In The News › Landrieu leads New Orleans with optimism, realism
Landrieu leads New Orleans with optimism, realism
Monday, January 3, 2011
By Kevin McGill
Associated Press State & Local Wire
Mitch Landrieu thought he knew the problems that awaited him when he was elected mayor of New Orleans in a landslide last February.
There was the spotty, prolonged recovery from Hurricane Katrina, which exacerbated long-standing problems of blight and crumbling infrastructure; a $60 million budget deficit; a police department awash in scandal; and an explosion of violent crime.
Then came the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that threatened to spoil the great brackish lake north of the city, the budget deficit that ballooned to $80 million and revelations of mismanagement in the obscure city agency that operated the city’s rail lines. Just last month, a breakdown at a water purification plant forced a two-day boil water advisory for about 300,000 people.
“He inherited tremendous, tremendous problems,” said Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a local watchdog group. “I mean, it was a government basically in shambles as far as I could tell.”
Even Landrieu the son of a former mayor, brother of a U.S. senator and veteran of Louisiana politics confesses he was taken aback at times after taking office in May.
“What surprised me was the deepness of the dysfunction in city government and how large the deficit really was,” Landrieu said in a year-end interview.
He has tackled the job with a mix of optimism and realism. In speeches and interviews, he often seizes on the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl victory the day after he was elected as a symbol of what can be accomplished. But he is unflinching in assessments of the city’s problems, laid out in a speech he titled “Eyes Wide Open.”
So far, the public appears to be on his side: a University of New Orleans poll taken in mid-November gave Landrieu a 75 percent approval rating, even though he’d recently called for substantial property tax and fee increases.
One reason for Landrieu’s popularity may be comparisons with his predecessor, Ray Nagin. Elected on a reform platform in 2002, Nagin left amid low poll numbers, post-Katrina foot-in-mouth moments, and scandals at the police department and City Hall.
“After eight years of Ray Nagin, who was not highly regarded on any metric of competence, the 50-year-old Landrieu is a breath of fresh air,” said Clancy DuBos, veteran political journalist and owner of the weekly newspaper Gambit.
Long-standing problems competed for Landrieu’s attention with vexing new ones almost from the day he took office. He named a new police chief to deal with both a crime wave and federal civil rights investigations of police violence after Katrina. And he invited the U.S. Justice Department to help reorganize the department.
With the BP oil disaster pumping millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, he met with heads of neighboring local governments on efforts to keep oil from fouling Lake Pontchartrain, the Gulf-fed recreational haven on the city’s northern edge. Soon afterward came reports detailing financial abuses at the New Orleans Public Belt Railway an obscure agency that owns tracks used by major railroads that run through the city. He called for the resignation of the entire board of directors and set about revamping the agency.
Meanwhile, Landrieu was overhauling City Hall. He called a series of community hearings on budget priorities as a prelude to a $485 million general fund budget with an emphasis on street lights, roads and recreation plus property tax and sanitation fee increases.
City Council members gave him pretty much what he wanted. Landrieu said it’s because his administration made sure citizen interests were being served.
“We asked the people what they wanted. We gave them a budget that they said that they wanted,” Landrieu said.
They got it only after Landrieu attacked the inherited budget deficit on several fronts, including cutting the number of take-home cars for city employees by half; furloughing workers; and cutting some city contracts and renegotiating others. Those included pacts for sanitation services that included minority contractors, a potentially touchy political endeavor given the city’s history of racial division.
That division has, at least for now, been bridged. Landrieu won 66 percent of the vote over a diverse field of 10 candidates. Even more remarkable was his broad support from black and white voters, evident in the November poll and in the election that made him the first white mayor since his father, Moon Landrieu, left office in 1978.
“He was the first mayor since the Voting Rights Act was passed to get elected with a majority of whites and a majority of black votes in New Orleans,” DuBos said. “Every New Orleans mayor since the early ’60s was elected with an overwhelming level of support from one race and a minority of the other.”
City Councilman Jon Johnson, an African-American representing an area still struggling to recover from Katrina, said the new mayor benefits politically from decades of trust the black community has in his family, dating to the 1970s when Moon Landrieu helped open city government to blacks.
“I think the residents of this city know the Landrieu name. They know the Landrieu trademark, if you will, as far as that commitment to equality,” Johnson said.
There are complaints. Joe Ory, who represents an association of real estate agents, praised Landrieu’s reorganization efforts but said raising taxes and fees in a slow economy will drive away residents and businesses. “It’s the wrong time,” he said.
“Nobody wants to increase taxes,” City Councilman Arnie Fielkow said. “At the same time, the citizens have expressed a request for many initiatives.”
A streetcar ride through uptown or a stroll along Bourbon Street reveals little of Katrina’s lingering impact. But vast emptiness remains in the Lower 9th Ward. Other neighborhoods still have ramshackle houses. December’s guilty verdicts for four police officers implicated in a man’s death or its cover-up after Katrina will be followed in the new year by more trials rooted in police violence after the storm.
Landrieu said that he doesn’t think his job will get easier, and that he doesn’t take his poll numbers for granted.
“That’s nice and everything, but it’s going to get harder and it’s going to be tougher and the sacrifice is going to be greater and it’s going to require more patience,” Landrieu said. “And that doesn’t just mean me and the city government. It means everybody in the city.”
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