Monday, Aug. 30, 2010

New Orleans' New Mayor: Can Mitch Landrieu Revive the City?

On a humid morning in May, Mitch Landrieu was sworn in as the 61st mayor of New Orleans. In his inaugural address, Landrieu, 50, sounded very much like a Southern black Baptist preacher (he is white and Catholic) as he told his city's far-flung post–Hurricane Katrina diaspora, "It is time for you to come home." The blogs and press made much of the fact that Landrieu is the first white mayor elected in more than three decades in New Orleans, which remains a majority-black city. The key question remains, Can Mitch Landrieu put New Orleans into recovery mode?

By many measures, Landrieu's New Orleans is remarkably different from the city that, five years ago this week, was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The city is wealthier, younger and whiter. Its population has rebounded to an estimated 355,000, nearly 80% of its pre-Katrina level. Optimism is pervasive — only partly because the New Orleans Saints managed to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in its 43-year history and win. The city has largely evaded the recession and is the epicenter of some of the most audacious urban-renewal projects in America. Exhibit A: the robust network of charter and public schools that actually expects students to succeed — and has the tools to help them do so. "We're building from the ground up and attempting to set the standard for true community renewal in America," Landrieu told the National Press Club last week.

A trim man with close-cropped hair, Landrieu is the scion of a political dynasty. His sister Mary is Louisiana's senior U.S. Senator. His father Maurice "Moon" Landrieu, a liberal Democrat, was mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978 and is widely credited with opening political and business opportunities for the city's black population. That helped lead to a three-decade succession of black mayors, which began with Ernest "Dutch" Morial and ended when Mitch Landrieu succeeded the term-limited Ray Nagin in May.

Landrieu had tried to become mayor twice before. In 1994, he ran against Morial's son but finished a very distant third. In 2006, he challenged Nagin, who defeated him 52% to 48%. This time, Landrieu would benefit from two things: First, Nagin's disastrous second term. Second, the accolades he received in the post-Katrina period. As lieutenant governor, Landrieu distanced himself from the bumbling performance of Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, partly by demanding that the boards that manage the levees surrounding New Orleans be dismantled. Beyond that, while he never took a memorably hard stance on any controversial issue, he cultivated a reputation as a consensus builder.

The February 2010 election was, essentially, a referendum on Nagin's regime. "There was buyer's remorse," says political consultant Silas Lee. Landrieu presented himself as a reformer, familiar with Obama's Washington, able to unite a city that Nagin, in his rule-by-bullhorn way, had publicly declared forever "chocolate," a "majority African-American city ... the way God wants it to be." Indeed, in the days before February's election, the key question about Landrieu, says Peter Burns, a Loyola University political-science professor and author of Electoral Politics Is Not Enough: Racial and Ethnic Minorities and Urban Politics, was, "Can a white man win in New Orleans?"

Landrieu won decisively, with 66% of the vote. He also captured an estimated 62% of votes cast by African Americans. That's attributable to two key factors: First, black voters want the same things — like credible leadership — as the general population. Second, black voters, particularly of a certain generation, have a deep sense of loyalty to the Landrieu family. "People have high expectations for Mitch," Burns says, "and he needs to be careful about that."

To understand Landrieu's New Orleans, you must remember that, in many ways, it is a tale of two recoveries. The wealthier and whiter Lakeview section has largely rebounded. But the Lower Ninth Ward — "the poster child of Katrina," as neighborhood activist Linda Jackson describes it — looks much as it did just a few months after the water receded. Homes that had been washed onto the street have been demolished. In their place are lots with grass taller than men, giving some blocks an odd, rural vibe. Money that had been pledged to help restore the neighborhood hasn't trickled down.

Crime remains the most vexing problem facing New Orleans, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It certainly doesn't help that in the same survey only about 13% of respondents said they trust the police to do what's right "almost always." Landrieu has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate New Orleans' long-troubled police department. The move was widely interpreted as preemptive: federal authorities probably would have launched a probe, especially after several police officers were charged with fatally shooting four men in a chaotic post-Katrina incident known as the Danziger Bridge case. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder went to New Orleans in July and made clear that his department "will not tolerate wrongdoing by those who have sworn to protect the public."

In the meantime, the new mayor has come in for criticism over some of his appointments. Barely a week into his term, the doctor that Landrieu appointed as New Orleans' acting health director abruptly resigned amid published reports that she allegedly continued to see patients despite having been suspended by Louisiana's board of medical examiners. There were complaints when Landrieu named his sister-in-law, an attorney, the city's chief of economic development. Louisiana's antinepotism rules, however, do not bar the hiring or appointment of a spouse's siblings.

One key area Landrieu must continue to deal with is education. New Orleans, post-Katrina, has an often confusing network of charter and public schools that has boosted student performance. It also worked, in part, because Katrina removed much of the resistance that is proving to be a barrier to academic innovation in places like Detroit. But at some point, there will be a clamor for the mayor to articulate a clear and unified vision for education.

And then there's the perpetually vexing matter of race. Consider this: New Orleans once had a vibrant black political class. Now it has a white mayor, who has installed a white police chief, and an elected white district attorney. "That's like the holy trinity of power in this town," says Burns, the Loyola professor. The city council is majority white. New Orleans' Congressman, serving Louisiana's Second District, is a Vietnamese American. Silas Lee, a political analyst, struggles to acknowledge the challenges. "Let me be honest," says Lee, who is African American. "There's a leadership deficit." That's partly attributable to the post-Katrina demographic shift (when the percentage of blacks in the city fell from 67% to 59%). But it's also due to the failure of an older generation of blacks to cultivate credible successors. Landrieu must deal with that growing sense of disempowerment.

To succeed, Landrieu must resolve his city's nearly $80 million budget deficit. He must also move quickly to attract business beyond New Orleans' core tourism industry. "He's got an incredible mandate, and I hope he gets the rest of America to see us as a whole city, not as a city in repair," says Joe Ory, a prominent real estate agent. He adds: "We all have a lot of faith in him."