October 19th, 2007 04:28 EST
Louisiana Mayor,Tough Times Provide New Opportunities
Washington -- When Mayor Candace Watkins says she has led her city through wind, rain and fire, she means it. As mayor of a small city, she has faced some big challenges.
During her time as mayor of Covington, a southeast Louisiana city of about 9,600 people 65 kilometers from New Orleans, the city weathered Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and saw its city hall set ablaze in September 2006.
These events, while difficult, provided new opportunities for Watkins and her city, she told USINFO.
Katrina's winds spread about 400,000 cubic meters of debris through Covington. Many houses were damaged severely, including the mayor's. Watkins and her family spent 13 months living in a dormitory while their home was repaired.
Rebuilding and cleaning up from the storm damage was "an opportunity to step up and show people what [the city] could do," Watkins told USINFO. "It was a group effort. I was just fortunate enough to be in the position of the top person in that group."
Katrina helped Watkins realize how well she can handle a crisis, she said. "People will say they really saw a change in me at that point. … I became a much stronger leader in that environment."
"If you're in leadership … these are not the things you want to happen," Watkins said. "But what an opportunity to show people what you can do! It really gave me the opportunity to rise to the occasion and show what leadership skills I had."
The city hall fire, which left several government and police department offices unusable, created another opportunity for Covington. The old building needed renovations in any case, and the fire forced the city to find a new home for the government offices. Now the city is considering Watkins' proposal to buy a property that once served as a beverage distribution center and turn that into the city government's center.
Watkins has faced challenges from the beginning of her political career. Elected in 2003, she became the city’s first female and first Republican leader.
On the personal front, both Watkins and her husband, with three children to support, lost their jobs during a recession in the 1980s. As she started over, she tried many different jobs and ended up taking a position as the city’s downtown development director. It was Watkins’ first exposure to government operations.
“I love public service,” Watkins said. “Every business I was ever involved in had some level of customer service and that’s what I really enjoy."
After serving as downtown development director for four years, "I really wanted to go forward, and the only full-time job that would afford me the ability to graduate to the next level was running for mayor. And so I did.”
In order to run for office, Watkins had to leave her job with the city. She accepted an offer with a local bank, on the condition that she would be able to campaign while working there. But after she started the job, Watkins was told that she could not accept campaign contributions. Without campaign contributions, she could not afford to run.
"Feeling totally deflated," Watkins told her husband she would not run. But he encouraged her to quit her job and run, despite her worries about whether the family could afford to lose her paycheck.
"We are in this as a group," he said. Watkins said her family was fully supportive while she was unemployed for a year during the campaign.
Watkins' campaign material featured a pamphlet with a picture of her walking with an umbrella that said, "Walking for mayor: rain or shine." It was not just a saying -- Watkins walked door to door talking to residents. She estimates that she knocked on about 2,500 of Covington's 3,500 doors. "And it rained a lot that year," she said.
"We made the campaign about the people," she said. "Not so much about me. … We made it about the people and what they wanted."
Watkins won the mayor’s race by one of the largest margins in 60 years. She defeated four men for the job, including the son of a former mayor who had served for 24 years.
Watkins was elected to her second term in 2007 and is not eligible to run again for mayor; she does not intend to run for another office. "There aren't a lot of other jobs that I want," she said. "I love this job because I'm a caretaker. And I'm a caretaker of a place that I really love."
Watkins wants to remain active in her community, noting that community involvement and volunteering is "like a drug. … You get this great rush out of it."
Although she ran unopposed in 2007, Watkins campaigned just as she did in 2003. Only this time her pamphlets noted she was campaigning "through wind, rain and fire."
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Michelle Austein
USINFO Staff Writer
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