It seemed to happen overnight. When I went to sleep, Mitch Landrieu was the mediocre mayor of New Orleans, facing lethargic public support and intense local disapproval. When I woke up, he was a future leader of the Democratic Party and a 2020 presidential contender. In New Orleans, many dissatisfied Democrats like me are now watching his ascension and wondering what the hell is going on.
A boost from the New York Times is partly to blame. In April, a brief mention in the Times identified Landrieu as a Democrat to watch, a “high-profile city executive” who might rival Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Before long, The Hill was calling Landrieu a “dark-horse Dem,” and CNN was referring to him as a “leading Democrat.”
But a nod from the Times isn’t the entire story. (It never is.) If Mitch Landrieu has emerged as a player on the national stage, it’s because there is a yawning void where exciting young Democrats should be.
Little about Landrieu is new or exciting. He’s your run-of-the-mill centrist Democrat, one who appeals to the left with illusory calls for progress even as he ingratiates himself with center-right supporters by straddling the ideological line. He’s a beneficiary of his family’s political dynasty and of the current vacuum in Democratic leadership that leaves pundits and party loyalists desperately grasping for any semblance of a fresh “new face.”
Never mind that Landrieu’s administration led New Orleans into this year’s hurricane season with its drainage system in shambles. Never mind that the form of centrism Landrieu is peddling—formalized in August under the recycled banner of “New Democracy”—is terminally confused. In this moment, with months of Trumpism behind us and many more to go, Landrieu has juice.
When will we stop mistaking the hollow oratory of unexceptional centrists for steadfast moral leadership?
We are a thousand days out from our next presidential election, and Democrats are looking for a leader who can be every bit as unifying as Trump is divisive. In May, Landrieu appeared to act the part, celebrating the removal of four confederate monuments in New Orleans with a soaring speech and an op-ed in the Washington Post.
Readers of the op-ed, titled “Why I’m Taking Down My City’s Confederate Monuments,” could be forgiven for thinking that Landrieu had been a visionary and a workhorse, pushing hard over his seven years as mayor to topple shrines to white supremacy. But Malcolm Suber, co-founder of Take ’Em Down Nola, the grassroots organization that led the charge to remove the Confederate monuments, remembers it differently.
“This was a continuation of struggles in the black community for decades to rid the city of these white supremacy monuments,” he told me. “There was no real aggressive stance by the Landrieu administration.”
While Landrieu deserves credit for elevating the monument debate in 2015 in the wake of the terrorist attack on a black Methodist church in Charleston, South Carolina, his commitment was fleeting. When protesters faced off with pro-monument rallies endorsed by David Duke, Landrieu was all too silent. When the intensifying debate brought a pestilence of armed neo-Nazis to the city, the mayor failed to issue a forceful denunciation. Landrieu left New Orleans citizens (60 percent of whom are black) devoid of clear support as they marched for historical racial justice. These battles, as the recent events in Charlottesville have illustrated, are not only psychologically onerous but physically dangerous.
After two years of dormancy, Landrieu reappeared once the removal of the four monuments was inevitable. In his triumphant speech, shared endlessly on Facebook, he quoted MLK and Nelson Mandela and served up some ungainly gumbo-as-diversity metaphors. One thing he didn’t mention: the tireless work of the citizen activists that made the victory possible.
“To have him make that long speech as if he was a champion and a real believer in freedom and equality was just insulting to us,” said Suber, who has been lobbying the government to remove the monuments since the early 1990s. “Anybody can claim anything verbally, but when rubber meets road what has he done?”
The sermon on the monuments was not the only high-profile speech that Landrieu delivered this year. In the wake of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, Landrieu travelled to Miami to tell the U.S. Conference of Mayors—a group he leads—that mayors would be the ones to save the country from the existential threat of climate change. “The cities themselves, through their mayors, are going to create a new national policy,” he said.
It was an uplifting message on a dark day. And it is true that responsible U.S. mayors will have to shoulder the burden while our president is hell-bent on overseeing our country’s environmental destruction. The problem is that Mitch Landrieu is not one of those mayors.
“His legacy on climate change is one of talking and plan making that addresses the impacts, but nothing that addresses the root causes,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental health and justice organization. “Yeah, he can stand up there and grandstand, but when it comes to doing something real, that would involve really taking on the fossil fuel industry, and he won’t do it.”
He isn’t just afraid to stand up to the fossil fuel industry; he’s a strident supporter. “We need fossil fuels, and we need to make sure we keep drilling,” he said on MSNBC. But hey, New Orleans is only a coastal city lying below sea level in a state that loses a football field of land to the encroaching Gulf of Mexico every 100 minutes, so no need for urgency.
This summer, after years of dallying, Landrieu finally announced a plan to reduce New Orleans’ greenhouse gas emissions, one that Rolfes describes as “pretty tepid.” But since he’s conveniently leaving office next May, it’s unclear whether this plan will ever be implemented.
I don’t know many who consider Landrieu to be a champion of civil rights or climate change action. But what he lacks in moral tenacity, he makes up for in an ability to capitalize on the national mood for political gain. As our current president has shown us, that talent might win you elections, but it doesn’t make you fit to lead a country.
It’s frustrating to watch Landrieu rhapsodize about policy issues he doesn’t truly fight for. But what’s more concerning is his apparent misunderstanding of New Orleans’ oldest and most pervasive problems. He says he wants to alleviate gun violence, poverty, crime, mass incarceration, and economic inequality, but he doesn’t seem to see grasp why it is important to address these problems simultaneously.
That poverty is at the root of crime is indisputable. But as Landrieu leaves office, only 1 percent of the city’s budget is dedicated to economic development and opportunity, while 44 percent of black men in New Orleans remain jobless. The city’s poverty rate has risen since his inauguration, leaving one out of two black children living in poverty. Perhaps he believes it is coincidence that areas of concentrated poverty are also the ones that suffer the highest levels of gun violence.
But Landrieu’s approach to crime reduction has never highlighted economic revitalization. He is a disciple of the antiquated ideology that says crime is the product of culture, and that culture should be primarily altered through arrests and incarceration. One in seven black men in New Orleans is either in prison, on parole, or on probation. It is difficult to imagine how this system of incarceration, taken to an even greater extent, could possibly be the answer.
In 2015, Mitch Landrieu debated Ta-Nehisi Coates on the best ways to aid areas of concentrated crime. “There is a culture of violence that permeates certain sections of the United States,” Landrieu claimed.
I think what we often miss when we talk about culture is that it becomes an easy way to not acknowledge that people are making rational decisions within the life, within the structures, within the places they live. . . . We have redlined to herd certain people into certain neighborhoods. We deprive those neighborhoods of resources. We deprive those neighborhoods of jobs. We create what sociologists call “criminogenic conditions.” . . . We have to start taking the structural forces that got us here seriously.
Even if law enforcement were the key to crime reduction, Landrieu has failed in this regard. Despite his pledge to create a stronger police force, there are 29 percent fewer police officers in the NOPD than when he came into office, turning private security companies that patrol rich neighborhoods into booming businesses. Emergency 911 response times have nearly doubled.
Meanwhile, New Orleans had the fourth highest homicide rate in the country in 2016, a rate nearly 60 percent higher than Chicago’s. And 2017, so far, has been even deadlier. Landrieu, despite his attempts to curb crime through law enforcement, will leave the city with a higher homicide and violent crime rate than it had when he took office.
Regardless of his shortcomings, Landrieu will likely be remembered as a fine mayor—fine, and nothing more. He didn’t seize the opportunity to make the drastic changes New Orleans needs, but neither is he leaving behind a burning city. Perhaps Landrieu’s most virtuous legacy will be that he genuinely cared about New Orleans. But that isn’t enough. Without a staunch commitment to consequential policy change, his passion is equivalent to indifference.
So why are some Democrats now hoping that this subpar politician will become their sovereign leader?
Maybe onlookers thought they saw a flash of presidential vision in August when Landrieu helped to launch the “base-broadening” New Democracy group, a combination super PAC and think tank backed by several dozen former governors, former Cabinet members, congressmen, and fellow mayors.
They want to style themselves as something “new,” but don’t be fooled: this is the same trite, failed political strategy that centrist Democrats have been pursuing for decades. As Republicans sprint to the right, these Democrats follow them, searching for the elusive center while pushing the entire policy debate to the conservative half of the spectrum. These are politicians willing to sell out leftist principles, like access to reproductive health, in order to pilfer a few votes from the center-right. This approach shows their moral dereliction, but it also shows how little they understand about why Democrats failed in 2016.
Yes, picking up some swing voters would be nice, but the Democrats have a bigger problem: their party is devoid of a tangible vision for the country. They are so occupied with not pissing anyone off that they piss everybody off. Landrieu and the New Democrats want to repair their party with a platform that appeals to the center-right. But what about offering one that speaks to the left?
Landrieu is another Democrat who fails to see the political power of economic populism. He’s another politician who believes that the unapologetic rebuke of all racism, misogyny, ethnocentrism, and bigotry is still too radical for American voters.
How much longer will Democrats anoint party leaders who strive for the safety of neutrality? If we allow the likes of Mitch Landrieu to define the future of the Democratic Party, we will end up with one party representing the far right and another party representing the center-right. It’s a future that no true Democrat should hope for. And it’s just bad politics.