Wednesday, August 27, 2008

It's Convention Time

Thursday, August 28th, 2008
Baton Rouge, Louisiana


Some 4000 delegates are converging in Denver this week, and Minneapolis next week. Millions of voters are expected to view the televised events, which are meant to convey an image of party unity. For political groupies like most of us who write and read these columns, this is the time the fun really begins. And if you have never attended a party convention, even as just an interested observer, you have really missed quite a show.

My first Democratic convention was in Atlantic City in 1964. On summer break from Tulane Law School, I was driving my twelve-year-old Volkswagen convertible up to New York City to visit relatives, and made a last minute decision to divert to Atlantic City. The Democrats were gathering in the old civic auditorium on the boardwalk, which for many years was the site of the Miss America pageant.

I was able to park my car about half a block from the auditorium and walk right up to the front door. A guard asked me where I was going, and I said I wanted to join the Louisiana delegation.

“Are you supposed to be with them?” he asked.

“I sure am,” I said. I might have exaggerated a bit, but I was still hoping to get in the door.

“Well, then welcome to Atlantic City, and go right on in.”

I stood about fifty feet away from the stage where President Lyndon Johnson kept the crowd in suspense until he announced that Sen. Hubert Humphrey would be his running mate. Johnson was a cinch to be reelected, and the Democrats pulled together as one big happy family. What a contrast to what happened four years later.

In 1968, the Democratic convention was held in Chicago. I was living in Ferriday, La. then with my wife and our two-month-old daughter Campbell. We decided on the spur of the moment to travel to Chicago and visit old friends, so we packed up the car and headed north.

The main party headquarters was at the Sheraton Hotel, which faces Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. I spent my first day at the convention “people watching” in the lobby, and reading the scores of brochures being passed out by special-interest groups lobbying delegates.

Major opposition to the Vietnam War was building, and a large number of protesters had gathered in Grant Park across from the Sheraton. Confrontations were breaking out between protesters and police officers all around the hotel.

I ran into Ingersoll Jordan, an old friend from Tulane who was working for Congressman Hale Boggs, a New Orleanian who was the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives in Washington. Off we went to the Blackstone Hotel close by for dinner. The restaurant at the Blackstone is in the basement. Just as we started our meal, I looked up to see white smoke seeping down the stairs into the dining room. My experience in the military told me immediately that it was tear gas, and I knew we had to get out quickly. The waiter had just put down my filet mignon. I grabbed the steak off the plate, slapped it over my nose and mouth, and dashed up the stairs through the tear gas, losing my friend in the confusion.

By the time I reached the street, riots were breaking out up and down Michigan Avenue and all over Grant Park. I knew I could get a better view from the top of the Sheraton, so I headed for the elevator in the lobby. When the doors opened, there were three people inside: Senator Russell Long, State Senator Mike O’Keefe and Louisiana Governor John McKeithen. Rumors had been circulating around the convention that McKeithen was under consideration as a possible choice for Vice President on a Hubert Humphrey ticket.

Sticking my hand out, I introduced myself to John McKeithen. “Governor, I’m Jim Brown from Ferriday.” McKeithen smiled, and he was visibly surprised at my introduction.

“Why Jim, what are you doing up here?” he asked.

“Governor,” I said. “I came all the way up here to support you for vice-president.”

McKeithen laughed, slapped me on the back, and told me he could not be more pleased.

Some months later, O’Keefe told me they had been on their way up to Vice President Humphrey’s suite to urge him to put McKeithen on the ticket. When he didn’t get tapped for the job, the Governor left in a huff and headed back to Louisiana.

Now for a good Republican Convention story.

It was 1988 in New Orleans. The GOP gathered to pick their nominee at the Superdome. An old friend had a box suite and invited me to join him there to watch the festivities. The President to be, George H.W. Bush, had just completed his acceptance speech and the Suite emptied out. I lingered to watch all the celebrating, when the door opened and Sen. Bob Dole walked in.

Dole had lost the nomination to Bush in a heated battle marked by some sharp exchanges. The Kansas Senator had won the first battle in the Iowa Caucuses, with Bush finishing third. But Bush recovered and was unopposed for the nomination at the convention.

“Sorry, I must be lost,” he said. “There’s supposed to be a suite where I can sit a bit, but I’ve forgotten the number.”

“Senator, you are welcome to relax here.” I offered him a drink and we both sat and watched the jubilation and TV commentary. You could tell he was wishing he could have been the nominee taking on Gov. Dukakis in the coming fall election.

“Dukakis is leading in the polls now,” I asked. “Can Bush win?”

Dole paused for a moment, then said: “Yes, I believe he will. But that promise about ‘read my lips….no new taxes.’ That may come back to haunt him in the future if he is elected..”

The Senator was right on the mark. That phrase was a big factor in Bill Clinton’s victory over the incumbent President four years later.

At the Democratic Convention in Denver this week, my sister Madeline is attending as a delegate. Her body guard there is her husband, who just happens to be the Republican Sheriff of Plaquemines Parish. Daughter Campbell is at the anchor desk in Denver for CNN, so the Brown Family is well represented.

As for me, 10 different political conventions are enough. I’ll join millions of Americans at home watching the TV circus, and anticipating a knock down drag out campaign in the weeks to come. And a note to Gustav. Please don’t rain on our parade.


“A political convention is not a place where you can come away with any trace of faith in human nature.’ Kempton, Murray

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in a number of newspapers and websites throughout the State of Louisiana. You can read Jim’s Blog, and take his weekly poll, plus read his columns going back to the fall of 2002 by going to his own website at

Jim’s radio show on WRNO (995 fm) from New Orleans can be heard each Sunday, from 11:00 am until 1:00 pm.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Louisiana's Worse State Agency

Thursday, August 21st, 2008
Baton Rouge, Louisiana



It looked like it was going to be a real horse race. Who would win the title of being the most dysfunctional political body in Louisiana? The final choices were whittled down to three. The mayors of both New Orleans and Mandeville made the final cut. But when all was and done, Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Company won the title of being the most inefficient, corrupt and dysfunctional agency operating in Louisiana state government.

The two mayors in contention, both in the greater New Orleans area, gave it their best shot and made last-minute efforts to show how inept and out of touch both could be. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who seems to create some major blunder monthly, is back in the daily headlines by trying to justify his way out of a rehab housing scandal that involves his brother-in-law. There is plenty of evidence that private companies billed the city of New Orleans for demolition work that they did not actually performed. Nagin brushed off both the criticism and calls for investigations by saying that those who criticize are “hurting the recovery efforts.”He may soon be able to express his protests to a Grand Jury.

And there seems to be a new revelation about Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price as the sun rises each day. Price has been alibiing his DWIs and squandering of city funds for months now. And it’s hard to top his logic of misuse. When auditors raise questions about his using a city credit card to cover the cost of a cruise to Mexico and other personal travel, Price simply said that he is on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week and (I love this part) "takes note of architecture and other things that provide a benefit to the city while he is on vacation." I've been around public life in Louisiana for almost 30 years, and I've never heard one like that.

But as disreputable as the antics of both Mayors were, they could not hold a candle to the continuing dysfunction of Louisiana's state created property insurance company. Last year, the Baton Rouge Business Report referred to Citizens as the single biggest financial disaster in the state’s history. Since those allegations were made, the scenario at the offices of this state run disaster has only gone from bad to worse.

The board of directors of Citizens was scheduled to approve a 41 % increase a few weeks ago, which was, by the way, the third such increase rubberstamped by the Louisiana Insurance Department since Katrina. The problem was that there was no board of directors to give such approval. There are presently eight vacancies on the board out of 15 members, so the company cannot even get a quorum to meet. The parameters for membership are set by the Louisiana legislature.

But several individuals who were approached for membership flatly turned the board appointment down. They pointed to the continuing scandals at Citizens and the staff’s inability to perform even the most basic financial oversight. As one potential member stated; “The Citizen’s mess is just going to get worse. There has been blatant incompetence in running this state company and I want nothing to do with it.”

Just last week, the Louisiana legislative auditor published evidence that Citizens is two years behind in filing financial audits required by law. Every other private insurance company is required by the Louisiana Department insurance to file both quarterly audited financial statements, and full annual audits. Citizens has been allowed to float without filing the required financial information for the past three years. A private insurance company so mismanaged would have been shut down long ago. Unfortunately, Citizens is the only option for thousands of homeowners in South Louisiana. But just as unfortunately, they are buying a pig in a poke with continually rising rates from a troubled company that has massive internal financial problems.

The final coup de grace that assured Citizens of becoming the state's most dysfunctional public body was the public disinterest on the part of the company's management in pursuing past wrongdoing. A federal class-action lawsuit had been filed some months ago alleging racketeering, money laundering and both wire and mail fraud on the part of board members and former executives. The judge in the case indicated that private individuals did not have standing to bring the lawsuit. The obligation would fall on those running the company.

But instead of directing their attorneys to bring legal action against those who have created massive losses in the past, the present chief executive for Citizens dismissed any corrective action simply by saying "we want to put this behind us and do something more productive." Apparently, holding accountable those who allowed major mismanagement and unlawful spending was not something that would be "productive" for Citizens. A company moves on, and the policy holders are the losers.

So after tallying up all the scores, the race was really not that close. For the third year in a row, Citizens Property Insurance Company continues to hold the title of the state’s most dysfunctional publicly run body. And in a place like Louisiana, there is always a lot of competition for such recognition. Way to go guys.


Once a man holds public office he is absolutely no good for honest work.

Will Rogers

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s column appears weekly, and is published on a number of newspapers and websites throughout Louisiana. You can read past columns by going to Jim’s website at Jim’s regular radio show on WRNO, 995fm out of New Orleans can be heard each Sunday from 11:00 am till 1:00 pm.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Hey, We all need a Break!

Thursday, August 14th, 2008
Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina


Many naysayers have predicted that the family summer vacation, a venerable American tradition for over a century, has now passed away quietly after a lengthy illness. Supposedly, the final coup de grace was the recent rise in gas prices. But I say they protest a bit too much. I've taken a vacation during the month of August as far back as I can remember. Now I know the family dinner hour has gone by the wayside with an onslaught of television, cell phones, and way too many over-booked extracurricular activities. But I'm staying sanguine about the future of American mobility, and I’m back on the open road again.

Jack Kerouac initially took me on our country’s byways through his 1951 Beat classic, "On the Road." He showed us a route through his words that led to discoveries not only of our country by ourselves. He well could have taken his cadence and rhythm from turn-of-the-century poet Walt Whitman’s The Song of the Open Road, in his classic “Leaves of Grass.”

From the sour, freedom!
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going were I list, my own master, total and absolute
Listening to others and considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

One important step during my week in the North Carolina Mountains is to take a secular Sabbath and shake free of screens, bells and beeps. Unfortunately, even as I've gotten older, I've developed way too much dependence on laptops, and PDAs that can turn into a modem. But no more. As I started this trip, I looked in the mirror and told the face there that my name is Jim, and I'm a techno-addict. But on this journey, I've committed to unplug and try to be more connected to myself rather than my computer.

And another cardinal rule this week. Absolutely no TV and talk radio. I can get the opening ceremonies of the Olympics on DVD a few weeks from now, and I really don't care about John Edwards’s love child. Radio shows on the east coast have constantly complaining hosts taking calls from a miserable whining public that I can do without.

And quite frankly, as I try to enjoy the mountain breezes, daily hikes, and get myself in better shape, television does little more than feed an endless stream of information about what's wrong with us and what we need to buy to make it right.

There is a constant bombardment of medical solutions including Advair, Aleve and Ambien; Celebrex, Cialis, Claritin and Crestor; Flomax, Lipitor, Valtrex and Viagra to list a handful. Then you are given grave warnings about all the terrible things that could happen to you if you do use one of these products. So if you don't suffer terrible consequences from the disease, the side effects of the drug could make your life really miserable anyway. Living is worse than dying. I'm not taking a vacation to listen to an endless stream of that claptrap.

When the commercial ends, the news comes on to report about all the things our government is warning we should be worried about, and that apparently only they can fix. All with our tax money of course. Terrorists, sexual predators, pesticides, light bulbs, cell phones that cause cancer, cigarettes, fast food, cholesterol, SUVs, asbestos, lead paint and a whole list of other hazards where a government program is needed to correct. Enough already. I'm trying to enjoy my vacation.

So no communication tools. Just a few good books (fiction, nothing serious, good tune outs), some comfortable hiking boots, a little fresh fruit from highway stands along the way, a few bottles of wine from home, and my 20 year old banjo I swear I’m going to learn to play well some day.

I’ll make a deal. You stay abreast of the political radio gossip and TV drivel while I’m gone, and I’ll get back to the task next week of second guessing those who govern us. In the mean time, let me get on with my travels. Or in Whitman’s words: The road is before us.../ Be not detained.


“I envy people who can just look at a sunset. I wonder how you can shoot it. There is nothing more grotesque to me than a vacation.”

Dustin Hoffman

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s column appears weekly, and is published in a number of newspapers and websites throughout Louisiana. You can read past columns by going to Jim’s website at Jim’s regular radio show on WRNO, 995fm out of New Orleans can be heard each Sunday from 11:00 am till 1:00 pm.