Friday, April 06, 2007

Gov. Bill Richardson: Passing Grade on New Orleans, but no Flying Colors

I had the chance to talk with presidential candidate Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) about rebuilding the Gulf Coast yesterday. He spoke to several hundred people at Dartmouth College, and then met with La Alianza Latina and the College Democrats. It was at this reception where I asked him about New Orleans. It will eventually be on C-Span.

Overall, I give Richardson a B/B-. He seemed like he was definitely concerned about New Orleans and had a passing knowledge of the issue, but hadn’t fully thought it through the way a presidential candidate should. He said most of the right things, but all his answers had flaws. Katrina is also nowhere to be found on his website, though I find that that’s sadly true for most of the candidates.

I asked Richardson if he was familiar with the Road Home program – and believe it or not, he was! He said it has paid only 10% of applicants – that number is a little inflated, but at least he understood how dismal a failure the official rebuilding program has been. I asked him what he would do if he was President, and he basically said three things:

1) He would make a financial commitment to rebuilding the Gulf Coast.
2) He would take FEMA out of the Dept. of Homeland Security and have it report directly to the President.
3) He would work to cut the red tape.

These are all three good answers, but all three have problems. First, I’m not looking for a candidate to promise a financial commitment – the commitment has already been made. Allocating money isn’t the problem; getting it to the people who need it is. Second, while FEMA does need to report to the President rather than the Secretary of Homeland Security, that has more to do with the storm's immediate aftermath than it does current rebuilding issues. It will help prevent this type of disaster again, but it doesn't really address rebuilding issues. Third, while cutting red tape is indeed the most important thing that can be done, the example or red tape Richardson cited was something else that happened immediately after the storm: He wanted to send the New Mexico National Guard to Louisiana, and it took the feds five days to get back to him on the subject. I’m glad Richardson wanted to send his troops, but again, that addresses the storm’s aftermath, not the current rebuilding issues.

It was impressive that Richardson knows red tape is the main problem. Unfortunately, his examples of the National Guard, DHS, and financial commitment did not demonstrate a full understanding of the red tape. I can’t say I blame him – as Governor of New Mexico and an expert on foreign affairs, Katrina is not something he has any control over. Nevertheless, he is a presidential candidate, and presidential candidates need to be held to a higher standard. Take Joe Biden – as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his time is also taken up by other issues, but he showed a much better understanding of the red tape, and demonstrated real aggressiveness about cutting it.

I also want to point out that Google searches of Richardson’s website for the terms “New Orleans” and “Gulf Coast” turn up nothing. “Katrina” only comes up once, and it’s in a sentence with Iraq. Unfortunately, this seems to be par the course for all the candidates, and isn't anything special about Richardson.

Finally, check out this webpage to learn about what Gov. Richardson did for the Gulf Coast in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina. Like some of his answers to my question, it’s irrelevant to current rebuilding issues, but still worth knowing.

My conclusion: Richardson is aware of Road Home, knows the real problem is bureaucracy, and does seem to understand the issue’s importance. That's a good start, but it isn’t perfect: he needs more specifics on HOW to cut red tape, like Biden has, and his examples shouldn't all be about the original aftermath when askied about current rebuilding. Overall, I just don’t think Gov. Richardson’s grasp on the issue is as strong as we might like. It felt as if he was concerned and had a passing knowledge of the issue, but hadn’t fully thought it through the way a presidential candidate should. Still, it’s a start. He’s definitely ahead of Dodd on the issue, and for the time being Edwards and Obama (I hope to revisit my analysis of those two later), but he lacks the deeper understanding Biden demonstrated. Overall, B/B-. I'd make it a solid B if he were able to focus more on current problems.

Candidates on NOLA (so far):
Biden: A-/B+
Richardson: B/B-
Obama: C+
Edwards: C-/D+
Dodd: D-

I do hope to revisit my Edwards and Obama critiques soon – I’ve learned a little more about Edwards on the issue, and hopefully I can learn more about the specifics Obama claims to have but wouldn’t discuss in Durham a couple months ago. I also hope to write a review about Clinton, but I haven’t seen her in person yet. If I get the chance, I’ll critique the Republican candidates, but I don’t come across them as often as I do the Democrats, who have a better chance of winning in 2008 anyway.

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