All this week (as part of early voting) and on Feb. 1, New Orleans voters will go to the polls to choose a mayor for the next four years. Incumbent Mitch Landrieu is seeking a second and final term. His main challenger, former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, has mounted a spirited campaign. Both men are intelligent, talented, schooled in city politics and passionate about New Orleans. We are fortunate to have two such candidates for mayor.
Whenever an incumbent mayor seeks re-election, his record becomes the overarching campaign issue. For his part, Landrieu points to tangible signs that New Orleans has come a long way since the painful final months of former Mayor Ray Nagin's tenure. At the same time, Bagneris is correct when he says that many citizens are still waiting for the recovery to gain real traction in their neighborhoods. Overall, we believe New Orleans is a far better place today than it was four years ago — and it's headed in the right direction. We therefore endorse Mitch Landrieu for a second term as New Orleans mayor. We also offer some suggested areas of improvement during his second term.
Crime has been the No. 1 issue in most mayoral elections for the past half-century, but there's genuine hope that things are getting better. In 2013, New Orleans recorded 155 murders — a drop of 20 percent compared to 2012 and the fewest in almost 30 years. Equally important, shootings declined as well. Landrieu's NOLA for Life anti-violence program is showing real gains. On other crime fronts, however, the news is not so good: police pay and morale are unacceptably low, and the New Orleans Police Department is losing officers faster than the Police Academy can replace them. The mayor will have to bring all his political skills to the task of addressing those problems, and we are confident he will.
Blight is another major concern, but here again Landrieu has made great strides — especially compared to his predecessor. He achieved his goal of taking down 10,000 blighted properties, and real estate values are surging in many parts of town. His opponent correctly notes that some areas — particularly New Orleans East, the Lower 9th Ward and parts of Algiers — have yet to enjoy the full fruits of the city's recovery. This is another area for the mayor to focus on in his second term. To that end, Bagneris offers a very solid plan for fighting blight. It's a three-pronged attack that addresses the housing needs of the disadvantaged, the public-sector working class and the city's growing entrepreneurial class. For all their differences, the mayor would do well to incorporate Bagneris' ideas into his own blight-reduction strategies.
The city budget presented enormous challenges to Landrieu when he took office. He faced a "structural deficit" of roughly $100 million in his first year — and he had barely seven months to right the ship. He did so without laying off any vital public safety city employees. More important, he convinced the City Council to roll forward — slightly — city property taxes in his first full year as mayor in order to double the budget for NORD and stabilize an important revenue stream. He also held scores of neighborhood meetings to hear firsthand from citizens as to their priorities — and he responded by making those priorities his own. A pair of federally imposed consent decrees threatens to undermine the budget stability Landrieu achieved in his first two years, but he already is working to forestall that looming fiscal crisis while still honoring the federal mandates.
Perhaps the mayor's greatest strength is his ability to represent New Orleans as our ambassador to the world. Even his harshest critics admit that he excels at this. More important, Mitch Landrieu made New Orleanians believe in their city again, and he united us in that belief. It's ironic, then, that he gets criticized for being intolerant and for taking a "my-way-or-the-highway" approach to governance. Let's face facts: It's hard to govern a big city. The job requires challenging entrenched political interests and telling some folks "no." Lest anyone forget, New Orleans has a "strong mayor" form of government. What we see in Landrieu is a mayor who understands all too well the powers vested in his office and who has the political will to use those powers to make things happen. Years from now, Mitch Landrieu's style will be a footnote. What will matter is what he got done. We think he deserves a second term to get even more done.