DNCC Delegate for Hillary Clinton from the 1st Congressional District in Louisiana and a volunteer in Denver for the national organization Catholic Democrats.org, Deborah Langhoff was interviewed as Tropical Storm Gustav was lashing Jamaica and bearing down on the Gulf Coast shores, almost exactly three years after Hurricane Katrina, by reporter Aaron Rutkoff:
"Deborah Langhoff, a convention delegate from New Orleans, wasn’t too much involved in organized politics until a few years ago. She had volunteered as an organizer for Sen. Mary Landrieu’s 2002 campaign. “Then the storm came in 2005,” she says. Her lakefront home was submerged in six feet of water, so she and her husband moved into a space they had rented for their business – choice accommodations with only two feet of water.
“After people were allowed to start moving back in the neighborhoods, I used what I had learned organizing in politics to start organizing the people around me,” she said.
Langhoff spoke with Washington Wire at the Democratic Convention about remaking her local Democratic Party in the wake of Katrina and how New Orleans recovery figures as a political issue in 2008.
WSJ: What was it like to be a Democratic Party activist in a city destroyed by a natural disaster?
Langhoff: We did DNC events that were held in rooms with no electricity, in an area that had virtually 20 people in the entire neighborhood. That was the beginning of post-Katrina politics. I thought that energy from rebuilding the city could be used to revitalize the Democratic Party, to bring new people into it.
WSJ: Did the storm change your local party?
Langhoff: We had been dominated by Bill Jefferson [a congressman under federal investigation for allegedly accepting a bribe] and his team. I thought that bringing neighborhood activists into the Democratic [Party] process could invigorate it and open it up, make it more transparent and more representative of the city as a whole. There’s a new power structure – it’s a committee and it’s truly messy democracy.
WSJ: Three years later, do you feel that issues related to Katrina and recovery from the disaster are still vibrant issues in the national debate? Is New Orleans safer?
Langhoff: Considering that there’s a major storm heading towards New Orleans, nothing feels likes it’s faded to me or to anyone in south Louisiana. We’re not going to be secure until we have 500-year flood protection.
WSJ: Clearly, you’re here as a Democrat. But do you think your candidate has really emphasized post-Katrina issues in his campaign?
Langhoff: When Sen. [Barack] Obama came to New Orleans, I would say about nine months ago, he sat in a room with 40 neighborhood activists – not necessarily political people at all. He walked in, sat in the middle of the room and said: “You thought you were coming to hear me, but I’m here to ask you questions.”
After that, a few months later, he came to Tulane [University] and demonstrated a real understanding of what was holding us back. If you look at his Web site now – and it can’t be right in front of everything, it’s not everyone’s issue – there are five pages of solid recommendations that would not only benefit New Orleans in the rebuilding, but would benefit other cities. We’re not unique. Cities are in trouble.
WSJ: If Obama wins in November, what’s the first thing you’d ask him to do for New Orleans as president?
Langhoff: An 8/29 commission, just like New York had the 9/11 commission. A real investigation into the technicalities of what worked and what didn’t, whose fault it was and where the responsibility lies – so that it never happens again. Until we do that, everybody is just going to be shouting their side of the story.
WSJ: A non-Katrina question. You came here as a Hillary Clinton delegate. Have you heard from your fellow delegates many reservations about supporting Obama?
Langhoff: Don’t see it. Not one. Somewhere there must be some, because I keep hearing about it, but the ones I know are all here to defeat John McCain. And by the way, if somebody is really a Hillary supporter they are going to do what she asks them to do – she was quite clear about it."