St. Bernard Parish in need of image overhaul
Hurricane Katrina-ravaged St. Bernard Parish recently wrapped up a long negative media blitz that bombarded markets from Gonzales to Biloxi, Miss., with cutting depictions of the community’s political landscape, portraying back-room dealing, general cronyism, corruption — even adultery, kidnapping and candidate-induced death.
Still down about half its pre-Katrina population and trying desperately to attract new residents and businesses, many say the aftermath of this fall’s elections has left St. Bernard with a bruised image that needs tending. The past few months, Louisiana and Mississippi residents watched, at times amused, at times confused, and often shocked, as a barrage of televisions spots jutted between their favorite shows.
One campaign advertisement showed the current St. Bernard president bedecked in a Napoleon costume and riding a pig as money fell from the sky and a narrator alleged, among other accusations, that the little Napoleon had siphoned money from the BP oil spill and therefore was riding “high on the hog.” Another alleged the newly elected sheriff had kidnapped an old woman and aided in stealing one of the largest fortunes in the metro New Orleans area.
Then there were allegations of a candidate’s extramarital affairs leading to the jilted husband’s suicide, another candidate’s gambling addictions, bankruptcy filings, a clerk of court providing favors to family members, jabs about various Supreme Court sanctions, and a former parish president banned by the Army Corps of Engineers due to racist antics.
All in all, political candidates of the 35,897-person parish injected some $3 million into metro New Orleans television, newspaper and radio advertisements, mainly aggressive, scathing attacks that often reached more than a million viewers and readers across at least two states.
Greg Buisson, a political media consultant who runs Buisson Creative Strategies in Metairie, says the prevailing attitude was “unless you attack your opponent you cannot win a race.”
“And anytime you have that much infighting, it is not productive for the parish from an economic development standpoint, as businesses generally feel like it will be very difficult to do business where there is such division between key leaders in a community,” Buisson said.
Say the advertisements had depicted Biloxi instead of St. Bernard, and we all watched them several times a day on television and perused them in the paper over our morning coffee, or throughout the work day on the web, Buisson suggested.
“Would you then be tempted to buy a home in Biloxi or spend the weekend there?” Buisson asked.
Buisson ran the winning campaign of St. Bernard Sheriff-elect Jimmy Pohlmann, who was one of the few candidates not to engage in television mudslinging. Of the three top parish races, Pohlmann also won by the largest margin.
Pohlmann, Parish President-elect David Peralta and Clerk of Court-elect Randy Nunez have discussed sitting down in the next few months, possibly with Buisson and others, “to come out with a plan to address negative campaigning and how it affected the image of our parish,” Pohlmann said after the Nov. 19 election.
“Here we are trying to transition from recovery and trying to get back on our feet, and this definitely tarnishes us,” Pohlmann said.
Nunez added, “It was such a divisive election across the board, the way every campaign went to a negative.” He admits “politics gets nasty,” but said “a lot of people got out of bounds in this one.”
He says the campaign season is another hit to his parish that already had the one-two punch of Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“Recently, we were on track, building back up, but then this election came along, and these campaign ads went everywhere, and that’s what they are seeing St. Bernard is,” he said. “I mean, imagine, they are like, ‘Oh my God, what is going on in this little parish down there?’ ”
Peralta says that now the newly elected officials must “rehabilitate the image that was portrayed.”
“It’s over and we need to move on, but we are not going to correct the problem overnight,” Peralta said.
Peralta, Nunez and Pohlmann say the image can change by showing positive leadership, and creating more open and transparent government.
“We have to lead by example,” Nunez said.
Peralta promised no more “rumors and innuendo,” saying instead “there will be facts that people can see, posted online, transparent.”
“If people know what is going on, they feel more secure in government and more involved.” Peralta added.
University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak explains while St. Bernard has always been a tight-knit community, insular, with family rivalry-type grudges presented in the political arena, that, ultimately, “advertising is as old as the Republic.”
“You know, it’s part of the game of politics and I think a lot of people understand that,” he said.
Greg Rigamer, a demographer who runs the New Orleans-based consulting firm GCR & Associates, suggests metro New Orleans was so flush with negative St. Bernard advertising that it overwhelmed people to the point that they simply no longer paid attention.
“There is the effect of just kind of washing it all up,” Rigamer said. “There is just so much that you don’t see anything.”
“It does not help the community, but I think it is soon forgotten.”