Mese Against the Machine
Mayoral candidate Gordon Mese fights for city change
By Keeley KristinPosted Jul 18, 2012
While standing in line at the DMV recently, I found myself positioned (literally) between two other waiting patrons who began discussing our city’s upcoming mayoral election. I hear familiar candidate names, but there’s something missing. Isn’t someone else running? I ask myself.
“What about Gordon Mese?” I asked. And I got crickets.
“Who?” one of the ladies asked.
A few days and several emails later, I was on my way to meet the mystery mayoral candidate that only one area of town seems to know.
As I walk in to Garden District Nursery on Government St. for a sit-down with Gordon Mese, not only am I surrounded by all things green, delicate, and in bloom, but I also see a drum set. And I hear a parrot squawking in the background. And there is rock music playing.
Yeah, I think to myself, this is going to be good.
After some chit-chat (and some drum set playing), Mese leads me outside to his “office,” which is a wrought-iron table positioned on a patio under a cool fan’s breeze, right next to Ruby the Parrot’s cage (who is out and about being as vocal as you might expect).
Born and raised here in Baton Rouge, Mese and his family are no strangers to Mid-City patrons – they own Garden District Nursery, which has been a staple of the Mid-City community for over 30 years.
“This place used to be a gas station that my grandparents owned,” Mese tells me. “We had to close it after the oil bust of the 80s… There was a lot of vacant property in the area [due to the recession], and our family knew we’d lose everything we owned if we didn’t do something. My family wanted a presence as landowners in the community, so we opened up the nursery.”
At the time all of this was happening, Mese was studying for his Landscape Architecture degree at LSU, which he received with a focus on urban and regional planning and development.
From there, our conversation took a turn towards seriousness, as I got down to the nitty-gritty of what, exactly, Mese is all about.
DIG: Why don’t you tell us what it is you are trying do with this campaign run – you’re only using social media, right?
Gordon Mese: Absolutely. I’d love the chance to clarify because a recent article written about me was full of misquoted and incorrect information. What I’m trying to do by running a campaign using social media, my family’s 100-year history in this city (five generations), and 83 years of business at the same property – not to mention my education as a landscape architect from the #1 school in the nation – is to remove money and politics from government for just a moment to see what happens. I ask all these politicos that come into my nursery, “what if I could actually remove money and politics from government for at least a moment?” Every one of them light up and say that would be wonderful, and so that is what I’m trying to do.
DIG: So by only using social media, does that mean you aren’t accepting any campaign contributions?
GM: That’s exactly what that means. Up to this point, I’ve spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500 of my own money on things like signs and t-shirts. I am not accepting donations. I’m doing this on my own.
DIG: That’s admirable. Risky, but admirable. So what’s your mandate? On what grounds are you running?
GM: I’m running on the mandate of changing the city’s Unified Development Code (UDC), which is responsible for our infrastructure problems, our social problems, and our double taxation. For example, we have a sewer fee, a garbage fee, and we just passed a tax for CATS; all three are the result of a bad UDC and a bad planning office. What’s happening is that we are subsidizing bad development with double taxation of the general public. We’ve built a city parish – a metropolis, if you will – that is THIS BIG and we have the tax base to pay for one thisbig. And so the answer is garbage/sewer/roadwork, that Green Light Program, the 1/2 extra cent on sales tax – all of that should be covered by our basic taxes. But those basic taxes can’t cover the expenses of the metropolis so we, in turn, end up with all these fees we didn’t even get to vote on to cover these basic services. The fact is, is that the UDC doesn’t serve the people and it needs to. Here’s what people don’t understand: The plan is a collection of utopian ideas of the way things should be. The code, on the other hand, is the law and never shall the two be the same.
DIG: Can you tell me in what ways the UDC is not serving the people?
GM: Well, see, if we had a good UDC and a good planning office that really policed that development code, we’d have a city that actually pays for itself. See, it’s a systemic disease that goes back 50-60 years. What has happened, in a nutshell, is that focus shifted to new development, away from repairing and restoring what we already have…and the topic of restoring our city is put off like a can being kicked down the road. Eventually the structure collapses and taxpayers end up footing the bill. It’s a cycle.
Every single waiver ever issued comes from the UDC, so we have not only this huge city we can’t afford, but also this little city that doesn’t have the amenities that it should. That’s why we don’t have sidewalks in all of our neighborhoods. That’s why we have open ditches for storm water. That’s why there are no bike lanes.
AND [the UDC] is responsible for a great deal of our crime because we have neglected complete areas of the parish to build new areas we didn’t even need…and so the city parish has been actively contributing to our crime problem by allowing ghettos to form. And we all know the problems that get created in those situations. So the only explanation for that is that we have half the population we need for the city we’ve built, so we can’t keep everything vibrant. Now, a good planner – and I’ve talked to two veteran planners – has political will to do the right thing, not just will to do a job.
There really are no problems in our society that the UDC does not touch. It has tentacles that reach out into every corner of society and the end result is generally bad.
DIG: Let’s talk about crime for a minute. You’re no stranger to it, are you?
GM: [Chuckles] Definitely not. Our crime problem isn’t anything new. It’s just new to certain areas and now people are taking notice. I have fought a war against crime here for over 20 years. I’ve lost three cash registers [from mid-day hold-ups], and I’ve had five members of my family held at gunpoint on three separate occasions. Also, I was stabbed six times on one occasion years ago when I was at LSU, but none of those incidents were ever reported by the media. So I have actually tackled and held three or more fleeing felons and handed them over to police. I’ve already filed three burglary reports this year alone. My business has been burglarized, my home has been burglarized, my neighbors’ homes have been burglarized. After Katrina, I kept track. For four years following the storm, my door was kicked in once or twice a quarter. I’m no stranger to crime – in any way, shape, or form. This is all drug-related crime [I’m talking about]. The[se people] don’t care if the alarm is on. They don’t care if they damage any property. They’re there for iPads and iPhones and TVs and things that will get them enough money for their next fix. They are not there to hurt you; they do not want to get caught. They don’t want to detox in jail so they will avoid confrontation at all costs. I knew these [neighborhood] robberies were drug related, so I went straight to the guy who appeared to ‘run things.’ And since then, no more home invasions and that’s been about four years ago. Sure, some of the crime might be petty but it’s all crime. I came to work one day to find that the sign I hand-painted on the building had been tagged by a local graffiti artist. It’s just a nuisance.
DIG: What are your thoughts on the newly implemented B.R.A.V.E. Project?
GM: It should’ve happened 20 years ago, honestly, and it should be something incredibly grand by now. Crime in this city started 30 years ago with the recession of the 80s, from the oil bust. Around the same time, crack arrived in Baton Rouge, thus creating a perfect storm, if you will. So there was a lot of vacant property on a main thoroughfare and it became a breeding ground for crime.
DIG: So crime today compared to the crime you’ve experienced over the past 30 years – what’s the difference in your eyes?
GM: It is much better today – I will agree with Kip [Holden] on that. It’s better today because the people who own property here – my family, the Heromans, the Ragusas, the Boudreauxs, the Calandros – we all stood our ground years ago and fought for this. But we don’t have the problems here today that we did in the mid-to-late 80s. I used to come here every morning before college classes and clean the parking lot so it would be free of trash and drug paraphernalia so the business would be presentable that day. In that sense, crime has gotten better because I haven’t had to do that in over 20 years. But there are always going to be issues. We have massive problems spreading all over the parish and the reason for that is what I want to change: the Unified Development Code.
DIG: In terms of these rising ghettos, is there an area of town you see headed in that direction?
GM: We are actively building new ghettos. As a trained planner and landscape architect, our next ghetto hotspot will be the intersection of Siegen Ln and I-10. It’s going to be a nightmare. We’ve allowed five or six large apartment complexes to build within a mile of that intersection, and mark my words – within 10 years, they’re all gonna be run down, all be Section 8. Problems there are already starting, and that’s a result not necessarily of bad planning but of bad execution.
DIG: And so your solution is to ratify the UDC. How? What will you do? What will you fight for?
GM: Well, the beauty of all of this, to me at least, is that [my experiences] could’ve created a man full of anger and hate but it didn’t. Because of those experiences, I’m able see and understand what is driving all this crime, and building a police state is only going to make it worse. We have to do multiple things: We have to attack the disease and not just its symptoms if we want to change something. And we have to know that police and prisons and stiffer sentences are only part of the solution but they aren’t the whole solution.
DIG: Excellent. So now tell me why voters should choose you. How will you cater to the varying demographics?
GM: College-aged people are the future and my platform will build a city/parish that not only they will enjoy but that their families will also enjoy. My platform will also attract the types of companies that new graduates will want to work for. Regarding families, I would say the same and add amenities that would make rearing a family fun, safe, and more affordable. My platform is about these two generations. I believe whole-heartedly that it is the responsibility of both Generation X and the Baby Boomers to leave behind a livable city.
We’ve got to get out of this “me, me, me” mindset and realize it’s about “we, we, we.” The world we thought we lived in we now know we don’t, so everyone has to change. We’re all going to have to start sacrificing. We’ve been at war for over 10 years and we’ve lived this life of excess. We can’t do that anymore. It’s time for a change. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue – it’s just the right thing for all BR residents.
• Was a five-sport athlete: football, basketball, baseball, track, and swimming
• Plays guitar and drum set
• Personal friend of Better Than Ezra and was featured in their first video, “Good”
• Appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis
• Has traveled to 40 states and 11 countries
• Backpacked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon twice, and to the top of the Grand Teton Mountains
• Plays beach volleyball
• Can usually be found every Thursday night at Phil Brady’s for the blues jam
Learn more about Gordon Mese and his mayoral agenda on his Facebook page.