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Marc's Marks 

Marc Morial's legacy includes a vastly improved NOPD. But, he admits, he wishes he'd done some other things differently.

In many ways, Marc Morial will rank among New Orleans' most successful modern mayors. He leaves office with the highest voter approval ratings in memory, and no one can say that the city isn't substantially better off than when he arrived at City Hall eight years ago. A recent University of New Orleans survey shows voters are incredibly optimistic about the city's future -- a tribute both to Morial's accomplishments and to the budding mayoral career of his successor, businessman Ray Nagin.

At the same time, Morial's years as mayor will end with much of his potential unrealized. After a very successful first term, he seemed in the ensuing four years to focus more on patronage than on performance. His ill-fated "3T" referendum consumed valuable political capital, wasted precious time, and distracted him from making New Orleans safer, cleaner and more hospitable to new and expanding businesses. In the wake of his failed effort to change the City Charter and extend his tenure in office, Morial seemed all the more determined to reward his friends for past political support -- so much so that "patronage" framed the race to elect his successor.

So what will be his legacy now that he's gone?

Critics no doubt will say it's the handful of friends that he enriched and the blown opportunities for reform. The truth is, some people always get rich off government, because government as we know it today cannot function without private contractors. To the extent that Morial enlarged the group of government contractors to include minorities and women -- who would not otherwise have had a chance to grow their businesses -- his patronage policies are a welcome change. On the other hand, his heavy-handed attempt to further enrich a small group of close friends via privatization of the Sewerage and Water Board, airport consulting fees and other professional services leave many taxpayers and competing businesses disappointed, if not bitter.

When it comes to things that withstand the test of time -- real legacies -- every good mayor tries to leave a few lasting marks. In Morial's case, he leaves some that already are quite distinct, and others that require closer inspection.

Among Morial's obvious legacies are a vastly improved police department, an ambitious capital construction program and a revised City Charter. Other elements of his legacy include improved race relations, a stable political climate, and a feeling that New Orleans can turn itself around.

At the same time, he admits there are some things he wishes he'd done differently.

'From Worst to First'

Morial won the 1994 mayor's race largely because he promised to hire a reform police chief, to clean up NOPD, and to bring the crime rate down. He kept those promises, and the new-and-improved NOPD remains his most significant legacy.

It wasn't easy.

The day Richard Pennington took his oath of office as the new chief, rogue cop Len Davis ordered a "hit" on a police brutality witness. A federal investigation uncovered evidence that dozens of New Orleans cops were actually part of the crime problem. Those who weren't were underpaid and plagued by poor morale.

It took a string of sensational murders that shook the city to its core to get cops a pay raise, but the City Council finally enacted Morial's proposed pay plan in December 1996. The next year crime rates fell.

"We've gone from worst to first," Morial says of his NOPD. He brags that top NOPD brass are recruited by cities and states across the country.

"I know when these guys go job-hunting or get recruited, because I get called by the mayors of those cities," he says. "We've got five or six of our top people in the department being sought out by other departments. That doesn't happen if your department does not have an outstanding reputation. I'm proud of what we've done with NOPD -- because we've done more than people would have expected. We picked a good chief. We gave him the infrastructure and support. We gave him a chance to be out front, but he had plenty of back-up."

Indeed, Chief Richard Pennington enjoyed so much support that he became the only public figure in town whose popularity exceeded Morial's. The chief lost a bid to succeed Morial, but recent poll figures show he still enjoys more than 80 percent approval among voters as police chief.

Now it's Nagin's turn to pick a new chief -- and to build upon the reforms initiated by Morial and Pennington.

"If I worry about something," Morial says of NOPD, "I worry that without proper attention and support the department will retrogress. I worry about that. I think we've come close to institutionalizing the changes, but it's not yet there."

Ongoing Projects

Equally visible, but far less visceral, are the brick-and-mortar improvements that Morial leaves -- from refurbished NORD playgrounds to a modernized Armstrong International Airport, from the imminent return of streetcars on Canal Street, to Phases 3 and 4 of the Convention Center.

When improvements at independent agencies are factored in, Morial spurred almost $1 billion in public construction projects, many of which will be completed on the watch of his successor. He says that was done on purpose.

"The program was designed to finance projects over multiple years," Morial says. "Ray is going to preside over the completion of projects in 2005 and 2006. The objective was never to spend all the money at once. You cannot do it all at once. The idea was, for proper planning, to get the authorization to sell bonds over a five-year period."

To that end, Morial successfully pushed a pair of bond issues, one in 1995 (with the School Board) and another in 2000 (with the criminal justice system). Together, they will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into local construction projects.

The only knock on that legacy is that too much of it remains undone -- particularly in the area of street repair.

Morial admits that "we're behind on the program a little bit in the streets area," but he says that's because repairing streets involves a lot more than meets the eye.

"You've got a lot of issues beneath the streets, such as sewer lines, drainage lines, fiber optics, telephone, cable -- you've got to work with those other entities to fix streets," he says. "There's a lot of infrastructure work, a lot of projects, that are ongoing. Those projects are Morial-era projects that are going to be completed on somebody else's watch. But, we leave a legacy. We leave a legacy of street jobs to be completed."

That's an interesting spin: a legacy of work yet to be done. For Nagin, the best part will be knowing the money's already there.

A Political and Personal Legacy

Morial enjoyed substantial voter support for his agenda, particularly during his first term. In 1995, after just one year in office, his Charter Revision Committee proposed significant changes in the City Charter. Against substantial opposition, he won voter approval of the proposals, which include some major reforms that are still waiting to be implemented (a city Ethics Board and an Inspector General, for example).

Also in '95, he secured passage of a major bond issue for the city and the School Board. A year later, he helped win voter approval of Harrah's Casino, riverboat casinos and video poker in New Orleans -- all of which generate substantial revenues for city government.

While Morial won every referendum during his first term, his luck changed after his re-election in 1998.

"After I got re-elected, I decided to take a stab at trying to alter the fiscal condition of the city by coming up with a new revenue measure," Morial says, recalling his ill-fated December 1998 property service charge proposition. "That was the worst trouncing I've ever experienced in politics."

But it wasn't the last. Last October, Morial's "3T" referendum -- an attempt to change the City Charter so that he could seek a third term as mayor -- likewise went down in flames. Fortunately for Morial, his personal appeal among voters remained high. Voters' message was clear: they like Morial and the City Charter exactly as they are ... with limitations.

On another political front, Morial leaves a legacy of bi-racial coalition building that many see as a sign of improved race relations citywide. His political organization, LIFE, which was founded by his father, the late Mayor Dutch Morial, has always been bi-racial in its composition. Under Marc Morial's leadership, LIFE often swam against the tide in black precincts by backing white candidates against black candidates -- usually with success. In many ways, that practice took the racial edge off many political campaigns.

While Morial's job rating is not as high among whites as it is among African-American voters, his job rating among white voters at the end of his term is higher than those of his African-American predecessors at the ends of their terms. In addition, in 1998 he became the first black New Orleans mayor to win a majority of the white vote while running against a white opponent.

Dutch Morial, who was New Orleans' first black mayor, broke a lot of racial barriers, but often after pitched battles that left him scarred. Marc Morial built upon his father's legacy but carried himself with his mother's charm. He thus leaves office as one of our most popular mayors ever.

Beyond his personal triumphs, Morial's personal style -- and his successes at NOPD -- changed the way New Orleans views itself. We're not nearly as negative as we used to be. The anticipated arrival of the NBA Hornets is the latest example of a newfound optimism.

"The Hornets are symbolic of the renaissance and resurgence of this city," Morial says. "We are close to taking this team away from Charlotte -- a great city -- not some rust belt town. ... It's a great thing, and it shows the new direction of the city."

Charter Changes

Every mayor since Moon Landrieu promised to update the City Charter, but Morial was the first to deliver -- and he did it just a year into his first term. The sweeping changes have not all been implemented, but the groundwork for continued reform has been laid. Among the changes:

· A competitive selection process for professional services contracts awarded by the mayor and by the City Council. Critics say the new process is just window dressing, but supporters say it's an improvement over what was there before.

· Authority for the mayor, with council approval, to reorganize and combine city departments. This also remains undone, but Morial says cost factors stand in the way.

· Specifying the mayor's role and responsibilities in matters such as housing, criminal justice, job, economic development and other general "quality-of-life" matters. "The old charter never even mentioned those items," Morial says.

· Charter protection to the Historic District Landmarks Commission.

· Authority to establish the office of Inspector General.

· Authority to establish an Ethics Commission.

Those last two items stand out among reforms as unfulfilled promises -- and, for Morial individually, unfulfilled potential. He says the need for an Ethics Commission all but evaporated when the state Ethics Commission was strengthened in 1996 by getting authority to launch its own investigations instead of having to wait for a formal complaint.

Moreover, he says, it will cost millions to establish and staff an office of Inspector General and an Ethics Commission -- money the city does not have. He also says the Office of Municipal Investigations, whose director is a classified civil service employee not subject to removal by the mayor at will, fulfills the role of Inspector General.

"There was no financial commitment to do those things," he says. "I guess I regret not spending a lot more time and energy trying to get those two things set up. But, as things occur, you often have to focus on more immediate priorities."

Other Regrets?

What else does Morial regret? What might he do differently if he had the chance?

"I tried to reflect on what I would have done differently, and it's a hard question to answer because I need the perspective of time," he says. "If there's one thing on a comprehensive scale, I guess it's not being able to consistently and adequately affect public education as a component of economic development."

Morial was not totally silent on public education. His first bond issue was a joint venture of sorts with the School Board, and his boundless enthusiasm back in 1995 helped carry both propositions. Beyond that, a mayor has no legal authority whatsoever to impact public education in New Orleans. So, even had he tried to focus on education, his hands would have been tied.

In general, as he looks back, Morial says that "some things that looked bad turned out to be brilliant, and some things that looked good turned out to be bad."

He certainly has no regrets about his decision to hire Pennington or to tackle the bond issues. Those are likely to be his most memorable legacies. But the part of Morial that is a policy wonk regrets, of all things, not being able to reorganize City Hall.

"From a policy standpoint, with the 1995 Charter changes, the mistake we made was not creating a multi-year implementation schedule. We thought about getting the changes passed, but with all those changes ... you just don't have time to get to all these things. I wish we had focused more and really dug in on trying to put together a reorganization plan for government."

Then again, he admits, it makes more sense to reorganize City Hall on the front end. "Once your people get used to things, they learn how to run the ship the way it is. Then when you say, 'Let's get a new engine, or let's get a new steering system,' they say, 'Oh, my God. Everybody has to learn their job all over again!' Change becomes the enemy. So the time to do any kind of reorganization is truly at the beginning of one's administration. It's a lot more difficult than meets the eye."

Ray Nagin is about to learn that firsthand. And if he follows Morial's advice on that subject, part of Nagin's legacy may be fulfilling some of his predecessor's unrealized potential.

click to enlarge 'The time to do any kind of reorganization is truly at the beginning of one's administration,' says Marc Morial. 'It's a lot more difficult than meets the eye.' - TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
  • Tracie Morris/Young Studio
  • 'The time to do any kind of reorganization is truly at the beginning of one's administration,' says Marc Morial. 'It's a lot more difficult than meets the eye.'
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