2006.04.03: April 3, 2006: Headlines: Figures: COS - Dominican Republic: Politics: City Government: Election2006 - Boulet: New Orleans Times-Picayune: Dominican Republic RPCV Virginia Boulet is candidate for mayor of New Orleans

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Dominican Republic RPCV Virginia Boulet is candidate for mayor of New Orleans

Dominican Republic RPCV Virginia Boulet is candidate for mayor of New Orleans

Boulet's plan for rebuilding devastated homes involves speeding up the city's timeline for turning over blighted lots west of the Industrial Canal to new owners, a direct challenge to Nagin's contention that the processes of taking blighted property should not be rushed.

Dominican Republic RPCV Virginia Boulet is candidate for mayor of New Orleans

Virginia Boulet: Fed-up lawyer wants to renew city
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
By Michelle Krupa
Staff writer

A month after Hurricane Katrina swept New Orleans' corporate players out of the city's downtown office towers, leaders of about 45 displaced companies gathered in Houston to plan their next step.

Representing law firms, oil-and-gas ventures, banks and top-tier restaurants, the executives chose four issues -- flood safety, public education, fiscal responsibility and the business environment -- to broach with Mayor Ray Nagin when he visited them in Texas. His responses, several of the executives recalled recently, would help direct their decisions about moving back to New Orleans.

Among those setting the terms of the discourse was Virginia Boulet, a corporate attorney and a director of W&T Offshore, a Gulf Coast oil and natural gas company that had relocated about 125 workers and their families to Houston.

Waiting for Nagin, who days before the October meeting had unveiled a short-lived plan to revive Canal Street with gambling halls in major hotels, Boulet said she hoped the mayor would deliver solid answers to the group's fundamental questions.

"But what he talked about was the hole in his operating budget," Boulet said. "He didn't mention coastal restoration. He was not up to date on the levee restorations. . . . His vision was for Las Vegas."

Boulet was dismayed that Nagin did not report on the Army Corps of Engineers' progress, the pace of public school recovery or the mounting momentum of charter schools. And Boulet questioned why Nagin was heading from Houston to Washington to seek more money to run the ruined city, after federal officials had said they would not subsidize a local government's daily operations.

"My company, at least, didn't hear what we wanted to hear to bring our people home," she said.

Leaving the meeting, Boulet, who had never run for public office, made a bold decision: She would run for mayor.

She decided that under her direction, New Orleans' revival would adopt the efficiency and authority needed to convince companies and families like hers to come back home. Her strategies: Take control of the multitiered governmental response to Katrina, and look past Capitol Hill to Wall Street to seek swift investment in the city's future.

Her candidacy was the latest in a string of daring steps that has carried Boulet, 52, from her father's crawfish farm in Larose to the halls of Yale University, then on to volunteer service in the Dominican Republic, marriage and motherhood, the cutthroat world of corporate law, the executive office of a struggling dot-com and finally into the crowded field of candidates vying to be the next mayor of New Orleans.

"The bigger the challenge, the better for Gin," said Melanie Boulet, a teacher, member of the Lafourche Parish School Board and Virginia Boulet's younger sister. "This is a challenge to first get enough name recognition, then the campaign, then the prospect of serving as mayor. But she loves New Orleans. I can't picture my sister living in that city if it's broken."

'Clear legal mind'

The oldest of six children born over nine years, Virginia Boulet always was acutely aware of her obligations inside the house and of the tumultuous world spinning outside the front door.

Melanie Boulet recalled listening from her bedroom one night as her father answered a phone call from the local sheriff, who reported that her sister, then a teenager, had been hauled to the Lafourche Parish jail after refusing to leave a restaurant that would not serve her African-American friend.

"If you think that's a crime, then you keep her," Jimmy Boulet told the officer, according to Melanie Boulet, who found out later that their dad had blessed the protest in advance. The sheriff eventually delivered Virginia Boulet by squad car to the family farm.

"She always had a clear legal mind," Melanie Boulet said. "My sister knew how to bring pressure to a situation."

After abiding by her parents' rule that all children leave the house at age 18, Virginia Boulet graduated from Yale, then joined the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. When she returned, she taught English to Vietnamese immigrants in eastern New Orleans, then earned a law degree from Tulane University.

Honing her skills in corporate and securities law, Boulet always was loath to admit defeat, even as she balanced work with raising four children. Harvey Perry, a former executive vice president of CenturyTel, a Monroe telecommunications company for which he and Boulet still serve as directors, recalled Boulet's negotiations with another attorney over a CenturyTel stock offering.

"Virginia was eight months pregnant, and they were at a printer's office in Dallas. They had worked all night long, Virginia with her feet propped up because they were swollen, and the other attorney said he had to call his office," Perry recalled. When the lawyer returned three hours later, Perry said, Boulet was furious.

" 'You took a shower! And you went to sleep!' she said to him. But she stayed until the job was done. She wasn't going to let him wear her out," Perry said.

Caution urged

Perseverance in the private sector, however, does not always translate into success in public office. Former Jefferson Parish President Tim Coulon, who worked with Boulet when he was a lobbyist at the law firm of Adams & Reese and also served with her on a committee appointed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco, said he cautioned Boulet to "be careful" with her mayoral aspirations.

"Being a business candidate, what happens is you try to run government as much as a business as you possibly can. But it's not a business," Coulon said. "There's regulatory issues on the federal and state level that sometimes overcome good business practices.

"Even though the mayor of New Orleans is strong, it's not a one-person game," he said. "It takes a tremendous amount of consensus-building to come to the initiatives that are going to . . . rebuild our region. CEOs make decisions, and people live by them."

Not that CEOs can't be consensus builders. Rick Bachmann, chairman and chief executive of Energy Partners, a New Orleans oil-and-gas exploration and production company, said that during his firm's exile in Houston, he saw Boulet corral dozens of tycoon-types in the name of New Orleans' resurrection.

"Her style is very much working within the egos in the room," he said. "You've got a bunch of 'A' personalities sitting around a table, and everybody wants to dominate a discussion, and we were able to pretty much get people to work together. She was very good (at) working with the parties and clearly showing a creative side."

A political blip

Boulet's entrance into the mayoral race amounted to little more than a blip on the political radar screen. By the time she qualified to run in early March, a pair of leading challengers to Nagin -- Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Audubon Nature Institute CEO Ron Forman -- had been peddling their messages and filling their campaign war chests for weeks.

But in short order, Boulet, a Democrat, moved into the second tier of 23 contenders -- one has since dropped out -- propelled mostly by a comprehensive Web site that she personally translated into Spanish and also offers in Vietnamese. By March 13, she had also netted more than $131,000 in political contributions, a far cry from the seven-figure hauls of the top candidates but nearly double the next wealthiest cache, according to campaign finance reports.

Boulet's candidacy has sparked some political observers to compare her with Nagin, a businessman with no political background who launched himself from relative obscurity to the mayor's office in a short string of weeks in 2002. Nagin's ascent, however, profited from the missteps of his opponents, and so far, none of Boulet's rivals seem to be faltering.

Health insurance for all

Among her proposals, the most ambitious and unexpected is Boulet's push for universal health insurance as a cornerstone of the new New Orleans. She couches the initiative as an entirely plausible tool for recruiting workers back to a city that depends on ever-struggling small businesses and still has no replacement for its swamped Charity Hospital.

"How do you get people to come back here and work at Slim Goodies?" she asked last month as she waited for a breakfast of sausage and grits at the short-order diner on Magazine Street. "You offer them a better life."

Boulet's plan, however, relies on the $450 million that the state previously had doled out to run Charity, much of it received from the federal government based on the number of patients served. With the hospital shuttered and patients displaced across Louisiana, Blanco shifted some of that financing to other medical needs in the state budget. Jack Finn, president of the Metropolitan Hospital Council of New Orleans, said it's unlikely to be restored.

Because the rest of Louisiana still relies on the system's nine other charity hospitals, the political climate in Baton Rouge probably would not favor carving out a piece of the federal money for a localized public health insurance program in New Orleans, Finn said.

"The issue is not the concept of universal health insurance," he said. "It's a feel-good topic. There's very little resistance to it. But where the rubber really hits the road is: Who is going to pay for it?"

Boulet also has stressed rebuilding New Orleans on an economic foundation other than tourism, which she says has yoked the city to an unsteady industry. To distinguish her position on the issue, she lumps together the three mayoral front-runners as hopelessly trapped in an economic rut.

"They're all incessantly concentrated on tourism. And they just keep getting sillier and sillier," she said, building toward her punch line: "Now they're all building an insectarium!" -- a reference to the Audubon Nature Institute's plan to augment its zoo and aquarium with a third nature museum built with city support and state money.

Recovery plan

Boulet's plan for rebuilding devastated homes involves speeding up the city's timeline for turning over blighted lots west of the Industrial Canal to new owners, a direct challenge to Nagin's contention that the processes of taking blighted property should not be rushed.

Using tax-exempt revenue bonds, the city would turn over the lots for a $100 per-month fee to the owners of flooded homes, who would have a limited time to begin building, Boulet said. The plan would focus primarily on relocating residents from hard-hit eastern sections of the city.

She also has suggested moving the University of New Orleans off its sprawling campus along Lake Pontchartrain to the city's center as a way to fuel downtown development and to extract the educational resource from a flood-ravaged area that appears to be choking its vitality. "We need to bring UNO downtown in case tourism tanks," she said.

UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan, however, said the university is dedicated to serving as a business and social anchor for the rebuilding of lakeside neighborhoods. He said the university has returned to 73 percent of its student population and would never abandon a campus in which he said the state has invested $1 billion.

"She's obviously getting no traction in her bid for mayor," Ryan said, "so she's taking shots at one of the city's important academic institutions."

To diversify the economy, Boulet has pushed creation of an "energy park" along the Mississippi River south of New Orleans that would lease sites to refineries, natural gas terminals and other energy-related plants. It would be financed through private capital markets, a trade Boulet said she understands better than any other candidate.

"You don't just go out for bonds," she said. "You have to sell them. You have to convince people that New Orleans is coming back."

Boulet believes it is. But she insists that the city must come back in a smarter, safer, more efficient way to compete with Texas, Florida and every other evacuation point where New Orleanians are evaluating whether to stay or come home.

"If we were head-to-head, we would win every time," she said, "because this is a much better place to live."

. . . . . . .

Michelle Krupa can be reached at mkrupa@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3312.

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Story Source: New Orleans Times-Picayune

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