05/07 - Louisiana’s Image

What do people think of when they hear "Louisiana"?

The word "Louisiana" conjures up many images. Not all of them are good. What do people think of when they hear "Louisiana?" Do we have a perception problem, or is it a reality problem? Tune in to "Louisiana's Image" on Louisiana Public Square.

Panelist:

* Sherri McConnell, Director of Entertainment, Louisiana Economic Development
* Stephen Moret, President of Baton Rouge Area Chamber
* Chuck Morse, Head of the Louisiana Office of Tourism
* Randle Raggio, Ph.D., Asst. Professor, LSU Dept. of Marketing

Backgrounder

Images of Louisiana

"Half of Louisiana is under water
and the other half is under indictment."
~ Billy Tauzin, former Louisiana Congressman

Tourist Destination

Louisiana has been marketed as many things. "The exotic little sister of the southern states." "Louisiana: The Dream State." "Louisiana – We're Really Cookin'. " In most cases, the emphasis has been on the exotic qualities of place and culture, and on a view of life as something to be savored and experienced to the fullest. Not surprisingly, French terms often are used in describing aspects of Louisiana. "Joie de vivre," or "carefree enjoyment of life," may be the most common phrase used to describe Louisianans approach to life.

The image of fun-loving people is reinforced every winter with the celebration of Mardi Gras. It is the most widely-publicized and well-attended event in Louisiana. Some estimates have placed the economic impact as high as one billion dollars. That estimate pre-dates the hurricanes of 2005, but the tourism industry still pulled in about $6 billion last year, down from about $10 billion before the storms. Tourism remains big business in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans.

Crime Capital

That's why the tremendous problems with crime in the Crescent City are so worrying to local and state officials. National Guard troopers and State Police patrolling the streets runs counter to a "carefree" image and creates fear and unease among would-be visitors and convention planners. Despite the extra manpower, New Orleans – with 96 homicides per 100,000 residents – is the murder capital of the nation. Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu testified recently that crime in New Orleans was one of the things stalling a return to pre-Karina tourism levels.

Corrupt Government

It's easy to discern the consequences of violent crimes. You see the victims and the physical evidence of the wrongful deed. Public corruption is just the opposite: there usually isn’t much of a physical trail, and the victims are often anonymous. But there are more of them – a lot more. In some cases, a whole state-full of people victimized through tax payer bailouts, higher costs of goods and services and loss of economic opportunities. The latter are perhaps the most costly – and the most difficult to measure. How much business has gone to Houston or Birmingham or Atlanta to avoid special “fees” or side-deals or third-party “arrangements”? How many companies have been scared off by public officials demanding “consideration” in order to make things happen – or prevent things from happening?

The following excerpts from the book "Louisiana, An Illustrated History" give a historical perspective in Louisiana's on-going struggle to maintain ethical governance.

"…In 1939, journalists began exposing deep-rooted corruption in the state government, and the scandals, collectively called the 'Louisiana Scandals' hauled a crew of prominent figures out of power and into prison. In all, thirty-six officials were convicted. Chief among them was Huey [Long's] successor, Governor Richard Leche, who is rightly remembered as one of the state's most corrupt leaders. Through colossal kickbacks, bribes, and fraud, the governor collected nearly $100,000 annually above his state salary. "When I took the oath as governor," Leche allegedly explained, "I didn’t take any vows of poverty."

Following the disgrace and humiliation of the 'Louisiana Scandals,' voters experimented briefly with political reform. They ushered into the governor’s mansion men like Sam Jones, who worked to clean up some of the destruction left behind by the Long political machine. …

The trouble with reform candidates and honest politics, it seems, is that they are just too boring for the Louisiana electorate to put up with for more than a few years at a time. And because state law prohibited a governor from succeeding himself, elections had a tendency to swing between extremes. The 1948 election once again pitted reform candidates against the Long machine, this time represented by Huey's brother Earl. According to good-government advocate Sam Jones, it was a clear choice between 'progress or depravity.' Louisiana chose depravity.
….Like Huey, Earl continued building new roads, schools and hospitals. He also ordered enlargement of the state's mental asylums.

But while Governor Long plied the politics of bread and circuses, corruption grew from his open alliance with the kingpins of organized crime, such as Frank Costello and Carlos Marcello. In exchange for enormous campaign contributions, Earl Long allowed prostitution and illegal gambling to flourish. In brazen disregard for the law, Louisiana became a center for casino gambling in the late 1940s and 1950s, attracting some of the highest rollers and hottest nightclub acts in the country.

…the Long legacy contributed heavily to another tradition that dates back to colonial times: Louisiana's casual acceptance that corruption in government is as inevitable as red beans and rice on Mondays."

From "Louisiana: An Illustrated History"
By Charles Richard
© 2003 Foundation for Excellence in Louisiana Public Broadcasting

Such notorious behavior has not gone unnoticed in the national media. Each succeeding scandal clarified in people's minds the image that in Louisiana, anything goes. In case you think this is all old news, in 2000, Louisiana led the nation in federal public corruption cases with 32 convictions. In our recent past, an attorney general, an agriculture commissioner, an elections commissioner, state judges, two state senators [including a Senate President], and three insurance commissioners in a row have been convicted on bribery or other serious charges. Scores of parish officials have also been convicted of various forms of corruption. Currently, four term governor Edwin Edwards is serving 10 years in federal prison for racketeering.

Outpost of Barbarism

Ann Chynoweth directs the Animal Fighting & Cruelty Campaign at the Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society has been paying a lot of attention to Louisiana recently, now that it is the only state in the union that still allows cockfighting. She says that no state wants to be associated with animal cruelty, especially Louisiana. According to Chynoweth, that’s because, "The whole country is looking at Louisiana and seeing how it's working on its rehabilitation and recovery effort. It does not want to be associated with this barbaric activity."

Being cast as the home of barbarians makes the task of selling Louisiana all the more difficult for the state's marketers. This particularly true when we are depending on the compassion of others to assist in the difficult and very expensive recovery efforts now underway or planned in the future. [Recently, both chambers of the 2007 Louisiana Legislature passed bills that would ban cockfighting.]

The Bottom of the List[s]

Unfortunately, Louisiana finds itself at -- or near -- the bottom of a number of "National Lists." These are often produced by non-profit organizations [and government agencies] interested in a particular field or area of concern. Lists on which Louisiana fares badly include: Poverty, Number of Uninsured, Health, Education and Business.

Louisiana made the bottom of two health lists [Morgan Quitno Press and United Health], in part because of its ranking on the poverty list. According to the U.S. Census, Louisiana is the second poorest state in the nation. Health and poverty – especially child poverty -- are closely linked.

Not All Bad

Despite its flaws – which are not unique to Louisiana – the state is doing many things right. In education, it has been recognized as a leader in student accountability. In health care, smoking rates have declined. There are many examples of the state working to improve itself. Here’s a selection of favorable rankings in the area of governance:

The Center for Digital Government ranked Louisiana 2nd in Digital Democracy, based on access to laws, candidate information and electronic voting technologies, in its 2002 Digital State Survey. Louisiana also climbed from 25th to 17th for E-commerce and Business Regulation, which evaluates the availability of business information, the ability to conduct business online, and the status of portals and e-procurement systems (The Center for Digital Government, August 2002). http://www.centerdigitalgov.com/center/02top25states-pt2.phtml

Louisiana is ranked 3rd in the nation in the percentage of accessibility to public and private institutions (Lumina Foundation, January 2002). http://www.luminafoundation.org/monographs/states.shtml

Louisiana has maintained its B- grade over the past three years in the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs annual ranking of state government performance. (Maxwell School, 2001). http://governing.com/gpp/gp1la.htm

For a longer list of "Louisiana Positives," go to these websites:

http://senate.legis.state.la.us/CommunicationOffice/positives/2007louisianapositives.htm

http://www.sec.state.la.us/positives/index.htm

What We Can Do

Several people interviewed for this report had strikingly similar things to say about the importance of what Louisianans think about themselves. It seems that how we view the state can have a big impact on how others view Louisiana.

Michael Olivier, head of the Louisiana Department of Economic Development:
"We've got to convince our own people in Louisiana to speak positively about Louisiana. And that's going to be our best testimony. People from outside, certainly, we need to influence their opinion, and we've got to find ways, traditional ways and non-traditional ways to influence that opinion. But it's really about the people, and so we just need to have our Louisianans speaking positively about Louisiana.”

Stacey Simmons, Director of the Red Stick International Animation Festival:
"I think most Louisianans think that 'we can't do it.' I think most Louisianans think we're too small; we're too backward; we're too redneck. We can't do it. And that's simply not true. It's just absolutely not true. And I think we have a huge responsibility to the people of this state to overcome that perception in the minds of our own people."

Steven Procopio, PhD, LSU Public Policy Research Lab:
"What we found, and we found throughout a lot of our surveying, is that what people in the state think closely matches what people outside the state think. And if we want to change our image outside, we have to be sure everyone inside the state is on the same page and saying the positive things that exist about Louisiana. I think that's going to be a very positive force in changing our image in the rest of the country."

Stacey summed up the difference between "image" and "reality." She said, "When you're talking about really changing things, perception and reality are both required. You can't have one without the other. You can't say that you're going to have this perception out there that we're a New Media center, and really, we're not. You have to be able to back it up." The challenge for Louisiana and its citizens is to create and maintain a state that lives up to the most positive image attainable.

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