A New Orleans Tribune Analysis
Who knows what’s next for Mayor Mitch Landrieu? Of course, there has been speculation—plenty speculation—about the future political aspirations of our current mayor as he wraps up his last year at City Hall.
To be sure, Mitch Landrieu’s national profile has been raised. He was recently elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors—no doubt buoyed by the city’s continued rebound from Hurricane Katrina and, in no small measure, elevated by his prominent efforts to remove four Confederate-era monuments from the city’s landscape, efforts that garnered national attention and bolstered, if not triggered, similar moves in major cities across the South.
After President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, Landrieu echoed sentiments shared by leaders of cities across the nation that they would take the lead on environmental issues in the absence of national direction. One day after his address, he released a climate action strategy for the city of New Orleans.
Since assuming his role as the head of the USCM, he has taken shots at “dysfunction” in Washington, D.C., and the Republican healthcare bill among and other issues.
And he did not shy away from sparring with President Trump on immigration and the Department of Justice’s designation of New Orleans as one of the so-called “sanctuary cities” that could risk losing federal dollars for not jumping on the bandwagon of a Trump deportation policy described by many as unconstitutional and dangerous. That move prompted Mayor Landrieu to fire back, declaring that while the city of New Orleans is in compliance with federal immigration policy, New Orleans and NOPD will not become a part of “Trump’s civil deportation force.”
Such facts at least suggest that maybe Landrieu has big plans after he leaves his Perdido Street digs.
Of course, that is all supposition. Here’s what we will say with complete certainty: If the mayor’s final State of the City address is any indication, he plans to move forward—whatever his direction—with confidence and conviction.
“In our final year in office, we will cement the strong foundation we have built for the future, while also staying focused on the challenges that hold us back,” Landrieu said near the start of the roughly 37-minute speech delivered on July 6 at the Civic Auditorium. “We will finish strong.”
The Mayor went on to detail his administration’s achievements in various areas—from increasing the minimum wage of city employees to revamping the city’s recreation department to efforts to address the city’s affordable housing crisis to the city’s celebrated post-Katrina comeback and more. So as the slate of mayoral candidates gear up for the Oct. 14 race to decide who will guide and shape New Orleans for the next four years, Mayor Mitch Landrieu is looking back at his last seven years, outlining his final months in City Hall and defining his legacy as the 61st mayor of New Orleans.
As he reflects, we will too—on what his tenure has meant for the city of New Orleans today and its future.
From Images to Industry: Changing the Face of a Southern City
One of the chief moments in Mitch Landrieu’s administration unfolded relatively recently; and he will probably be forever known as the mayor who took down the monuments. Landrieu’s decision to revisit the call (one that has intermittently popped up in the public discourse over the 40 plus years) to remove these shrines to a lost cause quickly drew both praise and criticism. Even here at The New Orleans Tribune, while we agreed that monuments to the confederacy had no place in New Orleans, some of us were not in favor of time, energy and effort being put into the debate on the issue. After public debate, the City Council voted on removal of four monuments, which did not immediately come down, but instead became the center of lawsuits, public protests . . . and, well, more debate.
Landrieu did not give up, however. In the wake of a final court ruling in the city’s favor and sometimes in the middle of night—nearly two years after the original vote to remove statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis along with the monument to the Battle at Liberty Place, the first monument came down, a step that oddly enough evoked criticism from some who wanted the monuments gone but felt that doing so in the middle of the night was akin to bowing to pro-monument forces. On this issue, we stood with the Mayor. It seems that he was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. But with protests and threats of violence, the night-time, unpublicized removal made sense to us.
On May 19, with the last of the four monuments slated for removal finally razed from its pedestal, Mayor Landrieu delivered a speech from Gallier Hall that reverberated across the nation. In it, he said:
“The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal – through monuments and through other means – to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for . . . I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us. And make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago — we can more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and forge a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and a more perfect union.”
Landrieu received widespread praise after that speech and about a month later was elected to serve as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. While there are still many on the other side of the debate who decry Landrieu’s role in the monuments removal, the whole deal has ultimately been a win for the Mayor and the city—showcasing New Orleans as a progressive Southern city primed to lead the nation forward in the 21st Century.
In fact, former Baltimore Sun reporter Jamie Stiehm, now a syndicated columnist whose op-eds appear in newspapers across the nation, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, praised Landrieu in a piece that appeared online in U.S. News & World Report. She wrote:
“The mayor’s step is courageous, controversial and frankly long overdue. The Civil War ended 152 years ago. What such marble monuments do is dredge up buried racial hatred and the bitterness of losing to the Yankees. And of course, they glorify the lost cause. White people like me probably fail to fully appreciate the public insult that emanates from these statues to Black people as a class. For the record: There was nothing nice or pretty about the antebellum South’s brutal slavery.”
And yes, as the monuments finally began to come down, all of us at The Tribune even came around, applauding both the efforts of Take ‘Em Down NOLA, the coalition of organizations and citizens that pushed for their removal, along with the mayor. Our continued hope is that their removal is more than a token action and that it makes way for substantive changes in policy and activity that result in markedly improved lives for all New Orleanians.
Meanwhile, tearing down a few monuments is not Landrieu’s only effort at changing the face of New Orleans. Known far and wide as a party town, New Orleans’ main economic engine and life blood remains tourism. In 2016, visitors to New Orleans spent $7.41 billion, a 5.1 percent increase from 2015. And New Orleans hosted a record-breaking 10.45 million visitors, a 6.9 percent increase compared to 2015, according to a University of New Orleans report prepared for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
With numbers like that, investments that promote and boost the tourism industry cannot be avoided; but the city’s inescapable dependency on tourism as its main commercial activity did not stop Landrieu from exploring and supporting other opportunities for economic growth in the city. And it appears to be paying off.
New Orleans has a growing economy in both the hi-tech and bio-tech fields that was ignited in 2012 when GE Capital opened a corporate office in New Orleans with 300 jobs in information technology (IT) and software development. According to reports, those jobs provided salaries ranging from $60,000 to $100,000. The city is now home to several tech start-ups, including MobileQubes, a self-service mobile phone charging kiosk; Quarrio, a platform that helps salespeople to spot trends, analyze data and find information with simple questions; and Torsh, which has developed a software platform that allows educators to capture, upload and store in-classroom video content for coaching. The city is now also home to the New Orleans BioInnovation Center, a nonprofit business incubator dedicated to fostering entrepreneurs and innovators developing life-saving new technologies.
Moves to diversify New Orleans’ economy have fueled changes in its population as well, attracting newcomers to an old city that includes neighborhoods where some indigenous families have lived for centuries. And in those same neighborhoods, many longtime residents worry that rising home values, higher tax bills and perceive attacks on long-time customs and traditions—resulting from gentrification—as threats to their existence in the city.
As the face of New Orleans continues to change, our concern remains that the new New Orleans includes equity and opportunity for all, especially those native residents whose culture is at the core of the city’s thriving tourism industry. Creation of new economic engines and growth in new industries must be accompanied by clear plans and policies that ensure that those who have always called New Orleans home have access to opportunities by way of education, job training and work force development as well as access to capital and opportunities for business development. Anything short of this, as we see it, makes removing the monuments little more than a vain gesture.
It is true that whoever becomes New Orleans’ next mayor will be inheriting a very different and arguably better city than the one we had just eight short years ago. Time inevitably brings change—whether it is good or bad rests with one thing—perspective. And depending on where one sits, there are some things that have not changed for the better for some New Orleanians. In fact, in some areas, conditions have worsened.
Of course, the decision to tear down the remaining traditional public housing developments in New Orleans was made long before Landrieu became mayor. But the fallout from it—a major crisis in affordable housing—is one that we saw coming with the razing of traditional public housing units to make way for fewer, mixed-income dwellings without a real plan to serve all former public housing residents.
According to the most recent Katrina Index, a set of stats pulled together by New Orleans attorney and social justice advocate Bill Quiqley, New Orleans has only 47 affordable rental units for every 100 low-income residents. Thirty-seven percent of households in the city are paying half of their income for housing. And 36 percent of renters pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing, a more than 100 percent increase from 2004, when about 24 percent residents spent more than half their earnings on housing.
To his credit, Landrieu’s administration has taken steps to address the affordable housing crisis. In 2016 his office of Community Development announced a five-year plan to create or preserve 7,500 affordable housing units for residents.
And although it is receiving some pushback from the industry, we applaud Mayor Landrieu and the City Council for championing housing policy that either incentivizes or requires developers to make some affordable housing available in new projects; and we urge them to move forward with their efforts.
Post-Katrina Recovery and Economic Equity
Still, some dozen years after Hurricane Katrina, areas of the city—particularly New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward—have yet to fully rebound from the devastation of the storm and have not attracted the level of economic investment enjoyed in other parts of the city. While the long-awaited opening of New Orleans East Hospital, under Mayor Landrieu’s watch, has emerged as one bright spot, many residents lament the slow pace of major commercial investment in eastern New Orleans. And still today, there are significant portions of the Ninth Ward—which had one of the highest rates of Black home ownership in the entire state of Louisiana before Katrina—that don’t look much different than they did in the first few months after the storm—with just about every empty lot representing a home or business that has not returned. And it has not gone unnoticed that many of those same lots are now being purchased by gentrifiers.
Of course, Mayor Landrieu noted significant investments in New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward as part of his State of the City address, saying, “In eight years over $900 million has been invested in New Orleans East and $675 million in Lower Nine – in total, over $1.5 billion. We’ve already talked about the new $143 million hospital in the East, but don’t forget the tens of millions for Joe Brown Park, the New Orleans East Library, the 7th District Police Station, Village de L’est playground. There is also the Sanchez Center in Lower Nine, and Oliver Bush Playground.” He also mentioned five new fire stations.
Of course, parks, libraries, community centers and fire stations are welcomed sites and needed investments for any community, but New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward also need thriving commercial corridors, the creation of good-paying jobs close to where people live and quality, affordable housing to support and sustain communities. And while the opening of New Orleans East Hospital finally makes way for some of those opportunities, 10 plus years is a very long time to wait while residents of these areas watch other parts of the city burst at the seams with new luxury high-priced apartment units, biotech business incubators, and other commercial development.
With that said, it would be misleading not to point out the efforts that have been made during the last seven years to help make improvements in the lives of New Orleanians, especially as it relates to the economic vitality of the city’s residents.
During his address Mayor Landrieu noted that “unemployment has been nearly cut in half since its peak in 2010; and over seven years, the city’s vibrant economy has created 20,000 new jobs and opened more than 140 new retail and restaurant openings. After years of decline, New Orleans is one the fastest growing cities in America.”
Yet in the Black community, the situation remains bleak, though some headway has been made. Once at a mind-blowing 52 percent, the unemployment rate among working age Black males has fallen eight points to 44 percent under Landrieu’s watch. And while it seems slight because of the daunting double-digit rate, it is a more than 15 percent dip that likely can be credited to Landrieu’s strategy to connect disadvantaged job seekers and businesses to new opportunities as outlined in his Network for Economic Opportunity Strategy and to his STRIVE NOLA initiative designed to disadvantaged job seekers to employment opportunities by providing workforce case management, foundational skills training and supportive services. Together, both of these initiatives, while serving all disadvantaged job seekers, have had a keen focus on helping Black men enter and re-enter the workforce.
Also, along with the New Orleans City Council, Mayor Landrieu raised the minimum wage for all city employees to $10.10 an hour, a move they hope sets an example that other private and public employers will follow.
Of course, there are those who argue that $10.10 is still short of the wage needed to survive in New Orleans. One recent study suggests that New Orleanians need to earn about $18.54 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment without spending more than 30 percent of their income.
And make no mistake, 44 percent unemployment among Black men in a city that has created 20,000 new jobs in seven years is still, without reservation, an unacceptable statistic, begging the question: Exactly for whom were those 20,000 jobs created?
Nevertheless, the hike in the minimum wage for city workers and the dip in unemployment among Black males are improvements for which Mayor Landrieu and those that worked with him and alongside him in city government deserve credit.
Still, for the most disenfranchised and marginalized citizens, more is needed. To be sure, Landrieu’s successor will be charged with not only protecting and growing the policy and program strategies, economic investments and gains made in new industries and across the city, but he or she must also be challenged to give increased attention to parts of New Orleans and to groups of New Orleanians that have not enjoyed the same rate of progress.
Crime & Policing
Accomplishments notwithstanding, the Mayor’s final state of the city address turned ominous as Landrieu issued a warning that all of the city’s gains and progress could ultimately mean little if violent crime in New Orleans isn’t put in check.
Segueing from discussing climate change, coastal erosion and the environment, he said, “But as threatening as the disappearing coast and climate change is to our city’s long-term future, of course, the most difficult, the most immediate, and the most urgent issue we face is violent crime. There is no more important issue for us to totally rally around as a city.”
The admonition seemed particularly appropriate given a recent uptick in violent crime. Just one month before Mayor Landrieu gave his address, New Orleans experienced its most violent day this year on Saturday, June 3. By the end of that steamy day, 13 people had been shot in New Orleans, resulting in 11 injuries and two deaths.
As of press time, the murder toll in New Orleans was up to 100, with the killing of a 19-year-old on the morning of Friday, July 15. The murder toll in New Orleans for 2016 was 175. With a little less than half of the year remaining, it would take just roughly one murder every other day for the city to meet or exceed last year’s number.
But his cautionary tone as it relates to crime and violence in New Orleans does not mean Landrieu isn’t announcing successes in the areas of crime and criminal justice. He is.
For high points, the Mayor points to efforts to get a handle on the pressing problem plaguing the city today as well as tactics that tackle the systemic causes of crime—poverty, disenfranchisement, and lack of opportunity. During his speech, he listed changes made at NOPD to meet requirements outlined in the Department of Justice consent decree; the launching of NOLA for Life, described by the mayor as a comprehensive murder reduction strategy that includes investments in recreation and programs like midnight basketball along with Ceasefire, which has focused on stopping violent crime before it happens by mediating beefs—the street level arguments that often turn deadly, as well as the successes of the multi-agency gang unit responsible for 134 indictments against members of the city’s most violent gangs; the implementation of programs and initiatives aid disenfranchised citizens in forging paths to success; and increasing overtime for NOPD officers in the most-crime affected neighborhoods. He recently announced efforts to provide all NOPD officers with a pay raise of at least 10 percent, with detectives and ranking officers getting more.
Another high spot in Landrieu’s position on violence, crime and criminal justice—at least for us here at The Tribune—came when he issued an apology on behalf of the city to the families of Henry Glover, Ronald Madison and James Brissette. This act of contrition is particularly relevant as cops and communities across the nation clash over issues of police brutality, particularly in communities of color.
Still, the city’s violent crime problem appears to be the gauge many have and will use to judge Landrieu’s success just as it has been used to judge those who preceded him and who will follow.
For our part, we remain suspicious of any individual, entity or organization that lays the blame for the city’s crime problem at the feet of any one person. We have often said that before New Orleans can get a handle on violence, it must conquer poverty, miseducation, institutional racism and inequity. Until we all join in those battles, crime will win. And quite frankly, we are bothered by business leaders that cry about violence and crime in the city and want to blame the mayor but don’t want raise minimum wage or support affordable housing policies or embrace DBE participation in public contracts—those things over which they actually have control.
Although we think more could be done—we always say more could be done—we applaud Mayor Landrieu’s comprehensive approach to addressing the crime and violence. He, along with every other New Orleanian, is right to be concerned about crime, especially the most violent and heinous acts that not only result in tourists thinking twice before visiting the Crescent City, but also—and perhaps more importantly—has locals too scared to go about their daily lives or enjoy the city. To be sure, one wanton murder, one vicious carjacking, one monstrous armed robbery, or one shocking assault that leaves a traumatized victim, a grieving family or an entire city petrified is one too many.
But if violent crime, particularly murder, is going to be a gauge, it is only fair to note that New Orleans has not experienced any overwhelming spike in murders during Landrieu’s tenure when compared to the last 50 years. In 1970 under Moon Landrieu, there were 100 murders in New Orleans. The number of murders in the city gradually grew over the next several years, going up and down between more than a 100 to 251 in 1989. The next year, murders jumped to 304 and to 345 in 1991. The tide ebbed a bit in 1992, when there were 279 murders in the city and then catapulted again in 1993 to 395 and again in 1994 to 424, which is still the deadliest year in the city’s history. Since then, New Orleans has not come close to reaching such a horrific murder tally. The worst year on record under Mitch Landrieu was 2011, with 200 murders that year. And in 2014, with 150 murders, the number of murders in New Orleans had not been that low since 1999 when the murder count dropped to 158 under Marc Morial and the late NOPD Supt. Richard Pennington.
To be sure, we agree that violent crime and murders are critical issues that require the attention of all, we question the notion that they are somehow more out of hand than they have ever been. For his part, Landrieu does not appear to be so concerned with such numbers. He simply wants a safer city as do we all. And he appears set on taking a holistic approach to achieving the goal.
We can appreciate that as well.
On July 6, addressing a crowded Civic Theater, he said, “For generations, we’ve had more people in prison in Louisiana than anywhere else in the free world AND we’ve typically had more crime than anywhere else; highest incarceration rate and one of the highest violent crime rates. Something is not working and with 63 percent of the city’s $614 million general fund budget going to public safety and preparedness; it is costing us a fortune. This is not sustainable. That is why all elected officials, and I mean all, need to get on the same page regarding criminal justice reform. This is about being tough on crime and smart on crime. We can do both. And we are.”
As for what’s next for New Orleans and its people, including its outgoing mayor and the man or woman that will replace him, well the Mayor Landrieu said it best on July 6 at the Civic Theater when he referenced an old Haitian proverb.
“Beyond the mountain is another mountain.”
To that we say: God, give us the strength to climb.