Like an amber caution light in the dead of night, flashing brightly and then not at all in a continuous cycle, the yackety-yack about New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's maybe-maybe-not bid for governor has oscillated for more than a year. It catches fire: "Maybe he'll run" — then burns out: "There's no way he's running" — then reignites all over again: "He's thinking about running."
The latest match strike comes courtesy of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who talked Landrieu up while in Washington, D.C. Feb. 21 for meetings of the Democratic Governors Association. Bullock told National Journal that Landrieu is "carefully considering" a run this fall and that the mayor would make a "strong candidate."
Ask Landrieu's team on the record and it rolls out the usual: The mayor is focused on the city. The team repeated that line to WWL-TV last week when it pushed a story with the big question mark, and that's what a top aide said in January during Washington Mardi Gras and at the annual convention of the Police Jury Association of Louisiana. A consultant and donor echoed it during the Decatur Street leg of the Krewe du Vieux parade.
But what of the mayor himself, who thus far has escaped talking about it at length? Landrieu delivered a rousing speech during the weekend luncheon of the Police Jury Association on Jan. 31. Speaking for nearly an hour with no notes, in a practically flawless and commanding style that places him at the forefront of our state's political orators, he complained about the budgeting practices in Baton Rouge and suggested that the Legislature prioritize issues this session and not spend time and energy on trivial bills. He engaged the crowd, and people responded. He told two jokes; both got lots of laughs.
Landrieu, 54, sounded like a candidate that day, which made one of his aides roll both eyes when I mentioned "it" again. If the mayor is running for governor, few close to him seem ready to talk it up. If he jumps into the race late it wouldn't be unprecedented; he entered the 2006 and 2010 mayoral races shortly before qualifying opened.
Some say he will. Others call it unfathomable. Most simply have no idea what he'll do. Until Landrieu gives a definitive answer, pollsters will continue floating his name, and donors — particularly Democratic donors — will mostly keep their powder dry (much to the chagrin of Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite, who announced his candidacy for governor in October 2013 but whose fundraising has been somewhat stymied by the specter of a Landrieu candidacy).
Sources close to the mayor insist he has not ruled out the possibility of joining the field. But they also point to his latest campaign finance reports, which show $33,000 in the bank, all carried over from last year's re-election effort. The report with the money indicates the cash is for a "future election," which will not be for mayor because he is term-limited. The last donation Landrieu accepted in 2014 came in September.
While Landrieu certainly is in a position to raise piles of cash quickly should he decide to run, $33,000 is not the number a serious candidate would want to start his campaign. There is a good reason for the poor showing. Landrieu drained his coffers last year for his re-election and immediately went to war helping his sister in a heated Senate campaign while dealing with a long list of controversial issues in the city. If nothing else, the performance of his sister, former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, in last year's federal election may have the mayor wondering if a grinding statewide campaign in a state that still tilts "red" is worth the effort.
Mary Landrieu was swept up in an anti-Democrat wave that linked her firmly to President Barack Obama and washed away the lion's share of her white vote last year. More than just theoretically, the same could happen to the mayor in another statewide election this fall. The president actually endorsed Mitch Landrieu for re-election as mayor last year; Obama never publicly endorsed Mary Landrieu in the Senate race, and she consistently tried to keep a safe distance from him during election years.
Democratic operatives suggest Mayor Landrieu may be more interested, and better positioned, to become a major influencer in the presidential race. Some suggest that's an overstatement, but it makes sense on some levels. It has become a trend of late to pull from the ranks of big city mayors for top tier D.C. gigs. Were that to happen to Landrieu, he would once again be following in the footsteps of his mayor-father Moon Landrieu, who served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Mitch Landrieu has close ties to the Clinton family, but he could be a strong voice for whoever snags the Democratic nomination.
Officially, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the early frontrunner in the race for governor, likes the field the way it is. Polls show him making a runoff against Edwards, who remains the lone Democratic candidate to date. Vitter's camp believes he can win that showdown easily. Polls also show Vitter beating Landrieu in a runoff, while the other Republicans in the race, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, are confident in claiming their own victories if they can make the runoff against Vitter. Many observers believe Vitter likely would beat any Democrat in a runoff, but could be beaten by a Republican who could appeal to GOP moderates and just about all Democrats.
Without another Democrat in the race, Edwards' chances of making a runoff loom large. If another major Democrat does run, however, that candidate could end up splitting the Democratic vote and potentially creating a runoff path for Angelle or Dardenne. Boosters for both camps are said to be actively recruiting such a Democrat, but who might it be?
We can cross some off the list, like Jim Bernhard, former Shaw Group CEO and one-time chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party. Sources close to Bernhard say he's focused on a new business venture, which he hopes to make even more successful than Shaw. "I think he realizes he can't do both," a friend said. "I also think others were more serious about him running over the past year than he ever was."
When it comes to the short list, don't overlook Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell. He could bring a double whammy to the race. Campbell not only would steal some thunder from Edwards, but he also would fill a void in wide-open north Louisiana, where no candidate has emerged and votes are up for grabs. Campbell said he wouldn't rule out the possibility of running, but he didn't sound eager. "I don't hear anyone offering any real solutions," he said. If he runs, Campbell said he would focus on implementing an oil and gas processing tax and eliminating Louisiana's income tax.
The wild card among Democrats is retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who said, "I'm still thinking. But I know the clock will run out." Interestingly, Honore has no party affiliation. But that didn't stop someone or some group from going into the field on Jan. 29 with an automated poll describing Honore as a "Creole Democrat," according to sources. Honore said he had no idea who might be behind the poll, or if it was an effort to get him to switch at a later date. "I've been told by people I need to pick a party to win," he said. "But no party has ever asked me."
Speculation always turns back to Mitch Landrieu. His indecision notwithstanding, his popularity and high profile keep him relevant. His inclusion and encouraging results in early polls — he runs neck-and-neck with Vitter in the potential primary lineup — no doubt pique his interest. Hurt most in those surveys is Edwards, who doesn't play the part of wounded pol.
A former Airborne Ranger, Edwards has taken the fight to Landrieu on a few occasions, issuing jabs via press releases and buying a campaign billboard that is prominently displayed near the Superdome. In an interview last month, Edwards swept aside the rumors and predicted Landrieu will stay where he is. "Last fall he told a group in Hammond, and I was there, that he would not run," Edwards said. "He told the people of New Orleans last year that he would not run. I know Mitch to be an honorable person and he'll live up to his word."
Right now, many observers and insiders see conflicting messages. One donor told me recently that he pushed Landrieu on the matter, but couldn't tell which way the mayor was leaning. A government official in New Orleans said Landrieu has implied he is not inclined to run, but if a poll showed him a clear path to victory, it could convince him otherwise.
Meanwhile, supporters said concerns about the mayor's questionable standing with unions, firefighters and teachers are overhyped and that he would be able to pull together a support system quickly if he decided to become a candidate in 2015. Landrieu's critics would argue otherwise, and they would add that while he could afford to wait until the eleventh hour to run for mayor, doing so in a governor's race would make him seem less interested in the job. And it's not as if there aren't other qualified — and popular — candidates out there locking up political support and contributors.
Qualifying is Sept. 9-11. With each passing day it appears less and less likely Landrieu will reach for higher office this year — with or without mixed signals.