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Alex McRae Columnist

Published Sunday, October 14, 2012

'Big Easy' up in smoke

I was born in New Orleans and spent over 14, fun-filled years on the banks of the Mississippi before moving out for good.

I still love the place. Mostly because New Orleans isn’t like anywhere else. It’s the Wild West with a Cajun accent.

Louisiana has a set of laws that are antiquated, complicated and widely ignored by most residents. For the most part, Louisiana natives consider laws as suggestions for good conduct that were never intended to interfere with having a good time or making a living, even a crooked one.

New Orleans city laws were even more lax, which meant the good times always rolled in The Crescent City. It was there I gobbled the world’s best muffaletta sandwich at Central Grocery, sampled beignets at Cafe du Monde before I was 6, attended my first king cake party and stole my first kiss from fourth grade temptress Pam Patke.

Those “firsts” came and went. But, in New Orleans, some things are forever. Like political corruption so routine it takes a mass murder by a magistrate to raise an eyebrow.

New Orleans pols campaigned routinely on promises of new roads, new bridges and improved hurricane preparation. Once elected, their sole priority was learning which rich crony had an itch and getting it scratched. The “favors” politicians piled up enabled them to buy enough votes to stay in office forever.

It’s not a stretch to say my birthplace leads the nation —maybe the world — in political corruption. And I don’t mean small-time stuff. New Orleans used to be the only city south of the Mason-Dixon line that boasted its own Mafia family. The happy-go-lucky bunch of Goodfellas was headed by Carlos Marcello, known affectionately (and fearfully) as the “Little Man.”

Marcello’s criminal empire grew so vast and powerful that his 1993 obituary was carried in the New York Times. No matter how you cut it, that’s Big Time. Marcello was the role model for most New Orleans politicians, then and now.

When I was a kid, it wasn’t a good day unless you read about some New Orleans politician manipulating the system or breaking the law in some spectacular fashion. And getting away with it.

Municipal business meetings resembled Mardi Gras parties. Alcohol was often served openly when public business was being discussed or enacted. Locals were generally surprised when politicians were caught doing business or attending a function sober.

Maybe it wasn’t great, but it was accepted because, in New Orleans, that’s just the way it was. Not any more. Disturbing news has just surface indicating that the Big Easy’s reputation for liquor-lubricated politics is endangered. Not by growing attendance at Baptist churches or AA meetings. By the use of something even the “Little Man” may not have approved of.

Recently, assistant New Orleans city attorney Jason Cantrell was killing time in a city courtroom when he reached in his pocket for something and pulled out a reefer by accident. He made things worse by dropping the joint on the floor. And picking it back up.

Several cops were standing nearby. When they stopped laughing they arrested Cantrell. Mostly because TV news cameras were present. In the finest New Orleans tradition, Cantrell was cited for a low-level offense, paid a fine and walked away. I imagine he’s not the only one doing joints on the job.

How sad. If locals keep electing dope-smoking morons to public office, they can’t complain if what used to be called “The City That Care Forgot” earns a reputation as the City Who Forgot to Care.”


Send your email comments to: alex@newnan.com .

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