Eight years ago, Mitch Landrieu stood outside Gallier Hall and asked the city to join him in taking a momentous step, to declare that New Orleans was done with “recovering.”
He asked the people who had elected him mayor in a landslide to “stop thinking about rebuilding the city we were” before Hurricane Katrina, “and start dreaming about the city we want to become.”
This was the ambitious vision that would guide Landrieu’s tenure — that he would remake a broken police force, confront a “culture of death” that left hundreds murdered each year and erase City Hall’s reputation for corrupt dealing.
It was probably inevitable that grand visions would collide with reality in some ways.
Eight years later, New Orleans is still a poor city compared with regional rivals like Houston or Atlanta. Its economy is still dominated by low-wage jobs in hotels and restaurants. It still struggles with a murder problem that places it among the most violent cities in the country.
But ambition has led to accomplishment as well. Taking office after the profligate final years of Ray Nagin's administration, Landrieu clawed his way out of a budget deficit nearly $100 million deep.
He imposed the more transparent contracting practices that Nagin’s administration had resisted, and he has avoided the type of scandal that eventually landed Nagin in prison.
Rather than deflect criticism of the local police force, he invited the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate abuses and draw up a landmark reform plan to be overseen by a federal judge.
And while some neighborhoods still languish, whole swaths of the city’s landscape have been remade — new libraries, police stations and thoroughfares, built with extra recovery dollars wrung from the federal government.
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WASHINGTON — Mitch Landrieu is not, at this very moment, running for president.
A new airport terminal is rising out of the ground — a goal that had eluded New Orleans mayors for decades — and officials broke ground Wednesday on redeveloping one of the biggest pieces of underutilized real estate in the city, the old World Trade Center building at the foot of Canal Street.
Landrieu himself still speaks as confidently about his own abilities as he did the day he took his first oath of office.
In a wide-ranging interview during his last week in office, the mayor flipped through a tall stack of completed projects, which his staff has had bound into a hardcover book titled, “The Will and the Way.”
“I think that you will agree with me, after you look at this,” he said, “that this is a book of accomplishments that is admirable at least, and miraculous at best.”
He does not admit failures: If the old Six Flags amusement park site still sits fallow in New Orleans East, it is because the time simply wasn’t ripe for redevelopment. If the Sewerage & Water Board, widely blamed for last year’s flooding, needs reform, it’s still in much better shape than the way he found it, the mayor insists.
Landrieu’s case that he has had a successful tenure begins with the grim conditions he inherited in 2010.
The list of disasters that preceded his election still rolls off his tongue like a well-rehearsed grocery list: hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the worst national recession since the 1930s and a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that was threatening the city’s restaurant and tourism industries.
Landrieu, the scion of a political dynasty that began four decades before with his father’s two terms as mayor, had served in the state Legislature and as lieutenant governor. He had promised voters that he knew “what to do and how to do it.”
And the first thing he had to do was cut. “We were balancing the budget on the head of a pin for the first two to three years,” said Andy Kopplin, who served as chief administrative officer for most of Landrieu’s tenure.
Landrieu imposed 11 days' worth of furloughs on city workers and leveled a hiring freeze across all departments. The belt tightening would eventually draw bitter complaints from groups representing the city’s firefighters and police officers. Staffing shortages at the Police Department in particular would be blamed for a spike in response times and continued high crime rates.
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But in the short term, Landrieu managed to balance the budget. And as he leaves office, the city has enough money on hand to set millions aside as an emergency reserve.
The mayor also gets credit for establishing a more professional operation at City Hall. Where Nagin was accused of doling out professional services contracts to favored vendors in return for bribes and other perks, Landrieu put a committee of staffers in charge of hiring outside firms and ordered that they meet in public to make their decisions.
He brought in subordinates with polished credentials and sought to hold them accountable by collecting reams of data on his various initiatives, most notably the effort to get blight under control. Under a program called BlightStat, officials met regularly to track the city’s progress.
“A basic attribute, not fully appreciated, of the Landrieu administration was that it was filled with people who were smart, honest and innovative,” said Walter Isaacson, a longtime friend and ally of the mayor’s who led the Aspen Institute before returning to New Orleans. "There were no big scandals; they did their jobs imaginatively and with an innovative spirit.”
His boosters argue that Landrieu’s moves paved the way for greater private investment, the establishment of new retail outlets like Costco and the boom in condo and hotel building that is still remaking the Central Business District.
“The fundamental task of economic development is to create conditions where people feel comfortable investing their capital,” said Michael Hecht, president of the nonprofit regional economic development organization GNO Inc. “And this administration, which has done so much to reintroduce stability and growth in New Orleans in a broad way, has helped radically transform New Orleans in that regard.”
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Dissent not welcome
In approaching his goals, Landrieu prized unanimity, embodied in one of the slogans he introduced during his first campaign: “One team. One fight. One voice. One city.” He still often cites how frequently the City Council approved new policies on unanimous votes during his tenure.
Critics, on the other hand, complain that Landrieu's aversion to conflicting views lent his administration an authoritarian streak. They accused the mayor of behaving like a bully behind closed doors while keeping up a mostly affable public face.
The local political consultant Cheron Brylski once famously sent around a newsletter arguing that Landrieu was doing a great job — even while conceding that he was an “asshole.”
“There are assholes and then there are productive assholes,” Brylski wrote. “And in politics, the productive ones are often what you need when you have some place to go and no easy road to get there.”
On many of the city’s most intractable problems, Landrieu clashed openly with those he felt stood in his way.
When the U.S. Justice Department and Sheriff Marlin Gusman worked out a reform agreement for the local jail that would cost the city millions of dollars a year, Landrieu lashed out at both of them. He accused the feds of unbalancing a delicate city budget and slammed Gusman for mismanaging the jail.
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When the judges at Civil District Court wouldn’t go along with Landrieu’s plans for renovating the old Charity Hospital building, he accused them of lacking vision and refused to get on board with their own plans for a new courthouse on Duncan Plaza.
When firefighters accused the mayor of shortchanging their pension fund, the mayor insisted that the city simply couldn’t afford bigger payments, and that the blame should fall on those who had made poor investments on the fund’s behalf.
Even after a judge ruled against Landrieu in a lawsuit over the fund, Landrieu for months refused to pay and insisted he would “stay under house arrest for two years” if held in contempt of court.
Probably no fight has won Landrieu more anger or accolades than the one over his decision to remove four Jim Crow-era monuments from their pedestals, a move that prompted death threats, several lawsuits and a dive in Landrieu’s popularity among white voters.
His defenders say the mayor’s approach was sometimes necessary. “It’s a high-stress gig, and it’s tough to be charming all the time,” former Mayor Marc Morial said. Some situations “require directness ... bluntness, and decision-making that may ruffle some feathers,” he said.
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Problems old and new
For all his accomplishments, Landrieu’s successor will inherit a city that is struggling with many of the same problems as eight years ago, and some new ones.
In a poor city, the median household income hasn’t registered any measurable increase during Landrieu’s tenure, and black households have actually seen a decline. More than half of local renters are spending at least 30 percent of their income on housing, and some residents complain that ineffectual city policies and enforcement against the rampant use of sites like Airbnb have turned their neighborhoods into virtual tourist districts, with few places for permanent residents.
Landrieu himself concedes that heavy lifting remains to be done at the Sewerage & Water Board. The flooding that struck in August of last year caught his administration uncharacteristically flat-footed.
And the bungled response, in which officials repeatedly put out false information about the status of pumps, turbines and manpower, put a dent in the image of assured competence that Landrieu has worked so hard to project.
The mayor insisted that the agency “is much better today than when we got here,” citing millions of dollars worth of recent repair work that has added more power capacity to the city’s pumps than they’ve had in years.
But he has said incoming Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration will have big decisions to make about how to overhaul the city’s drainage infrastructure, which is still woefully outdated, and how to pay for that overhaul.
Cantrell will also take over a road repair program that has gotten off to a slower start than anticipated. Landrieu secured another $2.4 billion from FEMA to rebuild many of the city’s roadways and the pipes underneath them, but projects remain hung up by a lengthier federal approval process than expected.
Then there’s the city’s other major intractable issue: crime.
Landrieu has described an almost personal relationship with victims of the city’s violence, keeping binders with photos and details about each person killed. He has pushed a handful of initiatives aimed at pre-emptively stopping violence, grouped under the umbrella of NOLA For Life.
But it's still unclear whether any of it will produce a lasting decline in the number of people murdered here in a typical year. The figure was 175 in 2010 and was down to 157 last year — a measure of progress, but still leaving New Orleans with among the highest per-capita murder rates in the country.
And the year-to-year fluctuations in the counts of murders and violent crimes overall make it difficult to say whether any decreases will truly stick. The number of shootings taking place in the city each year — considered by many criminologists a more reliable yardstick of violent crime than murder — has hardly changed since he took office.
Landrieu argues he has still made headway in restoring the reputation of the Police Department.
There have been 17 new recruit classes during his tenure. Officers now wear body-worn cameras meant to record potentially controversial encounters, and the city has settled civil rights claims brought by the families of those wounded or killed by police officers in the chaotic aftermath of Katrina.
Today, the department's approval ratings have gone from a low of 22 percent to well above 70 percent, Landrieu said.
"So when you think about what’s been going on around the country in the last eight years, with things going in the other direction ... the Police Department has been doing a really good job,” he said.
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