N.O. aims to hook presidential nominees with online forum

Published 10:17 am Tuesday, April 29, 2008

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Spurned by the commission that selects sites for presidential debates, New Orleans is going into cyberspace to hold its own forum after this summer’s Democrat and Republican conventions.

State officials plan to host the forum in September using Google and YouTube technology, and turn the city into a window onto national issues and opportunities.

Gov. Bobby Jindal said Tuesday that the focus will be “a discussion of the many challenges facing not just New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but our entire country.”

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Set for Sept. 18 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the forum would bring the nation’s next president to the site of some of the most severe suffering after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. In the sweltering heat that followed the storm, thousands waited for days at the mile-long convention center for rescue.

The forum highlights the influence technology, and especially Google and YouTube, are exerting on the nation’s political life. A similar format was used earlier in the campaign. People asked questions for the candidates in homemade videos submitted via YouTube for CNN debates last year.

Ginny Hunt, a Google spokeswoman, said specifics on how the New Orleans forum would take place would be decided by the presidential nominees’ campaigns. So far, the candidates have not committed to participate, but Hunt said the Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain have shown to be “great examples of how one can use technology to engage people and politics.”

“We’ve talked to the campaigns and at this point we’re all waiting to see how the Democratic nomination works out,” Hunt said.

In November, New Orleans’ ego was bruised when it was passed over as a site for a presidential debate by a bipartisan commission that selects cities for the official debates. Instead, the commission chose the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

City leaders lambasted the commission for saying the city was not ready for a prime-time event. New Orleans has held numerous major events since the hurricane, most recently a summit of the chiefs of state of the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Anne Milling, founder of the Katrina activist group Women of the Storm and a spearhead for efforts to get a presidential forum, said the online format would be a plus.

“This is truly the avant garde, cutting-edge approach to presidential politics,” Milling said.

Instead of dwelling on “the past, the quagmire of Katrina,” she said the forum would be a forward-looking occasion to highlight the city’s fortitude and the blossoming of new ideas here.

“We are symbolic of what is right and good in America,” she said.

In Katrina’s wake, New Orleans has become a city with a divided soul, marching to the tune of both progress and tradition.

A new charter school system has been touted as remaking the troubled public school system and the city likes to portray itself as a laboratory for new housing designs and technology.

Yet, attempts to bring New Orleans into the mainstream are consistently met with resistance and the entrenched attitudes of a place known for its slow, joyful approach to life.