On the sixth floor of a posh law office overlooking the New Orleans business district, members of the City Council and a handful of other prominent Democratic politicians gathered Friday to formally endorse John Bel Edwards’ bid for the Governor’s Office.
Conspicuously absent was the most prominent Democrat in the city and arguably the state: Mitch Landrieu.
With the hotly contested election just days away, the mayor still has not put his backing behind the first serious candidate for governor the Democrats have fielded since 2007. He says he has yet to decide whether Edwards or one of his Republican opponents will get his support.
Asked last week whether he’d be making an endorsement in the governor’s race, Landrieu replied, “At some point in time.”
But first, he said, “I need to hear from all four candidates: Tell me how New Orleans isn’t just your whipping boy — I’m not interested in that, that philosophy doesn’t work for me — but how we can be partners to make the city strong.”
Landrieu discussed his decision to remain on the sidelines so far after blasting state government for long-standing grievances his administration has had with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature, largely over issues of public safety and state funding.
He said those topics have not been addressed by the candidates for governor. He added they also have not put forward significant ideas on how to reform Louisiana’s criminal justice system or help other cities statewide.
Landrieu may be involving himself in the complicated tactics involved in a race where Edwards and two of the Republican candidates have all sought to position themselves against the perceived front-runner, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter.
The senator has a hostile relationship with both the mayor and his sister, former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, and he spent part of the summer attacking the mayor over issues of crime and Confederate monuments in New Orleans.
Should Landrieu wish to throw his weight behind either Edwards, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne or Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, time is running short. Voters will go to the polls Saturday to vote in a primary that is widely expected to put one of those three into a Nov. 21 runoff against Vitter.
But the campaign has not convinced Landrieu that any of the candidates has a plan for New Orleans beyond using it and his administration as a political foil, particularly when it comes to crime.
“This state and all these guys that are running, all of them have been in office for a long time. You might ask them what they have done to make the city of New Orleans safer or reform our criminal justice system,” Landrieu said.
On Friday, Edwards said that if he is elected he would govern with an eye to New Orleans’ prominent role in the state.
“I recognize the importance of New Orleans to the state as a whole,” he said. “It’s a world-class city, certainly the No. 1 destination for all tourists coming into Louisiana. And it’s a huge part of our economic engine that drives our economy.”
Much of the mayor’s criticism of state government — and indirectly of the candidates for governor — focuses on what he said has been a lack of resources for New Orleans, which he described as the “crown jewel” of Louisiana and one that he thinks should see more state troopers helping to protect assets such as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Smoothie King Center and the Morial Convention Center, state-owned facilities that don’t pay taxes to the city.
Protecting those facilities and the events they host pulls New Orleans police out of neighborhoods, Landrieu said. In other cities such as New York, Boston and San Francisco, he said, state and federal agencies partner with local government to take on their share of the public safety burden.
While a continuing state trooper presence in the French Quarter would be financed for five years through a sales tax on Saturday’s ballot, Landrieu suggested the state needs to dedicate its own resources to the issue.
“I want to know when the state and how the state is going to be a partner in making sure we protect the state’s investment and, since we generate $500 million for the state, why it’s such a hard thing for the governor to say, ‘Yeah, you’re right, it’s a problem, we’re going to do something about it other than lay blame,’ ” Landrieu said.
The lack of an endorsement from Landrieu comes in the context of the always fraught relationship between New Orleans and the rest of the state and during a race that the mayor was widely rumored to be eyeing himself in the months leading up to qualifying. It also comes as Edwards, though still largely considered an underdog to Vitter, puts the Democrats in their best position to win a gubernatorial election since at least 2007.
The 2011 election saw Democrats unable to field a single candidate who could rally significant support, leaving Gov. Bobby Jindal to walk to an easy re-election.
This year, Edwards is the only major Democrat in the race, and polls consistently show him at least tied with Vitter for front-runner status in Saturday’s primary. But many groups and individuals opposed to Vitter, even many normally committed to Democrats, have speculated that Dardenne or Angelle might offer a more viable runoff challenge to the senator in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide in a half-dozen years.
Despite Friday’s show of support from New Orleans officials — City Council members Jared Brossett, James Gray and Nadine Ramsey, state Sen. Ed Murray and Clerk of Civil District Court Dale Atkins were on hand, and Councilwomen LaToya Cantrell and Susan Guidry also sent their endorsements — Edwards said his campaign has not been focused on lining up official endorsements from elected officials.
“We haven’t gone around the state asking people for endorsements,” Edwards said. “You know, we are glad to accept them if they’re offered. But it hasn’t been a focus of our campaign.”
Edwards said he had talked with Landrieu but had not specifically asked for an endorsement.
The value of an endorsement from any elected official is debatable, and, given the antipathy toward New Orleans in other areas of the state, Landrieu’s seal of approval could even be used as a weapon against a candidate.
That’s a tactic Vitter, in particular, has already put to prominent use in the governor’s race. Throughout the summer, he exchanged barbs with Landrieu over the crime rate in New Orleans and the mayor’s push to remove four statues in the city dedicated to Confederate officials or a white supremacist organization, saying city government should be focused on “murders, not monuments.”
The Landrieu name also may carry a bit less weight now than it did before Mary Landrieu lost her Senate re-election bid last year to Vitter-backed Republican Bill Cassidy.
Karen Carter Peterson, the Louisiana Democratic Party chairwoman and a state senator from New Orleans, expressed surprise Friday that Landrieu was still on the fence in the governor’s race. She cited three policies of an Edwards administration that she said would have concrete benefits for New Orleans and its residents: an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, to cover a wide swath of low- and moderate-income residents; a hike in the minimum wage; and support for legislation mandating equal pay for women.
“I suspect that whether it’s before or after, we’ll be able to come together,” Peterson said.
Staff writer Jessica Williams contributed to this report.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.