While New Orleans was consumed last week by its first-ever Super Bowl—and then by celebrating its first-ever victory—something even more important was happening here. The city chose a new mayor, its first in eight years. Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu made a few headlines for being the first white candidate, in a city that is more than 60 percent black, to win that office in 32 years (since his father held it). But the real story isn't his race. Landrieu's unity-and-reform agenda won an 11-way contest with 66 percent of the vote—a colossal mandate. With it, New Orleans may at last be entering an era of clean, efficient government—the kind that can finally rebuild from Katrina.
For many years before Katrina, a few big political machines dominated the city's government. They anointed candidates in the typical ways—by meeting, usually behind closed doors, and extracting pledges to advance their agenda. That usually took the form of patronage, either in appointments or government contracts. Because it was thought only a black candidate could be elected mayor here, the most powerful groups represented the black community. Political organizations like COUP (from the historically Creole Seventh Ward), LIFE (a rival Seventh-Ward body that produced another father-son mayoral dynasty), and BOLD (from Central City) didn't always agree with each other. But, with their loyal, deep-pocketed business allies and big voter-turnout muscle, mayoral hopefuls couldn't win without help from at least one of them. (White groups had a great deal of wealth—and therefore power, too—but only enough to be courted by crossover black candidates. There weren't enough white voters in New Orleans for a white man to win.) That meant officeholders—including down-ticket candidates like sheriffs and city councilmen—had debts to pay and faithful supporters to reward. And the result was a raft of corruption scandals that made New Orleans the butt of national jokes.
Landrieu, the lieutenant governor, may change all of that. His two-thirds majority, including 63 percent of the black vote, meant he never had to face a runoff—a first for an open mayoral seat since the runoff system was introduced in 1930. In polls, New Orleanians felt buyer's remorse when, after they gave Mayor Ray Nagin a second term, he failed to speed up the pace of recovery. Polls also showed that Landrieu's most resonant campaign pitch had to do with harnessing his connections in Baton Rouge and Washington, where his sister is a U.S. senator and his father was a secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Not only did Mitch secure a mandate for his "competence" agenda, but he also drew so many votes from so many quarters that he owes his election to no one constituency. At the eleventh hour, a few of the machines threw him their support, but he hardly needed them: Landrieu carried 366 of 367 precincts.
As the strongest politician in New Orleans he'll have political capital, a honeymoon to spend it, and no reason to look over his shoulder. No mayor in recent memory has owned that kind of independence. "The size of his victory means that nobody can come to him and say, 'You owe me your election,' " says Arnold Hirsch, a New Orleans historian at the University of New Orleans. He can use that independence to ignore rebuilding projects by his contributors, and to hand out contracts only to projects vetted by his budget office. If he's up for it, he'll have space to run something New Orleans has never seen before: an empiricist, technocratic government—more Michael Bloomberg and less Boss Tweed.
Contrasting him with Nagin, City Council President Arnie Fielkow says, "The mayor-elect will end up doing what he believes in the interest of everyone." That means (according to local scuttlebutt) Landrieu won't let hubris stop him from drafting an election opponent, the fair-housing advocate James Perry, into his administration. And it means he may bring about good-government reforms—like public hearings for the contract-awarding process—that City Council President Arnie Fielkow unsuccessfully pressured Nagin to enact. Those changes may cost a few plutocrats their sweetheart deals with the city, but given Landrieu's broad-based support, it'll hardly be like gambling with his future.
At the same time, the political machines appear to be on the wane. If Landrieu governs intelligently, they'll be even less powerful in four years. Collectively, they have failed to cultivate new political talent, which is why Landrieu's toughest competitors were from the private sector. And even several down-ballot candidates endorsed by the machines—judges, mostly—lost elections that would have been unthinkable before the storm. "He'll have a long list he'll have to go down to make sure his bases are covered," says Robert Dupont, another University of New Orleans historian, meaning that he'll have to be mayor of more than just the Broadmoor neighborhood he grew up in. But if he is, he'll weaken the machine argument that only they can represent their communities because the municipal government won't fight for their voters.
It's true that idealists draw a false dichotomy between politicians and reformers: Landrieu can make government more honest and still hear out the former kingmakers. "He can do less politics than normal, but I don't think he can eliminate it," says Peter F. Burns, a political scientist at Loyola University. "His people will have some positions, but 25 of his relatives won't get contracts." (A reference to Marc Morial, the two-term mayor who preceded Nagin and handed large construction contracts to his campaign contributors and his LIFE patrons.) And the irony isn't lost on New Orleanians that their choice to remake the system—usually a role for an outsider—comes from a political dynasty. Yet the Landrieu clan hasn't held any municipal power in three decades, meaning family members never got a chance to dirty their hands.
It's also possible that Landrieu's own good-government instincts won't trickle down to lower elected officeholders. But between the carrot (his leadership by example) and the stick (an aggressive U.S. attorney on the prowl for political corruption), it finally feels like morning in New Orleans. And it's not just because the Saints won a Super Bowl.