With one eye toward New Orleans’ perilous state when he took office seven years ago, and the other fixed on the candidates running this fall to succeed him, Mayor Mitch Landrieu used his final State of the City address Thursday to cast his administration as having set the city on a stable course.
The speech, largely focused on the challenges and accomplishments of Landrieu’s years in office, also served as the launching pad for a proposal to curb the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent in a dozen years.
Returning repeatedly to the metaphor of a “solid foundation,” Landrieu’s speech was aggressive in proclaiming his administration's success in turning around a city that he said was broke, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina and suffering from a history of dysfunction when he took office in 2010. And it was a call — sometimes explicit — for whoever is elected to replace him to continue the work he has started.
“Together, we have laid a solid foundation for the future and are now positioned for growth like never before,” Landrieu said. “Together, we are the ones who came back strong when no one thought we could.”
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The speech — twice delayed because of other events — came just a week before candidates will qualify to succeed Landrieu, who cannot run for re-election due to term limits, and at a time when the mayor has seen his national profile rise thanks to his widely lauded speech on the removal of four Jim Crow-era monuments and his inauguration to head the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In the latter capacity, Landrieu has argued that cities will be drivers of many important national policies in the coming years under President Donald Trump’s administration.
In his remaining time in office, Landrieu said, his administration will be focused on two “existential and immediate threats that are at our door”: climate change and violent crime.
The city’s climate change initiative, drawing on those already implemented by other cities, will be formally unveiled Friday and will include a commitment to reduce New Orleans' carbon footprint by half.
“In the wake of our federal government pulling out of the Paris (climate) agreement, cities are taking the lead on climate change,” Landrieu said. “And no other city in the world has more at stake than New Orleans.”
The proposal will call on Entergy New Orleans to completely abandon coal as a fuel for electric power plants and gradually to switch to only low-carbon power.
Landrieu also highlighted the importance of wetlands restoration to the city’s future.
“If we drill, we have to restore, or else there will be nothing left for the future,” he said. “Kindergarten rules apply here: Fix what you break, clean up what you mess up. And everything will be fine.”
Earlier in the day, Landrieu said he has not yet decided whether to join other parishes that have sued oil and gas companies over the damage they have caused to Louisiana wetlands over the past century.
As for crime, Landrieu praised the work of the Police Department, saying, “Over the past seven years we’ve done everything and more to fight this urgent and growing threat of violent crime,” including increasing the department’s funding by 25 percent.
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However, the city has seen a spike in shootings and other violent crimes in the past 18 months, though Landrieu noted that crime has always been an issue in the city.
“Even in 1999, when murder was at its lowest rate over the last 30 years and we had the most police officers on the beat, our rate was still six times the national average,” Landrieu said. “We need to think about that holistically; we need to get at the root cause of these crimes.”
Landrieu touted a plan released Wednesday to increase NOPD pay as a step toward solving the department’s staffing woes. But he said fixing the crime problem will involve changing the culture of violence in the city, providing economic opportunities and focusing on criminal justice reform, something that requires “all elected officials, and I mean all,” on the same page, an apparent reference to his fights with District Attorney Leon Canizzarro, Sheriff Marlin Gusman and others.
“The hangover from Jim Crow is a criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts people of color and the poor,” Landrieu said. “Now there is a national movement to reorient the system to focus on violent crime, moving away from jailing people for petty offenses, which breaks up families, destabilizes communities and hurts more than it helps.”
The speech's focus was on the fundamental work of city government, with quick overviews — complete with nearly 120 citations in the printed version — of what his administration has done since taking office.
Much of the speech echoed other comments Landrieu has made lately calling for continuation of changes his administration has made since 2010, with a focus on the institutional meat-and-potatoes of city government: balancing budgets, fixing inefficient or dysfunctional departments, and investing in infrastructure and jobs.
Landrieu cast those policies as steps on the road to becoming “the city we always dreamed we could be.”
It’s a familiar list for those who have listened to the mayor’s past public comments: a turnaround from budget deficit to surplus; the highest credit rating in the city’s history; tripling of funding for recreation programs; hundreds of millions of dollars of roadwork; and major projects such as the opening of two new Mid-City hospitals, construction of a new terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport and the planned conversion of the former World Trade Center building into a Four Seasons hotel.
Landrieu pledged he would be an active participant in the upcoming elections, even though he won’t be on the ballot.
“New Orleanians know what needs to be done,” he said. “That is the easy part. The candidates need to tell us how they plan to take on these difficult challenges.”
Landrieu has not given his backing to any of the candidates seeking his job.
“This fall’s elections are one of the most important of our lifetime, and so I will be fully engaged and very active,” he said. “Ready to not only sprint through the finish line of my own term but also to speak the truth about the challenges we face and what should come next.”