More than two years into his second term as mayor, there’s been a shift in the way Mitch Landrieu talks about his administration and its accomplishments.
While he’s still pushing an agenda on crime, infrastructure and, most recently, affordable housing, his acknowledgements that the clock is ticking have become more common as the second half of his final term starts to unfurl.
The change in focus comes as early signs of the next mayoral campaign are starting to bubble up, as key advisers begin to move out of City Hall and as Landrieu himself is raising his national profile, potentially setting the stage for his next act.
With the launch of a new political action committee and an increased focus on what his administration will be turning over to his successor, Landrieu appears to be laying the groundwork for the future.
“We’ve succeeded in right-sizing the ship and getting it focused in the right direction and getting the tools in place for the next generation of leaders to come along and to have something really firm to stand on and to have a really great opportunity to capitalize on,” Landrieu said in a recent meeting with The New Orleans Advocate’s editorial board.
While never shy about boasting of his administration’s accomplishments, Landrieu has begun framing those issues in terms of what he will be passing along to the next mayor and City Council, casting his own administration as a transitional one that was able to put the city on a proper footing after the physical chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina and the financial chaos of former Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration.
Landrieu frequently notes that those disasters left the city $100 million in the hole and facing five federal consent decrees when he took office — problems that largely will have been handled by the time the next city leadership is elected in October and November 2017.
The mayor and City Council traditionally have been elected in February and March, but state law was changed in 2013 to move the voting to the fall to avoid conflicts with Carnival and other events. That law takes effect in 2017, though the new elected officials will have to wait until May to be sworn in. The inauguration date will be changed to January in 2022.
That delay could further complicate the last months of Landrieu’s term, as he tries to govern the city while the next mayor and council wait in the wings for six months.
With almost a quarter of his time in office still to go, it may seem early for the focus to shift to what happens next, and Landrieu gives little indication he’s planning on becoming a lame duck. But candidates for mayor are expected to begin making announcements this winter, and Landrieu said the outcome of that race could be key to the city’s future.
“Whoever the next mayor and next City Council are is really important because every major city that has come back has had eight, 12, 16, 20 years to move in the same direction,” Landrieu said.
Armed with a proposal to boost affordable housing in the city and a progress report on his s…
He said he hasn’t thought about backing any specific candidate at this point, but he is looking for someone who will move the city forward with the same general governing philosophy, even if there are disagreements on specific policy issues.
He pointed to the dramatic swings the state has had as it has lurched between Republican and Democratic governors with sharply different politics and philosophies over the last few decades as a contributing factor to the problems it now faces, and he argued for a smoother transition in the city itself.
“Cities work or entities work when there’s a good person running it and a good structure. They’ve both got to line up,” Landrieu said. “In terms of continuity, the city ought to decide what direction they want to go in and elect a person who’s going to do it.”
‘Not going to walk away’
Political consultant Cheron Brylski, who served as director of public information for former Mayor Dutch Morial, said the last years of an administration can be key, and much depends on how closely the incoming and outgoing mayors are aligned. In Morial’s case, disagreements with Sidney Barthelemy, his successor, meant a last-minute effort to try to solidify his administration’s agenda and then the reversal of those efforts during what Brylski described as a “hostile takeover.”
No one has formally declared their intention to seek the mayor’s seat, though there’s been widespread speculation about a number of potential candidates, including trash magnate-turned-crime app sponsor Sidney Torres IV; City Council members Jason Williams and LaToya Cantrell; a handful of state lawmakers; and former Judge Michael Bagneris, who ran against Landrieu two years ago.
Landrieu could be poised to play a key role in that campaign.
He recently launched a political action committee, NOLA PAC. An invitation to its inaugural fundraiser last month suggested donations of between $1,000 and $2,500 and billed the group as a “leadership PAC that supports people and activities that will keep New Orleans moving forward together.”
“I didn’t just give eight years of my life to just turn around and say, ‘Well, now that I’m not the mayor, I’m not even a citizen,’ ” Landrieu said. “I fully expect in my (post-mayoral) years — and I’m sure there are a lot of people who would rather I leave sooner rather than later — to be an actively involved citizen in the city of New Orleans, however that manifests itself. I’m not going to walk away and say it doesn’t matter.”
Ed Chervenak, head of the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center, said that despite controversy over Landrieu’s plans to remove four monuments to Confederate officials and a white supremacist militia — which cost him support among the white community — and his failure to pass a public safety tax earlier this year, the mayor remains popular.
About 60 percent of the city’s residents said they had a favorable opinion of Landrieu in a survey earlier this year, giving him political capital for the rest of his term and in the upcoming race.
What comes next?
At the same time, Landrieu has been raising his profile, possibly preparing for life as an ex-mayor.
“He needs to use this time as his springboard to what he’s going to do next,” Brylski said.
More than many mayors, Landrieu has managed to stay in the national spotlight. He received significant coverage last year when national media outlets focused their attention on the city for the 10th anniversary of Katrina. He’s kept up that attention with op-eds in the national media.
Landrieu was elected vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month and is expected to become president of the group next year. That could mean more travel out of the city but also more attention on issues important to New Orleans within the group.
The presidential election also could take Landrieu away from the city, and it may provide him with another direction after his term is over.
Landrieu has been a longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and there’s been speculation that he could be looking to move into a role with her administration if she wins.
Getting a position with a Democratic president’s administration could be a logical step for Landrieu, and it essentially would mean following in his father’s footsteps. Moon Landrieu, who was mayor in the 1970s, went on to serve as President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of housing and urban development.
Having already stumped for Clinton in the Democratic primaries in Virginia and South Carolina, Landrieu said he’s preparing to head back on the campaign trail between now and November.
“If asked, I’ll go. Even if I’m not asked, I’ll go,” he said. “I am very interested in her being the next president of the United States. And more interested in Donald Trump never getting close to the White House.”
Should Landrieu be picked for an administration position, it also could help the city get its priorities through on a federal level, Brylski said.
Whether Landrieu would take a post in D.C. before his term is up remains an open question, however. The city’s tricentennial in 2018, which coincides with the mayor’s last months in office, has become a de facto deadline for many of the projects promised by the administration, including the redevelopment of the World Trade Center into a Four Seasons hotel, and a major focus for Landrieu himself.
Taking a job next year with a Clinton administration would mean the mayor would have to leave it to a successor to cut the ribbon on those projects and also would prevent him from serving as president of the mayors group, while staying in office could mean losing a chance at a high-level appointment.
In the driver’s seat
Landrieu is still pushing a variety of initiatives within the city, and despite some potential challenges, there are signs he could avoid the early onset of lame-duck status.
When describing those efforts, including programs to reduce crime and provide more affordable housing, Landrieu acknowledges there is still a ways to go.
“I’m not claiming victory on everything. I’m not even attempting to say that we’ve come close to solving in the last five years the problems that were created over the last 150 years,” he said.
At the same time, some of his top advisers have begun moving on to other jobs. Most recently, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s right-hand man who played a key role in rebalancing the city budget and in numerous other efforts, announced he would be leaving the administration to head up the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
Landrieu has, so far, had relatively little difficulty in getting the City Council to go along with most of his proposals, and he largely has been in the driver’s seat on setting major policies for the city. That could change if council members begin vying to replace him, particularly if they see value in being seen as standing up to the mayor or claiming their own policy victories, Chervenak said.
“Typically, (mayors) kind of begin to fade away because they’ve only got so much time, and about a year before one is going to leave, people already are thinking about his replacement,” he said. “That doesn’t mean he can’t be effective if he decides to apply his energy and push for something. It’s a strong-mayor system in this city.”
Brylski said a lack of clear direction from the council could make it easier for Landrieu to stay relevant longer than might otherwise be expected.
“He is the one leading the ship. The council is not cohesive enough, nor does it have any dominant leader who wants to take that job or seems to have a vision for that job,” Brylski said. “He got an open playing field there.”