08.16.10

Mitch Landrieu's Tough Challenge

Mayor Mitch Landrieu talks to Lloyd Grove about rebuilding New Orleans after Ray Nagin, why Obama’s wrong on offshore drilling, and how the Big Easy can be a model for America.

Every morning before the sun comes up, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu goes for a jog. A bullet-headed bantam rooster of a man who just turned 50, Landrieu is training to run a half-marathon in October. But he has an even better explanation for getting up at 4:30 a.m. to hit the lonely streets of the Big Easy, no matter how late he was up the night before doing the people’s business.      

“The reason I go jogging at 4:30 in the morning is so I can be by myself,” Landrieu tells me, noting that he jogs without the mayor’s traditional security detail. “It’s the only time that I really find solitude, and people won’t stop me and want to talk to me for a minute about something. One of the things that you miss in a job like this is being able to have time to think and be by yourself.”

“If New Orleans can find a way to fix herself,” Landrieu says, “then America can find a way to fix herself.”

Landrieu—who was elected in February, on his third try for the office famously held in the 1970s by his father, Moon—is perched on a college dorm-quality couch, slightly nicer than the stained carpets and chipped, scarred coffee table in his second-floor reception area at the decrepit city hall. It’s a charmless, 54-year-old concrete eyesore that, as with New Orleans itself, Landrieu would like to build anew.         

He has been mayor for a little over 100 days. In that time, he has moved swiftly to start undoing the appalling damage done by the eight-year administration of Ray Nagin, a midlevel cable-company executive and political novice who was tested by Hurricane Katrina and found sorely wanting.      

Urban League President Marc Morial is the former mayor who beat Landrieu in his maiden attempt on the office in 1994, and whose father, Dutch, succeeded Moon to become the city’s first African-American chief executive. “Mitch is very determined—he ran for mayor three times and the third time was a charm,” Morial says. “He’s uniquely qualified to lead the city at this time in its history… I think he’s a breath of fresh air.”

*****     

Landrieu, in many ways, is the Anti-Nagin.     

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For one thing, his imagination is fired by the granular details of governing, the creative challenge of inventing new systems to make bureaucracy responsive. “This is the kind of challenge that Mitch lives for,” says veteran New Orleans journalist Clancy DuBos, who has covered the Landrieu family for decades. “If he ever got to the point where everything was peachy and running by itself, he’d be bored to tears.”

Running the city of his birth has long been Landrieu’s dream job, and now that New Orleans is in notoriously bad shape—with a crumbling infrastructure, hurricane-ravaged neighborhoods, terrible schools, a scandalized police force, and a woefully mismanaged budget—he has the chance to turn it around.     

“We’ve got a huge amount of work to do,” Landrieu says, insisting that he’s not overwhelmed. “No, not at all. I said this in my inaugural speech—and it wasn’t rhetorical—that there’s nothing that’s so broken that it can’t be fixed. New Orleans is this nation’s most immediate laboratory for innovation and democracy that this country has seen in a very long time, because we’re the only ones that were completely destroyed, so we’re having to rebuild the fabric of our lives. We can test new ideas to see if they work, and they can be scaled to success in other cities across every sector of government. If New Orleans can find a way to fix herself, then America can find a way to fix herself.”     

Landrieu is full of praise for President Obama—who’s scheduled to visit August 29 on the fifth anniversary of Katrina—for making the revival of New Orleans a White House priority. “I give the Obama administration an A-plus,” Landrieu says. “The White House and my office and all of the federal secretaries have been working aggressively on education, health care, criminal justice, and I couldn’t be more happy with the level of commitment they’ve given us.”

The city’s troubled police force—whose already tainted reputation was ruined by an official coverup of cops killing unarmed civilians amid the post-Katrina chaos—has been under day-to-day Justice Department scrutiny since the mayor, as one of his first acts, invited the Feds to investigate. Landrieu says Obama’s response to the BP spill—in contrast to President Bush’s to Katrina—has been prompt and effective. “They’ve been really good in terms of forcing BP to put the $20 billion up,” he says. “I think that’s a light tap. I think the numbers are going to be much higher.”  But Landrieu says the White House moratorium on deepwater offshore drilling is a huge mistake.

“I can understand why their knee-jerk reaction was to do that,” Landrieu says, “because in the rest of the country, nobody really understands how oil and gas and fisheries can lay side by side—because they haven’t taken the time to understand. We believe we can drill safely. We ought to have a national discussion about how Louisiana is going to be the tip of the spear for this nation’s fight for energy independence and hence its national security. And I don’t think anybody in the country—other than us, really—fully understands it.”

*****      

A second difference between Landrieu (who spent 23 years in Baton Rouge as a state representative and then lieutenant governor) and Nagin (who’d never run for anything before taking office as mayor) is that politics is practically his mother’s milk. The pretty, quick-witted Verna Saterlee gave up aspirations to be a nun 56 years ago in order to marry lawyer Moon Landrieu and spawn a political dynasty. Their nine children include Mitch’s eldest sister Mary, Lousiana’s senior U.S. senator, and his younger sister Madeleine, a veteran judge who was recently elected to the state circuit court of appeals. Their younger brother Maurice is a drug dealer-prosecuting assistant U.S. attorney.       

Mitch is No. 5 in the lineup. With a conspicuous stage presence, he studied at Washington’s Catholic University to be a musical theater performer. “Very few people in my political sphere would know that I was interested in acting at all,” he claims. “There’s no question that that training—learning how to stand in front of a crowd and say something—is a transferable skill.”

He got enough stage work to become a member of Actors Equity, and folks still talk about his star turn as Che Guevara in a local production of Evita in 1985. “It was a good part,” Landrieu tells me. “Actually one of the best, if you think about it—a test of an actor’s skill. It’s the kind of role that people in the theater always thirst for. So is Jean Valjean. I never played him, but I want to one day.”

Landrieu obtained his law degree from Loyola University as “something to fall back on” before entering the family business. “My mother was pregnant with me when my father was sworn in as a state representative in a cow pasture in 1960,” he tells me. “I don’t have a recollection of not working in some form or fashion on my father’s campaigns. When I was 9 years old, I can distinctly remember campaigning for him when he ran for mayor when he got elected in 1970. I remember making signs. I remember riding on the back of a fire truck.” In 1980, when 23-year-old Mary Landrieu overcame her innate shyness to run for the same seat her father had held in the Louisiana House, Mitch gregariously knocked on doors and made yard signs for his big sister.     

“Moon was very proud of Mary,” recalls DuBos, co-owner of the respected weekly newspaper The Gambit. “But he told me, ‘If you want to know the real politician in the family, watch my son Mitchell.’” (The 80-year-old Moon—who lives with Verna in the same rambling double-wide house where Mitch grew up, extensively rehabbed after Katrina and the subsequent levee failure flooded the ground floor with seven feet of water—declined to be quoted for this story.)

A third difference with Nagin, obviously, is that Landrieu is white—in a city with a population that is two-thirds black.       

The history of race relations in New Orleans, a nearly 300-year-old multicultural port city on the Mississippi known for slave-trading as well as its French, Spanish, and Haitian settlers, is at once richer and more baroque than is typical of the Deep South. Starting with Moon—a New South Democrat who voted to remove the Confederate flag from the city council chambers, hired African Americans for city jobs, and backed civil-rights legislation—the Landrieus have long enjoyed strong support from black voters. Civil-rights leaders of the day were frequent guests at the family dinner table, and Mitch drank in his parents’ progressivism.     

But his second campaign for mayor in 2006—as the city was reeling from the floods and fatalities—foundered on the shoals of racial politics. Nagin, who four years earlier had been the reformist, anti-corruption candidate of the white business establishment, was magnificently incompetent in marshalling the city’s emergency response to Katrina, which resulted in almost a thousand deaths, the terrible spectacle of homeless citizens struggling and dying in the Superdome, and the forced evacuation of more than 200,000 residents.    

Mayor Nagin was so besieged that he was reported to have been curled up naked in a fetal position. “There were moments,” says former Governor Kathleen Blanco, who opted post-Katrina not to run for a second term, “when I wanted to kick Ray Nagin in the rear end.”      

Yet, faced with his own reelection campaign, Nagin expertly stoked African-African resentments. Playing upon fears that wealthy whites living on higher ground were scheming to condemn flooded neighborhoods and permanently alter the city’s demographic makeup—or, for that matter, deliberately blew up the levees in order to protect their own homes from the rising Mississippi (as actually happened in 1927)—Nagin declared that New Orleans would forever remain “Chocolate City.” Nagin—who won his first term with 85 percent of the white vote and 40 percent of the black vote—won his second with 80 percent of the black vote and only 20 percent of the white vote.

“When Ray ran for his first term, the blacks didn’t support him, but for his second term, he decided to ‘become black.’ He didn’t do that until he needed to—just like O.J.,” says DuBos, who endorsed Nagin’s first mayoral bid in 2002. “Except he didn’t kill a person—he killed a city.”

It’s a near-perfect irony that Nagin, who didn’t respond to my multiple emails seeking comment, has reinvented himself as a consultant on crisis management and urban revitalization, topics on which he’s available to speak, for a fee, through the Washington-based Keppler Speakers Bureau.        

The 2006 campaign, in any event, was a case study in tribal divisiveness.      

“That happens all the time here,” Landrieu says with a shrug. “It’s part of a culture that has allowed us to be dysfunctional over time. Sometimes you just find yourself in places that you can’t control. The environment at that time was a very suspicious environment. Race is hard enough when we’re not in a suspicious environment.” He adds: “I do think the people made a mistake four years ago.”     

Sen. Mary Landrieu tells me: “It was heartbreaking.”

*****       

It’s a sultry New Orleans night, and the mayor—in shirtsleeves and a loosened tie—is presiding over one of the seven town meetings he plans to hold in August. For this one, in the Treme neighborhood celebrated by the HBO series, a couple of hundred citizens, and nearly 50 members of Landrieu’s administration, have crowded into an elementary school across the street from one of Nagin’s final debacles—a costly, ill-conceived, badly executed facelift of Louis Armstrong Park—which was closed after the contractor damaged Satchmo’s statue and the newly installed pavement began to crumble.    

“I’m gonna stay till everybody has their questions answered,” Landrieu promises the racially diverse audience. Unlike in our formal interview, he’s speaking in down-home Cajun. “Raise any issue you want. I want you to feel free—not that you wouldn’t—to tell me what you really think.” 

And they do—demanding his remedies for potholes, blighted houses, unfair property taxes, and countless other concerns.    

“I’m not a national figure,” Landrieu insists the morning after at city hall, when I ask if, as many suspect, he harbors ambitions for higher office. “I see myself as the mayor of a city that people across the nation are interested in. One of the things that’s really wonderful about being where I am is I’ve been in political office for 23 years now. If I end my political career four years from now, walking out of this building, getting it right, I’ll be as happy as I possibly can be.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.