Sunday, October 30, 2005

Governor faults White House over rebuilding


Governor faults White House over rebuilding

By Michael Depp

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (Reuters) - Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, flanked by veteran Democratic activists and a union leader, criticized the Bush administration on Saturday for allowing hurricane rebuilding contracts to go to out-of-state firms and low-wage workers.

Speaking to a rally of about 1,000 union members and activists from the steps of the state Capitol, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton also charged the White House with using the crisis to remake the state's political map by discouraging the return of displaced blacks.

Jackson urged residents of the overwhelmingly black Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans to return.

"Somebody is accountable," he said. "Don't give up. You have the right to return, the right to reclaim and the right to reconstruct."

Blanco, a Democrat who has faced criticism for her own response to the August 29 hurricane, attempted to deflect widespread anger from local workers who complain they have been shut out of federal contracts in favor of larger, better-connected companies.

Noting some $300 million in unemployment insurance had been paid out in the state since the storm, Blanco said the initial White House decision to suspend wage protections had compounded the Louisiana problems.

"We had already been devastated by a hurricane," she said. "We did not need to be hurt to out-of-state companies giving incredibly low wages to workers outside of Louisiana. I must have said that long enough and hard enough because this week President Bush changed his mind."

Earlier this week, President George W. Bush lifted an emergency order that had allowed federal contractors rebuilding after Katrina to pay less than the area's prevailing wage.

In September, Bush waived provisions of the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act that requires federal contractors to pay, at a minimum, an area's prevailing wage.

The suspension of the prevailing wage protection prompted protests from Republican and Democratic lawmakers.


AFL-CIO President John Sweeney hailed the reversal as a political victory, but said the Bush administration had "broken faith with the God-fearing hard-working families of our country."

"While New Orleans workers and their families were trapped in filthy shelters, they doled out billion of dollars for no-bid contracts so out-of-state companies could import low-wage workers to jack up their profits," Sweeney said.

Some black New Orleans residents, including those from the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, have charged their concerns have been overlooked in a rebuilding effort dominated by business interests, a theme taken up by both Jackson and Sharpton, who also accused the White House of seeking to change the state's political make-up.

"The crisis is not an opportunity to change the character of Louisiana's political order. We must not use the crisis to turn Louisiana into a red state -- this is a rainbow state," Jackson said.

Speaking of Bush's senior adviser Karl Rove, Jackson said, "His agenda is political restructuring."

Sharpton said, "It is hypocritical to mourn the death of Rosa Parks and then try to relocate Rosa Parks' children." Parks, a black seamstress who helped spark the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man 50 years ago, died on Monday.

"Just like Rosa Parks wouldn't move, you can't move. Keep your seat. Bechtel's trying to take your seat. Sit in your seat," Sharpton said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded a unit of San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. a no-bid contract with a $100 million ceiling for rebuilding after Katrina. FEMA said last month the contract would be opened to competition.