Interview With James Perry
Written by Joe Longo
Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:34
|Interview With James Perry|
In 2004, James Perry became the Executive Director of Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, shortly after earning a law degree from Loyola University. Perry first came to the attention of NOLAFugees in 2006 when we made fun of an ordinance in St. Bernard Parish that required landlords to rent only to blood relatives. In our fake story, we attributed some fictitious quotes to Mr. Perry, who was in the process of leading a successful lawsuit against the ordinance.
Given the fact that we've put words in his mouth, it only seems fair to let him have his own say, as he explains his campaign for Mayor of New Orleans.
NF: You just got back from extensive travel throughout the Northeast, the academic community. Tell us a little about that.
JP: Well, we have kind of a tough strategy in our campaign around contracts where… it seems like it’s gonna be a stretch but it’ll all make sense in a minute. The issue is that we think that a lot of the problems in the recovery have to do with the wrong goals in contracting, basically patronage affecting the contracting process. So we want to have blind contracting, so a request for proposals comes out from the city and anyone who wants to submit a proposal does so, but then their name and all identifying info is redacted from their proposal by the Inspector General. So, the result is that when the proposal is actually considered, and hopefully it'd be by a committee appointed by the mayor and by the council, they don’t know who submitted it and they only consider it based on the merits.
So, the way that gets into our travel is it means that a lot of the business interests who do business with the city won’t be able to get guaranteed contracts through our campaign, right? Usually folks will donate to someone and say “well we’re gonna give you this money but we want a particular contract,” but we can’t promise any contracts, so it means that we have to do a much broader outreach. There’s a second thing though, and it’s that we are a real civil rights-minded campaign, so we looked at New Orleans and its role and what became really clear is that what’s at stake isn’t just what’s important for the people who live here, but its something that’s at stake for the whole country. And it’s the reason that so many people come here to work and to dedicate time. Last night we talked to probably 100 or 200 student attorneys who are coming to volunteer over their spring break, and so why do they all come here? It’s because this is social justice’s ground zero for this generation.
We looked at the last huge social justice movement which was the civil rights movement and what we saw was that when Martin Luther King wanted to change the south he couldn’t really do it only with people from the south because he had to finance it. He had to find a way to find the money to change the south and therefore change America. So business people in the south didn’t want to change the way business was done in the south. He went to the north and he looked to people with good conscience in the north and said, "will you help us to finance this movement? Because if we can start this change here in the south then we can change America." Essentially, we're making the same argument.
The last reason why travel was so important is that there are a lot of people from prestigious universities and so forth that have dedicated a lot of time and a lot of money into ideas around New Orleans recovery, and all those plans are usually sitting on someone’s desk collecting dust. We wanted to hear about what those plans were and to find out whether or not they’re things that we could really implement. We don’t have to go and reinvent the wheel on a lot of this stuff because so many people have been trying to come up with the best answers for us, so we wanted to find out what many those answers were.
NF: Do you anticipate any hazards relying on northerners and welcoming them in?
JP: You know I think that the opposition would use whatever they can if they think that there’s an argument, but we have an inclusive campaign and we also have, at least I have, a long track record of performing and working for the citizens of New Orleans, and I’m a New Orleanian and if people think because I’m open to outside advice, that there’s a problem, then I suggest that that’s the precise reason why you shouldn’t vote for them.
NF: I’ll bring up one of the people who’s helping you quite a bit, (Princeton professor and media pundit) Melissa Harris Lacewell. At the event that I was at last Winter, while she was introducing you she drew comparisons to the Obama model of campaigning and fundraising, and its true that he received a lot of small donations and got a lot of momentum from that but it’s also true that he drew heavily from Silicon Valley and Wall Street money, do you have any hopes or strategies for tapping into the big money, as it were, that you really need for a successful campaign?
JP: We do, and as a matter of fact that’s one of the areas where Melissa becomes extremely important because she has a lot of those connections, and the idea that one of the leaders in African-American political thought would jump in at the very earliest stage in the campaign and say that she supports it says a lot and does a lot. So at some of the fundraisers in the northeast there were people from really large corporations who turned out to donate and a lot of that had to do with them really taking Melissa’s word for it, and so that gets them there. And then once they get there I have to make sure that they understand that we really can make change in the city, and so once that happens they donate. It has worked so far and we think that the momentum will continue to build.
NF: What are your plans, aside from going outside, which is one of your strategies, for dealing with the traditional political power sources in the city, black and white: the uptown Audubon Place money, the black machines like BOLD and so on and the Morial Creole “aristocracy,” for lack of a better word. What are your plans for dealing with those power bases?
JP: I think that for a number of the political machines we don’t have to do much because they’ve already been dealt with. I think that Katrina really dispersed their power significantly, and the evidence is, for instance, the second district Congressional race where none of those machines were able to get a real hold, and there are a number of races that have happened so far where none of, particularly the African American machines, have been able to really get a firm grasp and make something happen. So I think that demonstrates that a lot of their lists are pre-Katrina, that a lot of their contacts and connections and so forth are all pre-Katrina, and that they don’t give them the kind of power that they had before, and so that provides the opening. The fact is that there isn’t a strong African-American leader or organization that is really engaging politically. So that’s that side.
On what you described as the Uptown kind of Audubon group I think that we still have great opportunities there. You know, in spite of the fact that I’m a civil rights advocate, my first work in New Orleans was at the Preservation Resource Center. I worked to help people buy and renovate vacant and blighted properties mostly in historic neighborhoods, and so while I was there, I worked with some of the folks who people often times stereotype around preservation; so a lot of times it was, frankly, rich white women, or at least well off, and I found that I had lots in common with them. A lot of the advocacy work that I do and a lot of the tools that I use and the way that I use them I learned working at the Preservation Resource Center and I realized that we have much more in common than we think, and so I think that because of those initial connections and those initial bonds that I’ll be able to get some traction in some of those neighborhoods, so we’re not particularly worried about or conceding that we can’t get votes there. We think that we have some good connections.
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