Media

Networks Ignore Gulf Coast in Presidential Debates

This is an American human rights crisis that certainly deserves to be addressed as Americans choose their next president.
CNN, MSNBC, FOX News and the other networks that have hosted this primary season's 30 presidential debates have yet to ask each candidate how they plan to help rebuild communities in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. Though media attention for their struggles has faded more than two years after the 2005 hurricanes and levee failures, many of these communities have not been able to rebuild their schools, police stations, roads and other critical infrastructure as hundreds of thousands of residents remain displaced. The result is an American human rights crisis certainly worthy of being addressed as Americans choose their next president.

Through 14 Republican debates, no moderator has asked any Republican presidential candidates a single question about rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Moderators of the 16 Democratic events have not done much better, directing only a fraction of their debates, less than 1 percent, to Gulf Coast recovery.

In an interview with the Sun News before the Jan. 21 South Carolina debate, Rep. James Clyburn, the state's most senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which sponsored the debate, even named rebuilding infrastructure, specifically in the Gulf Coast, as a top issue he hoped would be addressed in the debate. Still the topic was never touched on.

Top candidates from both parties have characterized the government's response to Hurricane Katrina as a failure during their respective debates. Still only once this primary season, at PBS's Democratic Debate at Howard University, did the debate questioners ask each candidate a question related to Gulf Coast recovery. NPR's Michelle Norris asked whether each candidate would support a federal law guaranteeing a human right to return home after Hurricane Katrina, based on international law. Though candidates hinted at their rebuilding plans, they were not pressed to explain the steps they would take to create the economic and social conditions necessary for residents to realize their rights. Gulf Coast residents fear that important questions about the future of their communities and the hundreds of thousands of their friends and families who are still displaced will continue to go unasked and unanswered this primary season.

Things are not looking much better for the general election debates.

Despite letters of support from a bipartisan list of seven presidential candidates and supportive editorials from USA Today, the New York Times, Time magazine, and the Washington Post, New Orleans' application to host one of four scheduled general election presidential debates was recently denied. With New Orleans successfully hosting such large-scale events in 2008 as the Sugar Bowl and the NCAA Championship Game and set to host the NBA All-Star Game, city leaders found the snub shocking. Anne Milling, founder of Women of the Storm, the group that led the application effort with a consortium of local universities including Dillard, Loyola, Tulane and Xavier, called it, "a case of politics trumping the clear moral choice."

"A defining moment in American history"

Debates are a time to make candidates take a stand on the most important issues facing American voters. National polling data indicates that Gulf Coast rebuilding is still important to Americans nationwide, not just those living in the region.

John Zogby, one of the top minds in the polling industry, wrote recently in Campaigns and Elections magazine that polling data on domestic issues facing candidates in the 2008 elections indicates, "Katrina, over the long haul, will prove to be more of a defining moment in American history than the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001." He went on to note that after witnessing the failed federal response to Gulf Coast recovery, American voters "hunger nationwide for a new model for the federal government."

Zogby found that Americans wanted a leader who would could unite the nation and marshal the necessary resources to rebuild after a disaster. He wrote that Americans wanted federal leadership with the flexibility to work with local leaders, including local governments and faith and community groups, and solve problems.

Still recovering: More than two years later

In terms of physical devastation, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the levee breakdown far surpasses any disaster in America's history. They caused more damage than our three largest disasters combined: the Sept. 11 attacks, Hurricane Andrew and the Northridge earthquake. The human face of the disaster can be seen in the hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents who remain unable to return home.

Housing shortages threaten communities across the Gulf Coast. Thousands of families are about to be kicked out of FEMA trailers, which the federal government recently determined contain levels of toxins so strong that they have advised their employees not to enter the structures.

Federal programs like FEMA Public Assistance have proven slow and inflexible for rebuilding vital community infrastructure. USA Today recently reported FEMA had spent less than one fourth of the 4.5 billion federal dollars available for rebuilding critical community infrastructure across the region.

Critics claim current federal policy often leaves construction projects addressing long-term needs ineligible for federal aid. In New Orleans, this policy has resulted in infrastructure deficiencies with severe social and economic consequences. With schools closed, students must travel long distances, and some 300 students in New Orleans during the 2006-2007 academic year were unable to even enroll. Restricted public transit and battered roads limit access to work and services. Scarce childcare facilities limit options for working parents. Crime rates have risen while police headquarters operate out of FEMA trailers. Death rates rise as hospitals operate at diminished capacity.

Louisiana alone, not including damage in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Texas, has reported over $20 billion in public infrastructure damage due to the hurricanes and levee breaks, leaving significant unfunded needs. Levee construction remains underfunded, and preventable erosion continues to destroy nature's flood protection, the wetlands, threatening returning residents. These issues impact the pace of recovery and ultimately the rights of residents to return to their communities and live with safety and dignity.

A handful of candidates this campaign season have traveled to the Gulf Coast. A few have even posted portions of their rebuilding plans on their websites, but not all voters and Gulf Coast residents have access to this information. For residents who are still waiting on the federal government to fulfill its promises, questions remain about the presidential candidates' commitment to the region.

A new model for Gulf recovery

Recently, Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Charlie Melancon, D-La., and Gene Taylor, D-Miss., introduced a new model for Gulf Coast recovery in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 4048, the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act. The policy was developed with the help of Gulf Coast residents, human rights groups, and the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project, a college campus-based advocacy group. Utilizing a human rights-based framework, the legislation hopes to empower the region's greatest assets, the disaster's survivors, with the resources they need to lead.

Through funding infrastructure projects employing local and displaced workers to rebuild schools, police and fire stations, transportation, hospitals and flood protection, and restore the wetlands, the legislation aims to help heal the wounds left by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the levee breaks, and allow residents to return to their neighborhood with safety and dignity.

The bill gives resident and community leaders a greater voice in how their neighborhoods are rebuilt and works directly with community organizations to reach the goal of creating 100,000 living-wage jobs and training opportunities for residents and displaced people primarily in the building trades.

The plan would create more opportunities for small and minority businesses while pumping more funds into the local economy and building the infrastructure and the trained work force necessary for sustainable economic development.

The legislation aims to address the region's human rights crisis through helping the displaced realize their right to return and participate in rebuilding their communities and providing economic opportunity to working families.

Stephen Bradberry, state head organizer with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in Louisiana, believes this bold plan will require the support of the next president to become a reality.

"The current president made a whole list of promises to residents about rebuilding the Gulf Coast, but the job is not done. The moderators of the presidential debates need to ask the next president whether they plan to right the situation," says Bradberry. "We need to put the candidates on record, "Do you support the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act to rebuild stronger communities across the region hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?"

Bring the Gulf Coast to the debate

Gulf Coast residents, ACORN members, Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation's Equity and Inclusion Campaign of grassroots community groups, New Orleans delegation of Marguerite Casey's Equal Voices Campaign, students, and supporters like the online organizing group Color of Change, and the RFK Center for Human Rights launched an effort to bring Gulf Coast rebuilding back into the national focus by first urging hosts of the presidential debates to get a straight answer from the candidates on Gulf Coast rebuilding. Together they hope to give the region a voice to influence the discussion utilizing online advocacy tools.

"If the debate is not coming to the Gulf Coast, then we need to bring the Gulf to the debate," said Bradberry, winner of the prestigious RFK Human Rights Award in 2005.

The effort, aptly named Bring the Gulf Coast to the Debate, began by targeting Facebook, ABC and WMUR, co-hosts of the Jan. 5 Republican and Democratic New Hampshire primary debates. Supporters urged ABC and WMUR reporters and producers to ask the candidates about the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act. Many contacted ABC's World News Tonight host and debate moderator Charles Gibson through his recently opened account on the social networking site Facebook.com. You can join the efforts' Facebook campaign by clicking here.

Now supporters are gearing up for the Republican and Democratic California debates on Jan. 30 and 31, hosted by CNN, Politico and the Los Angeles Times. They will be the last debates before the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries.

Supporters can visit http://www.colorofchange.org/gccwpolitico/to learn how to urge the moderators of the Republican and Democratic California Debates to stand in solidarity with Gulf Coast residents and ask the candidates about the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, using tools on Politico.com.

Dr. Scott Myers-Lipton, a San Jose State professor who founded the 50-campus-strong Gulf Coast Civic Works Project, noted that the bill is sponsored by a California congressman, Rep. Lofgren, and additionally is supported by resolutions in both the California State Assembly and California Democratic Party.

"With so many Californians behind the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, there is no better time than these debates to ask the candidates if as president they will enact this critical plan to rebuild the Gulf Coast," says Lipton. Though the Gulf Coast will not host a presidential debate, residents and their national supporters still hope that the region's crisis can be brought back into the national debate this election season.

Questions on the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act for the Democratic and Republican candidates currrently rank No. 1 and No. 2 in popularity, respectively, on Politico.com.

"This is a unique opportunity to move these media organizations to finally ask the questions the people of the Gulf Coast and California and really all Americans need to hear answered," said Chris Hauck, a San Jose State University student and Gulf Coast Civic Works Project organizer.

Visit http://www.colorofchange.org/gccwpolitico/ to learn how to vote for the Gulf Coast questions, and visit www.solvingpoverty.com to find out more about supporting the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act.
Jeffrey Buchanan is a human rights advocate, freelance journalist and information officer with the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.
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