Danatus King says he will bring New Orleans ‘two cities’ closer together

Danatus King
Danatus King

Danatus King has two main themes on the campaign trail. He says Mayor Mitch Landrieu is presiding over a “tale of two cities,” letting poorer sections of town languish while others flourish. And he urges voters to “Google me.”

These two mantras succinctly capture King’s unlikely bid for the top job at City Hall in next month’s municipal elections.

First, King, who has led the local branch of the NAACP since 2005, is making a direct appeal to those who feel the mayor hasn’t done enough to resuscitate poor and mostly black neighborhoods.

And second, he is making that appeal with almost no money or major endorsements. Instead, he is counting on voters to search him out online, read about the positions he’s taken on the Landrieu administration and civil rights issues, and spread the news by word of mouth and social media.

If all this makes King a long shot in a race against a popular and well-financed incumbent, plus a longtime judge with some money and some prominent political allies, he seems unconcerned by the odds.

King argues it is really Michael Bagneris, who resigned from the Civil District Court bench to run last month, who is struggling to raise his profile in a short campaign season. “I don’t have to do that, plain and simple,” King said in a recent interview. “People know who I am. I’ve been in the media almost as much as the mayor.”

He added, “People know what I stand for.”

If that’s true, people also know what King stands against. One of his most high-profile decisions since taking over at the NAACP was to walk out on the committee of civic leaders formed to help Landrieu select a police chief in 2010, accusing the newly elected mayor of keeping the process overly secretive.

It was a decision that set the tone for his relationship with the new administration and helped define the role of the local NAACP branch under his leadership. King heads an organization that helped spearhead local integration efforts in the 1950s, but that — despite the prominence of its parent organization — had become nearly dormant by the time he took over in 2005.

Since then, the local NAACP has established itself as the smaller, more vocal and more anti-establishment of the city’s two major black civil rights groups.

The Urban League of Greater New Orleans is the group with the full-time staff, the group that runs a big annual schools expo at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and whose last executive director chaired the board governing Louis Armstrong International Airport.

It is King’s NAACP, with no full-time employees or even offices, that has more often raised the flag of protest: marching down Bourbon Street when businesses there came under suspicion of treating black customers poorly, demanding that New Orleans cops be required to live within the city, walking out on the mayor’s search committee.

King’s campaign itself has the air of a protest.

Invoking a city of “haves and have-nots” at a recent debate, King left no doubts about the areas he believes are in the latter category, singling out New Orleans East, Central City, the 9th Ward and other neighborhoods as having been overlooked by City Hall. Then he went a step further, adding: “We can’t have any type of apartheid.”

From one city to the next

As he tells it, King has intimate experience with both of these cities.

He was born in Charity Hospital and raised by a single mother who moved King and his five siblings to Los Angeles when they were still young. In a recent interview, he recalled early ambitions to become a mechanical engineer, but said he had second thoughts and left the University of Southern California to work on the river in New Orleans during the mid-1970s.

“At that time, laborers were making good money,” King said. He didn’t join the longshoremen’s union. Instead, he “hustled the river,” King said, waiting in the hiring halls until the union members had taken the cleaner, easier jobs and then scooping up what was left. He recalls days spent inside the hulls of oil tankers, scraping the sides clean on 100-foot ladders amid noxious fumes.

Then, King said, Louisiana passed its “right-to-work” laws, leading to a more cutthroat job market, and new shipping technology started replacing manual labor. He took the hit, along with a swath of the city’s black middle class, King said, which was “made up a good bit by longshoremen.”

So in the early 1980s, he bought a used pickup, went to Sears for a lawn mower and began rationing out each day’s gas and lunch money.

“Wherever I saw high grass, I’d knock on the door,” he said. Eventually he expanded the businesses, hiring a few workers and getting into janitorial work to keep money coming in during the cooler months.

He was already supporting a big family — by then he had six children, living in a two-story, three-bedroom house in the 9th Ward — and decided to head back to school for his undergraduate degree, attending night classes at the University of New Orleans and then Tulane University Law School.

He got his first law jobs in the early 1990s at Chaffe McCall and then Phelps Dunbar, moving suddenly from a lawn-cutting and janitorial business to some of the most prestigious law firms in town.

“I went from cleaning people’s houses to premier law firms,” he said. “A lot of times people who are in positions with those firms, they’ve come from different backgrounds and there are things that they’ve never experienced. I’ve experienced those things. I know what it’s like to come from a household where those resources really aren’t there.”

New era at the NAACP

King made an early foray into politics just a few years later. He ran unsuccessfully for the District D City Council seat in 1994 and was appointed that year to serve a stint on the local school board after one of its members left to take a job with Mayor Marc Morial’s administration.

But it wasn’t until a decade later that he got the job that has defined his role in public life.

By 2004, the local branch of the NAACP had been lying fallow for some time. The national organization held its convention in New Orleans in 2001, but it felt the local president hadn’t done enough to help organize the event and suspended him. A couple of years later, the group brought in someone from Baton Rouge to try to improve the group’s finances and build membership.

When the local branch was finally ready to hold an election and select a new local president, King went for it, competing against a consultant from a Web design company. He had already served as head of the group’s membership committee, and he won after a second round of voting, the first having resulted in a tie.

Raphael Cassimere, a retired University of New Orleans history professor who managed the election, gives King credit for stabilizing the group’s finances and restoring at least some of its historic role. Cassimere said the group faced a paradoxical challenge in more recent years, having in large part won the integration battles of the 1950s and 1960s.

“The NAACP has always been most effective as a gadfly,” he said, and King has re-established it as such.

Just months after winning the local branch’s presidency, he launched his first protest. It was June 2005 and a group of bouncers at the Razzoo Club and Patio on Bourbon Street had killed an allegedly unruly black student visiting from Georgia Southern University, raising questions about the treatment of African-American patrons on the city’s most famous strip. In 90-degree heat, King marched with a group of hundreds from City Hall to Jackson Square to chants of “No justice, no peace.”

The protest prompted the Nagin administration to make an effort, using “secret shoppers,” to see whether Bourbon Street establishments were treating everyone equitably.

Still, it is difficult to know exactly how successful King has been at restoring the local NAACP’s size and clout.

The group won’t let him give out the number of members it has in New Orleans, though he says it is now in the hundreds. The local branch has no full-time staff; King himself is an employment lawyer who does NAACP work in his spare time.

And others, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the U.S. Justice Department, have done much of the heavy lifting in landmark court cases that are bringing reforms to the Police Department and the local jail, two institutions that have a disproportionate impact on the city’s young black men.

King has been sharply critical of Landrieu’s police superintendent, Ronal Serpas. The NAACP has a whole section of its website devoted to the “Serpas Documents,” with a detailed critique of the chief. But King hasn’t been able to bring enough pressure to get him fired.

‘Tale of two cities’

Of course, were he to win next month’s election, there would not be much stopping him. Like Bagneris, Landrieu’s other challenger, King says getting rid of Serpas is a must. They both say hiring a new chief would instantaneously lift morale at the Police Department and slow the pace of attrition.

In a radio interview Wednesday, King said it was a mistake at the outset to hire Serpas, who had risen through the ranks of the NOPD before leaving to head police forces in Washington state and then Nashville, Tenn. He recalled that Landrieu held public meetings at the time to gather community input, and that residents said overwhelmingly, “We want someone who had no ties to the force.”

Still, King spends most of his time on the stump talking about the local economy — the “tale of two cities” that he argues best describes the city’s recovery in the years since Hurricane Katrina.

He often brings up a recent Loyola University study that found more than half of working-age black men in New Orleans had been without work in 2011. And he argues that Landrieu hasn’t been strict enough in enforcingthe city’s “disadvantaged businesses enterprise” ordinance, which sets a goal of directing at least 35 percent of the city’s spending on contracts toward companies owned by women and minorities.

His other main proposal is to establish zones of the city in which companies could earn tax credits for hiring locally, although he hasn’t fleshed out all of the details. Presumably, giving local companies a break on their property taxes would put more pressure on an already strained city budget, but King said he is confident the program would boost economic activity enough to pay for itself.

Asked where exactly he would establish the tax zones, he paused for a long moment, head in hands, and then said finally: “If your foot is hurting you and you go to the doctor, what part of your body is the doctor going to treat?”