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. Waste abounded; no one, for instance, kept track of a fleet of 400 city-owned vehicles, which employees were using to commute long distances on the municipal dime. And the business of doling out contracts was, as always, a “cesspool of patronage,” says Susan Howell, professor emeritus at the University of New Orleans. Landrieu has tackled it all with zeal—slashing spending, overhauling the procurement process, and assembling a team of technocrats to impose order on city governance.
So far, the public is with him. But Landrieu is well aware that entrenched interests don’t take kindly to reformers. Political contributors are accustomed to getting their way at City Hall. And minority-owned enterprises have historically countered the white corporate elite by treating the mayor’s office as their “franchise”—a steady source of jobs and business. “Every reform he makes will alienate some segment of the political elite or the electorate,” says Howell.
Landrieu has even set out to overhaul the New Orleans Police Department, which has a sordid history of corruption and crooked cops. The city’s murder rate is the highest in the country—10 times the national average—and the violence can be savage and chilling (one guy dismembered and cooked his girlfriend). “The culture of death and violence on our streets is unnatural,” Landrieu said in a July speech. He’s responded by naming a new police chief, Ronal Serpas, who specializes in data-driven and community policing. And he called in the Justice Department—which is pursuing at least eight criminal investigations of the NOPD—to oversee police reforms.
As he goes about tackling all these problems, Landrieu has made a point of engaging the community—something Nagin was faulted for neglecting. Every week he meets with large gatherings of constituents to hear their pleas and grievances. He takes every question—no matter how late the clock ticks—and responds with a mix of gentle empathy and brutal candor. People always ask him about tackling blight. But that would mean condemning unoccupied properties, which would close the door on owners who may have been displaced by Katrina, and who are disproportionately poor and black. “You understand what this is going to mean?” he’ll reply. “Whoever’s back is back, and whoever’s not is not. Are y’all willing to have that argument?” Overwhelmingly, the answer is yes. “Everybody in the city has said, ‘Now’s the time,’ ” says Landrieu. “Let’s now look forward at what we want to be, as opposed to what we were.”
Though New Orleans has been ailing and shrinking since long before Katrina struck, some signs of hope are emerging. The school system has become a national laboratory for innovation, and 61 percent of kids now attend charter schools, according to a recent report. New businesses are sprouting, fueled by a growing population of young professionals and nurtured by incubators like the Idea Village, a nonprofit that helps startups. Various studies also show increasing optimism and healthier race relations in the city. There’s plenty of potential for Landrieu to capitalize on. But “he has to take on as much as possible before his honeymoon runs out,” says Howell. As history has shown, honeymoons in the Big Easy are notoriously short-lived.