The setting for the inauguration of the new city government was the rehabilitated Saenger Theater on Canal Street.
Sitting down in the orchestra section looking up at the stage where the mayor and the city council would be sworn in was outgoing New Orleans City Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, counting down her last moments of officialdom.
Since 1990, Clarkson had served, with brief interruptions, in either city or state government.
Attending the event had to be painful for unlike her previous involuntary breaks from elected office, there won’t be any comebacks this time.
Clarkson was one of those rare reform-minded municipal elected officials who understood both policy and politics.
Clarkson was a ubiquitous politician. If there was a ribbon to be cut, ground to be broken or a press conference to be held, Clarkson was there. And while that might be chalked up by cynics as conduct one expects from a typical politician, showing up is part of the job.
But there was more to Councilman Clarkson than pressing the flesh and photobombing. Though she reveled in the ceremonial, Clarkson was unquestionably the council’s best member during her second and third tours in city government through word and deed.
Clarkson condemned then-Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor’s attempt to play political games with parade permits to Mardi Gras krewes who were not inclusive to the satisfaction of the city government. Taylor had introduced the controversial measure in the wake of the bitter and racially divisive 1991 gubernatorial runoff and prior to Taylor’s run for a city-wide office.
When the City Council, in their infamous wisdom, played games again, this time with public safety by insisting on a residency rule on police and firemen that undermined the NOPD’s recruitment efforts, Clarkson worked against its enactment and after it became law for its repeal/modification.
Clarkson also opposed the city’s decision to expand parking meter enforcement to Saturdays, which has been better for private parking lot owners than it has for downtown and French Quarter businesses.
And though she was a westbank pol with deep family roots in Algiers, Clarkson was a tireless advocate for cleaning up the Vieux Carre and cracking down on vagrancy on public benches in the city’s primary tourism area.
Clarkson wasn’t afraid to take political risks for the sake of the city.
Though New Orleans is heavily Democratic, Clarkson endorsed Republican Joseph Cao’s bid for Congress against incumbent Democrat Bill Jefferson, who had been indicted on charges of corruption in 2007.
Cao wasn’t given much of a chance of prevailing in a district that had resoundingly voted for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy in November 2008, but thanks in large part to Democrats like Clarkson crossing over the Second Congressional District got its first Republican in over a century and the United States Congress had its first ever Vietnamese member.
Two years later when Cao faced a much tougher race against an Obama-endorsed Democrat yet Clarkson continued to stand by her man.
Admittedly Clarkson did not always exhibit grace under political pressure, but in a city that has weathered near constant maladministration and corruption from time immemorial, her slips of the tongue were at worst venal sins that resulted in embarrassing press and not a perp walk.
This past election cycle Clarkson, at the behest of the mayor, made one final bid for council, returning to the District C spot where her political career started. In 1994, she lost re-election to the seat by a mere 24 votes; twenty years later Clarkson had the indignity of being rejected on her home turf by over 2500 votes.
Race, machine politics and “Jackie-fatigue” amongst her base constituency contributed to her landslide defeat.
While some of her colleagues that were returned to office will every now and then vote on city issues the way Clarkson would have, none of them will possess her resolve and willingness to dig in her heels.
And without her sitting on the council, expect a lot more votes of expedience from her allies.
Though her curtain call came from the orchestra section and not center stage, Clarkson was true to form: she showed up.
Thank you Ms. Jackie for your steadfast leadership, advocacy for pro-business policies and good government and willingness vote right even when doing so was futile and invited political repercussions.
You served the city better than they at times deserved.