue diver descended from the helicopter, but the congressman decided against going up in the helicopter, sources say. The pilot sent the diver down again, but Jefferson again declined to go up the helicopter.

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After spending approximately 45 minutes with Jefferson, the helicopter went on to rescue three additional New Orleans residents before it ran low on fuel and was forced to end its mission.

"Forty-five minutes can be an eternity to somebody that is drowning, to somebody that is sitting in a roof, and it needs to be used its primary purpose during an emergency," said (ABC News consultant) Hauer.

The contrast between the personal bahavior of Malik Rahim and Dollar Bill Jefferson could not be clearer.

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Bruce Dixon is the managing editor for Black Agenda Report.

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