When Troy Henry looks at New Orleans, he sees a city being left behind even as its peers are booming.
“Just look around. Every other major Southern city is growing except New Orleans,” he said recently. “Our city needs to be transformed, our city needs to grow, our city needs to be part of that wave of growth."
Among this year’s underdogs in the New Orleans mayoral contest, Henry is making the same pitch that he did eight years ago, when he placed a distant second behind Mitch Landrieu.
He argues that his education at elite schools and a career that included stints at corporate giants like IBM and Hewlett-Packard makes him the best bet to lure businesses to New Orleans, even if some of his ventures over the decades have failed to pan out.
Henry, 56, grew up in Pontchartrain Park — a neighborhood he would eventually try to help redevelop along with actor Wendell Pierce in an effort that has since stalled — as the grandson of legendary longshoremen's union leader Clarence "Chink" Henry.
He graduated from St. Augustine High School and Stanford University before getting master's degrees in electrical and biomedical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. He went on to jobs with Hewlett-Packard and then IBM.
From there, he was recruited to serve as a vice president for Enron. He worked there until late 2001, leaving before the giant company collapsed but after he saw what he described as “questionable accounting.”
After that, he was an executive at United Water, a water and sewer management company, where he oversaw operations throughout the South, including a failed bid to privatize the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board in 2002.
At the time, the company's management of Atlanta’s water system, through a deal struck in 1999, was hailed as a model for the benefits of bringing in private companies to run public utilities. But that deal collapsed less than a year later amid widespread problems with customer service, water main breaks and boil-water advisories.
Henry said the contract had been signed before he went to work for the company and was the result of an overly aggressive bid, which left United Water without the money it needed to properly manage the system. When he took the helm, he said, performance was "awful" and he conducted a house-cleaning.
But when a new mayor took office in Atlanta in 2003, she broke off the contract.
Involved in controversies
Henry, who lives in Eastover, said his experience with other water systems around the region is a major factor in his favor at a time when local residents are up in arms over the state of the city's water infrastructure, which failed to prevent last month's flooding.
He said that at United Water he was able to access a dashboard on his desk showing the status of every part of each system, suggesting he would not have been as clueless as some New Orleans officials apparently were about the status of the city's drainage pumps.
More recently, he has worked for himself at Henry Consulting, a firm that advises other companies and also runs Infinity Fuels and Sterling Fresh Foods, among other ventures.
The consulting firm has been involved in a variety of local contracts, including designing disadvantaged business programs for the state, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and working on the New Orleans Aviation Board’s master plan.
The firm’s work has not been without controversy.
During Henry’s 2010 mayoral bid, he was sued by two of his childhood friends and former partners who alleged he owed them money for separate business ventures. At the time, Henry said the suits were attempts to sink his candidacy. Both cases were settled the next year.
Once Landrieu took office, several of Henry’s contracts were canceled, something he would later suggest was punishment for his campaign. The Landrieu administration denied those claims.
But Henry still takes issue with the city’s contracting process, telling a forum at Xavier University recently that he had been passed over for a fuel contract as he expounded on the problems of the city’s program encouraging contracting with businesses owned by women and minorities.
The Pontchartrain Park redevelopment also has proven problematic for Henry. That effort, started in 2008, saw him partnering with Pierce, a childhood friend. Only a few dozen of the 150 affordable houses first envisioned for the neighborhood were ever built, and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority is now seeking to recover the properties.
Henry has defended the project, blaming the problems on the developers' inability to find buyers who could afford the houses yet had incomes below 120 percent of the poverty limit, a threshold of about $64,800 a year for a family of three, that was set as part of the conditions for the development.
The situation was compounded by the collapse of First NBC Bank earlier this year, Pierce said.
Stuck in single digits
In 2010, Henry joined a crowded field seeking to succeed Mayor Ray Nagin. He ended the race in a distant second with 14 percent of the vote behind Landrieu, who won a landslide 66 percent in the primary.
Henry puts a positive spin on his loss: “They were all household names at the time, and I beat them all but one."
Henry’s entry into this year's race came at the last minute and he has remained an underdog throughout.
He said the late start — he announced he was considering another run only a day before qualifying — may have hurt him in the polls, where he has languished in the single digits. The top candidates — former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet — have maintained positions in the area of 20 or 30 percent in recent weeks.
Henry said he expected to get a boost as more voters hear his message through forums and debates and have a chance to compare him side-by-side with the other candidates.
“I think the field is a different field. There are less qualified individuals than there were last time around,” he said.
So far Henry has done little fundraising, bringing in less than $26,000 and spending only $21,000 as of late September.
The money for his television ads has come from an independent PAC, the Louisiana Common Sense Fund, which has not yet been required to file a report.
“I don’t know the members of that PAC,” Henry said, though he added, “I’m thankful for their efforts.”
Focusing on business
Business and management are the key elements of Henry’s pitch.
The centerpiece is a pledge to bring 40,000 jobs to New Orleans by recruiting Fortune 1000 companies, something that Henry says Landrieu and his predecessors have not done effectively.
He mentioned one occasion when he set up a conversation at a Saints game between a former mayor — whom he declined to name — and an IBM executive who left the meeting interested in locating a data center in New Orleans. He said the city never followed up on the deal.
More recently, he tells of seeing an executive who said, “New Orleans isn’t serious about business; they’re serious about events.”
“Opportunities get lost all the time because we’re not serious about business retention and business attraction,” Henry said.
He also promises to finally deliver on some of the city's long-held goals, including redevelopment of the abandoned Six Flags site and construction of a new mall in New Orleans East.
Henry wants to reopen historic Lincoln Beach on Lake Pontchartrain and to push predominantly black Xavier and Dillard universities to open a medical school.
Henry's big on the need for more professionalism in city government, including regular performance evaluations for all employees. Those would include feedback from an app that would allow residents to rate their interactions with city employees.
Henry said he would also put himself out there for yearly reviews at community meetings where residents could give their feedback on his performance.
“If people give me a failing grade because I’m not meeting muster, I’m not afraid of that,” he said.
Crime plays a big role in Henry’s platform, and he said he would start with a “root-cause” analysis for the problems at the Police Department to figure out what’s preventing the force from growing more quickly. He said the city is spending a third more on a department with a third fewer officers than it had in 2010.
“We need to find out what the problem is and how to solve it,” he said.
Improving public safety also means making strategic alliances with all of the other police forces in the area to boost patrols and focusing on a strike force to crack down on violent crimes, Henry said.
He has pledged to “make life difficult” for people he says are known as violent criminals. In some forums, he’s extended that threat to their families as well.
On the other side, Henry has said more needs to be done to stem the opioid epidemic and to improve mental health services, given that many offenders are drawn into crime by those types of factors.
On the S&WB, Henry has called for the agency to be led by both a board and a management team with industry experience and for changes that would see the City Council serve as regulators of the utility, as it now does for Entergy.
“We can’t continue to put political people in management jobs without experience,” he added.
On the technical side, Henry has pledged to install automated meter reading services — something the city is now beginning to explore — to prevent billing errors. Longer-term projects would include a move away from the archaic 25-cycle power standard that now runs half of the city’s pumping capacity.
Henry also said there should be real-time water quality testing with public reporting to show lead levels and systems to track complaints about leaks and to ensure that the orange barrels marking work sites are not left to litter the city’s streets.
Henry’s infrastructure plans also call for using the $2.4 billion FEMA settlement for roads and pipes damaged during Hurricane Katrina to improve other utilities as well, burying power and phone lines and installing a fiber optic network. Part of that effort would be aimed at becoming a “smart, digital” city complete with public wireless internet.
“You cannot be a first-class city with Third World streets,” Henry said.