Let the Good Times Roll
Campo-Flores, Arian, Newsweek
Byline: Arian Campo-Flores
Will high-flying hopes succumb to the swamp of the 'Big Sleazy'? Not if the latest Crescent City crusader can help it.
Throughout New Orleans's seedy, scandal-ridden history, many a crusading mayor has swept into office promising to clean house. In the 1940s and '50s, DeLesseps Morrison tried to dismantle the patronage system, cutting sinecures from the municipal payroll and cracking down on waste and fraud in city departments. In the end, though, he assembled his own machine and tolerated some organized-crime activity, according to historian Edward Haas. "I am afraid that in the process of politics you may have lost your soul," a disenchanted friend wrote Morrison. In the 1990s came Marc Morial, who pledged to "clean out City Hall with a shovel, not a broom." His administration wound up subject to a federal corruption probe (though he himself wasn't a target). And most recently, there was Ray Nagin, who dubbed his administration "the Antichrist of politics in this city." He finished his second term this year amid an influence-peddling scandal centered on his technology department.
So why should anyone believe that the latest Crescent City crusader--Mayor Mitch Landrieu--will be any different? Son of the city's last white mayor, Moon Landrieu, and brother of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, he hails from an impressive political lineage. He's wonky, charismatic, and driven. And like so many of his predecessors, he's promising a lot. He vows to repair a dysfunctional city government, reform a corrupt police force, bring down an intolerable murder rate, and close a gaping budget deficit--on top of tackling the blight and brutalized infrastructure left behind by Hurricane Katrina, whose fifth anniversary just passed. "I don't know that previous mayors have tried to do what it is I'm trying to do right now," he told me in an interview at his office. (Modesty, perhaps, isn't his strong suit.)
New Orleanians are jaded folks, and they've heard these assurances before--which makes their enthusiasm for Landrieu all the more remarkable. He was elected in a landslide in February, garnering 66 percent of the vote and support across racial and class lines--no small feat in a city riven by factionalism. "We have the right man at the right time at the right place," says Joseph Canizaro, a prominent developer who has served on various rebuilding commissions. So are these high-flying hopes justified? Or will they succumb to the swamp of the "Big Sleazy," as has happened so many times before?
Landrieu, 50, grew up in the working-class, racially mixed Broadmoor neighborhood. One of nine siblings, he was known as restless and occasionally headstrong. His early passion was acting, and you can see traces of theatrical flair in his poise and delivery today. As the son of the first mayor to appoint blacks to prominent positions at City Hall, in the 1970s, Landrieu has benefited from a legacy of support among African-Americans. He has leveraged all this into a successful political career, first as a state representative--who earned a reputation for consensus-building--and later as Louisiana's lieutenant governor. But it was the mayoralty he always coveted.
Saner people might wonder why. When he assumed office in May, the budget deficit was $67 million--more than twice the figure he'd been led to expect. …