Whiff of cocaine scandal haunts mayor who cleaned up Big Easy

David Usborne on the New Orleans success story marred by drug claims
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The Independent Online
ANOTHER evening and another gawdy, giddy parade threaded its way down Bourbon Street in the New Orleans French Quarter. There were dancers in yellow jumpsuits and outrageous hats, a brass band and, leading the whole commotion, a young black gentleman with a neat pencil moustache and a mighty smile.

It is two months since voters in New Orleans re-elected Marc Morial by a landslide to a second four-year term as mayor and last week, at just 40, he was on his way to his swearing-in ceremony.

Few politicians in the United States can claim to be sitting as comfortably as Mr Morial, whose father "Dutch" Morial became the city's first black mayor 20 years ago. In February he won 78 per cent of the vote, largely because over four years he has presided over the transformation of New Orleans from a city demoralised by decay and horrifying crime to one of regained pride and even prosperity.

While he has been helped by external circumstance - economic growth and falling crime rates have boosted countless US cities - Mr Morial's success has attracted attention even in London, as it prepares to elect a mayor of its own. On a visit to Britain last month, Mr Morial attended Prime Minister's Question Time and toured Tower Hamlets. He was there to learn but also to share his knowledge on urban policy.

This being being the Big Easy, however, with its reputation for free- wheeling morals and carnal appetites, the whiff of scandal is never absent. Four years after seemingly beating back allegations that he once checked into a hospital suffering from a cocaine overdose, Mr Morial finds himself confronted with the issue all over again.

For that he has Kevin Smith to thank. Mr Smith, a long-time friend, was arrested recently and charged with buying cocaine on a street corner. Mr Morial was forced into swift action. He fired his friend. Two days later, he announced he and all 250 of the city officials who are his political appointees are to undergo mandatory drugs tests. He has promised the tests will be finished by the end of this week and that the results will be made public.

The Mayor insists there is no connection between the Smith incident and his decision to order the drugs screenings. Obligatory tests for all civil servants as well as welfare recipients is already the law on the state level. But some observers suspect Mr Morial is acting to protect himself, and his aspirations for future office beyond New Orleans, from further damage from the cocaine allegations.

"When one of your top people gets busted, you have no choice but to get rid of him and take action," commented Jim Carvin, a New Orleans political consultant who worked for Mr Morial on both his campaigns. He noted, however, that not everyone was taking the drugs testing and the mid-May deadline overly seriously: "He has certainly given them long enough to get it out of their systems".

As he did four years ago, Mr Morial furiously denies the alleged hospital visit ever took place. "It was all absolutely phoney," he told The Independent. "It came up as an an orchestrated effort to try to assassinate my character". He says his experience shows how personal invective has hi-jacked the political process in America. He likens it to the sexual allegations thrown at President Bill Clinton. "We live in an era where too much of politics is personal - personal attacks, family attacks, personal relationships, sexual relationships marriages," he said. The result is people are afraid to enter politics.

"Nowadays, when someone decides to run, they're going to get asked all these questions when they go for interview by their party people: 'Now, have you ever committed adultery, have you ever had extra-marital sex?' It used to be, 'Did you ever steal?'"

But Mr Morial may be living proof of the fact that however poisonous the attacks, voters will be unimpressed if the politician does a decent job. And the job done by Mr Morial has been decent. He and the police chief he imported from Washington, Richard Pennington, have tamed a crime epidemic which, after the murders of two Britons, was beginning to keep tourists away. While there were 425 killings here in 1994, almost one homicide per 1,000 people in the city, the figure was down to 266 last year.

Now Mr Morial has four years more. The law forbids him from running for a third term. He jokes about serving as the future mayor of London. "You know, after the Prime Minster, that person will be the most powerful person in your country. So if the budget is good and if they show me a nice building for the Mayor to live in, I'll think about it. I'm sure I'd get nice support from the Queen".