Nick Glunt | Staff Writer
Donna Brazile’s sister Sheila, who had suffered from a benign yet mentally debilitating brain tumor, lived in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Sheila, as Brazile said, had the mental capacity of a child as a result of the tumor.
Brazile expected the government’s policy to be to evacuate the elderly and people with disabilities before anybody else. That, she said, was not the case.
Unable to get Sheila released to leave the area, Brazile explained to Sheila exactly what needed to be done in her home.
“Sheila, I want you to fill your bathtub with water,” Brazile said.
“OK, Donna,” Sheila said.
“Sheila, do you have candles?”
“Do you have canned goods?”
“Sheila, stay there,” Brazile said. “Somebody will come and get you.”
A week passed by with no communication. Brazile contacted the White House, the Red Cross and others — all of them told her the elderly and people with disabilities weren’t the top priority for evacuation.
So Brazile appeared nationally on “Wolf Blitzer Reports.” She showed pictures of her sister. She supplied an address. She explained the situation.
Later that day, Sheila was rescued.
“I tell you this story because Katrina was the worst, the most difficult hardship in my entire life,” Brazile said. “It was humbling; it was humiliating.”
Brazile presented this story as part of her 10:45 a.m. lecture Friday in the Amphitheater. She was the fifth and final speaker in Week Five’s topic, “21st Century Women: The Road to Social and Economic Growth.”
As a political strategist, Brazile has worked on several presidential campaigns. Most notably, she was Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000; she was the first African-American to manage a major presidential campaign. She also served as interim chair of the Democratic National Convention.
Brazile replaced U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La., as Friday’s speaker. Landrieu was unable to speak because of the current debt-limit bill debate in Congress. Brazile and Landrieu have been friends and colleagues for many years.
Brazile spoke about the events following Hurricane Katrina, during which many of her family members and friends were displaced from Louisiana.
Hurricane Katrina, as most Americans know, devastated parts of Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 2005, causing $81 billion in property damage. Looting, displaced refugees, oil spills and more than 1,800 deaths resulted.
Born and raised in Louisiana herself, Brazile was forced to watch from Washington, D.C., while her family struggled against the hurricane. She did what she could to help; she tracked the whereabouts of different members of her family to let others know everybody was safe — or if they weren’t.
While working for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Brazile was asked to confer with President George W. Bush — something she did not want to do. In the end, she agreed. She recognized the need for federal aid in rebuilding Louisiana. Though she did not agree with his policies, Brazile grew to respect him and his administration.
“For the last five and a half years, we have been fighting for the recovery of our state,” Brazile said. “We have been fighting to rebuild Louisiana safer and smarter and stronger. It’s been a difficult road to recovery. … Louisiana will once again be a state you can be proud of.”
After discussing the evacuations of her family from Hurricane Katrina’s path, Brazile changed her focus. With her political background, she was able to give an inadvertent preview of Week Seven’s topic, “The U.S. Economy: Beyond a Quick Fix.”
She called the extreme bipartisanship in Washington, D.C., a “children’s game.” The two parties refuse to come to a compromise, she said, and instead keep pushing to get everything they want.
“I’ve been inside Washington for 30 years,” Brazile said, “and let me tell you, I have never seen Washington so dysfunctional.”
She asked why the parties can’t come to an agreement, even though the “difference between the two parties is so miniscule.” The solution, she said, is to get more women in politics.
“See, the men are talking about cutting; we can carve,” she said. “While they’re slashing, we know how to do a little filleting. You know.”
Women represent less than 20 percent of lawmakers. She said if there were more women in politics, there wouldn’t be these “silly games.” Furthermore, she said, women use more common sense, which allows voters to trust them more.
With more women, she said, solving this budget crisis would go much more smoothly.
The U.S. debt is currently $14.3 trillion. Democrats and Republicans each have agreed only to about $2 trillion in budget cuts so far, she said. The partisanship, she added, is “no longer helpful.”
The bigger problem, she said, is that there’s a lack of civil public discourse. In such a diverse country, she added, conversation between differing people should be easy.
“Once upon a time,” Brazile said, “it was wonderful to wear these wonderful labels — you’ll notice I wore red today. All right, so what? I’m a Democrat. So what? I’m a Republican. So what? I’m independent. You know what? I’m an American.”
Q: Is the solution to the issues in Washington term limits? This questioner asked how this could be achieved.
A: That’s one way of looking at it, but that’s a cop-out. The solution is to get people to vote in the primaries. The solution is to open up primaries to both political parties and independents. The solution is to ensure that money doesn’t override common sense. And the solution is to encourage normal citizens to run for office. One of the problems with women — and by the way, women who run for office are more qualified than men — I’m speaking of educational attainment. So women, when they come to the table, they come to the table, most women, after they’ve turned 40 or 50, after their “child-bearing years,” because they believe voters penalize them, and there’s some truth to that. If they are too young, often they have to deal with family demands, family preparation, but the truth of the matter is if we go back and look at our political system, the only problem with our political system is not that these people stay in office for 20, 30 years. The problem is that we don’t have enough people who take time out to vote in the primaries. Therefore, when we get to the general election, we’re stuck with two bad choices and people say, “I don’t want to vote for that.” But then, guess what, by sitting home, you vote. By not getting involved, you vote. And by this outpouring of Citizens United, I believe is going to be one of the worst things that ever happened to American politics — when corporate voices now dilute the voices of ordinary citizens, when corporations can spend billions and billions of dollars without disclosing the money that they’re putting into the system. I mean, we almost have an information vacuum, but at the same time, we’re overloaded with information, but most of it is misinformation. So we need more people in the process engaged as voters, as citizens, so that they can hold those who are elected accountable. Every two years, we get to throw — or, excuse me — we get to decide who we want to keep in office.
Q: Can you talk about the role of lobbyists in Washington? It seems as if they are less of a player in what’s going on right now.
A: Why do you think Washington is so messy now? So let me tell you how the game work. The reason why I can tell you how this game work is because I’m not a lobbyist, and I’ve resisted being a lobbyist. I’ve only lobbied once in my political life, and that’s when I first moved to Washington, and I was a lobbyist for Pell Grant programs, student aid programs, because I thought it was important to keep those programs alive, because back then, Ronald Reagan had threatened to cut them. But here’s how it works: I spent 10 years on Capitol Hill. I was a pretty senior staffer. After 10 years, I worked for Al Gore, I come out, my Rolodex is really, really thick, and I know leaders of both political parties. So the first thing, I get a call saying, “Donna, I’d like you to lobby.” Oh really? And you get $35, $40, $50 thousand a month. On average. And that’s if you are a, what I call a B+. An A+ can get as much as $100,000 to lobby. But here’s what I tell my friends. I can’t lobby against my own interests, and I don’t want to lobby to hurt my country or to prevent something from happening that is probably good for the American people. But you have lobbyists involved in the process. And remember, when members of Congress are elected, the first thing that happens is that they go on K Street, the lobbyists, for fundraisers. I’m in a building on G Street. G. You can look it up. My office is on G, not K. Which means that you don’t come to my office, and I don’t fix sandwiches and raise $1,000,000 a pop for you. It’s a two-way street. So you have members of Congress and former Congressional staffers now lobbying their colleagues for a hefty price. So one of the reasons why Washington is a city that uses traffic circles to get people around is because you have this illusion that things are moving when you’re just moving in a circle. This is the transportation equivalent of politics, and when you get to an intersection, you’re still moving in circles. It’s because we keep re-circulating the same people, and nothing gets done, and that’s why we’re in constant gridlock.
Q: Why were Katrina evacuees held hostage and not allowed to leave facilities?
A: Because I think we were in uncharted territory, and remember, you’re basically evacuating a large American city. And I don’t think people understood, especially government, what to do. Because that never happened before in our history, at least our recent history. We had a flood back in the 1920s, a food in the 1930s. We’ve had earthquakes; we’ve had other things, but this is a big city, and I think a big city that had to be evacuated. And I think this was one way the government could try to keep some accounting of those who had been evacuated. Because, after all, the government was also responsible for feeding and trying to house people all over the country as well. That’s the nice way of putting it. The other way is that this was by some estimation treatment of poor people, especially people of color, in ways that were less than humane. And I say that because I never went out there and pointed fingers — I don’t believe that’s the right way to handle a crisis. But I can tell you as someone who saw it up close and personal, many of my relatives and others were placed into facilities that to this day they’re still ill. because it was formaldehyde-laced trailers, placed in facilities where the kids developed asthma, and they still have chronic health problems as a result of where the government took them. And if you didn’t have resources, you couldn’t get your family back home. Many of them were stuck. They’re still stuck. I have a brother in South Carolina — luckily, he has a job — and his wife just had a little baby, but it was hard to get people back home because, remember, if you were a homeowner, you had resources; you had insurance. Remember you had to have two insurances. You had to have flood as well as wind. The insurance agencies said, “No, it wasn’t the flood that caused this; it was the wind.” Then they said, “No, it wasn’t the flood that caused it; it was the wind. No, it wasn’t the wind that caused it; it was the flood.” But imagine if you were a renter. You had nothing. The house was flooded. The landlord was struggling with the insurance companies, and the government made another hurdle, because if your home value pre-Katrina was worth X amount, and post-Katrina Y, for many poor residents, their home value pre-Katrina was worth, say, $30,000, but post-Katrina, it was worth $80,000. But the government only gave you $25,000 to rebuild your house. There was a lot of discrimination built into the system, and I’m saying that in a very nice, political way.
Q: Have we learned from Katrina something about the proper role of the state versus the federal government in such disasters?
A: No question. Since the storm, we have put together a very important evacuation plan, not only evacuating people in the higher levels, but the lower lot areas. But I do believe as a result of Katrina, and you saw this during the run-up to Rita and then Gustav and Ike, we’ve had some other hurricanes, that we know how to evacuate people much better. But ultimately, it is a function not just to the government, but also individuals, to also have what I call a hurricane evacuation program and a hurricane evacuation strategy. I’ve talked to all my family, and I have to tell you a story. At the end of the day, I decided last year — ‘cause its hard; it’s really hard, after Hurricane Gustav and Ike in 2008, and once again, my family had to get evacuated, and that’s like putting your credit card out to 13 different locations all over the country. I said I have a solution. I’m going to buy a safe house. You know what a safe house is? It’s above sea level, and if the storm come, run. So I bought a safe house. Everybody needs a safe house. But many people cannot afford a safe house. So we will always have to come up with plans in the city of New Orleans. We have a great mayor, by the way; his last name is Landrieu too — I wonder if that’s a family thing. Mitch Landrieu and the last mayor, Ray Nagin, really did institute what I believe to be some really effective evacuation plans for the future.
Q: Is it true that the levees have only been restored for a level-3 and not a level-5 hurricane?
A: That is true in part because of the resources allowed, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have decided that some of the level-3 levees are better suited for the areas that they’re in. The city’s like a bowl, and in the bowl, they’ve closed MRGO, which is this Mississippi River outlet that flooded most of the Ninth Ward. They resurrected some of the barriers and the Industrial Canal area that flooded New Orleans East and they, rather than put them what I call about 12, 13 feet in the ground, they did 25, so it’s a level 3 not a level 5. But a level 5 would cost us another $5 to $7 billion and, as you know, we’re in a period of austerity, and everybody would like to appropriate that funding for our recovery efforts.
Q: Do you think that Tea Party activist members of Congress are different?
A: Yes. And let me say this. I’m not one who has spent a lot of my political capital or time on TV calling people silly names. It doesn’t make sense. Here’s why they’re different. They really believe, many of them — I should say, all of them right now — they believe their mandate was to come to Washington and cut the size of government. They believe that the voters sent them, all 83 of them, to stop Washington from its wild and wicked ways. Now the problem is that yes, Washington has a spending problem. But as I mentioned, we also have a revenue problem. And part of the revenue problem is that this is the first time in the country’s history that when you’re at war, we lowered taxes. So how do you pay for the war? Now President Obama, again, when President Obama took the stage in Washington, D.C., he decided not to put the war fund on a separate book. He decided to put the war funding with all the other funding, thereby changing the math, the arithmetic. So once President Obama put the war funding on the books, then the amount of our deficit went from 10.6 to where it is today. It’s 14.3, and by the way, we’ve already exceeded the debt limit ceiling. So the Tea Party’s saying we want to bring it back to the levels of 2008. Well, my friends, we spent the money. We committed the troops. We’ve already got the programs in place. We can’t go back to 2008 overnight. It will take time. Now, we could go back overnight, but that would — and this is where people like me shout, “That’s unfair.” It’s not fair to our seniors, who are dependent on Social Security and Medicare. It’s unfair to our young people. It’s unfair to our veterans. It’s unfair to our country to just cut without understanding the implications of cutting back to 2008. We’re going to have to find a way to balance our federal budget over the next 10 years the way we have destroyed it over the past 10. But we’re going to have to wind down the wars. I find it ironic that we’re giving President Karzai more money to rebuild his schools than we’re giving President Obama to keep his open, but that’s another story. The real problem is our modern political landscape is one that has built-in structures or built-in incentives for instability. And the Tea Party understands that. They know that they can slow this down. And they’re doing it.
– Transcribed by Elora Tocci