Whenever Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal leaves the state, Democratic Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu gets a courtesy phone call followed by an official letter. While the notice is routine and couched in legalese, the message is clear: Hold down the fort until the governor returns. After almost six years as the state's second-in-command, such messages have become routine for Landrieu, who had the same constitutional responsibilities under fellow Democrat Kathleen Blanco from 2004-08.
It's all far less exciting than it sounds. Landrieu says he hasn't even been asked to sign a document or turn off the lights during Jindal's many absences. Still, filling in (even nominally) for an absent governor is an important function of the lieutenant governor. Should anything seriously befall the governor, the state's official No. 2 automatically becomes No. 1.
Only about a half-dozen Louisiana lieutenant governors have become accidental governors, but given Jindal's transparent national ambitions (despite his protests to the contrary), Landrieu just may be in the catbird seat.
In fact, Landrieu has been quietly building a compelling story he can tell in the event he makes a statewide run. He has branded a plan that places Louisiana squarely in the center of what he calls the "New South." He also has implemented an outcomes-based budgeting system in his Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (DCRT), the same system Jindal's administration now is attempting to launch. Since 2005, Landrieu says his department has saved $16 million from targeted cuts and reorganizations.
At last count, Landrieu's campaign war chest had only about $100,000 — but he has no obvious challengers lurking in the shadows. When asked directly if he wants to be governor, Landrieu doesn't hesitate. "One day," he says. "Yes."
But that doesn't mean Landrieu is gunning for Jindal. He's knows Jindal's poll numbers remain stellar and that the only person who can beat Jindal — at this point in time — is Jindal himself. Landrieu's strategy for now is all about patience and sound calculations. That may explain why he announced in July that he would not run for mayor of New Orleans. (In 2006, he swallowed a bitter pill when voters re-elected New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.) Although recent weeks have seen several candidates enter the mayor's race — and persistent speculation that Landrieu is taking a second look at yet another run for mayor — he says he is standing pat. "I haven't changed my mind about that," he said earlier this month.
As recently as last week, however, rumors swirled about a poll gauging Landrieu's popularity in New Orleans. Sources from across the political spectrum contend the lieutenant governor still has one foot, or at least a toe, in the mayor's race. Several calls to Landrieu requesting a comment on that went unreturned last week.
Joshua Stockley, former president of the Louisiana Political Science Association and a professor at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, says if Landrieu does stay out of the mayor's race, his options for upward mobility will be limited to the governor's office. "As for Congress, I think it would be difficult for voters to elect two siblings," Stockley says, referring to U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. "But it's interesting to note that in recent statewide polls, Mitch is enjoying some of the highest approval ratings in the state. If there was a way to capitalize on that for him, you'd think it would be running for governor."
It's not as if Landrieu doesn't have lots to do in the meantime. Statewide tourism, which falls under Landrieu's department, has seen better days. Because New Orleans generates at least 40 percent of Louisiana's tourism, Landrieu has focused his energies on the city. It's also a key constituency for him, given his political roots here.
By the end of the year, Landrieu says his office will complete a new master plan for local tourism. Another plan for the rest of the state will be launched in 2010. He says places like Baton Rouge and Shreveport have "stepped up and benefited" during New Orleans' recovery, but it's time to get all the regions working in concert again. "New Orleans has had a difficult time getting back up and running, and the current environment hasn't helped," he says. "It's hard to determine now what's impacting us, the economy or Katrina."
Another key constituency for Landrieu is the statewide cultural community. His oversight of Louisiana's accredited museums, however, has put him at loggerheads with many in that constituency group. Last year, he convinced legislators to give him complete control over Louisiana's museum system and its board. The fight was, literally and figuratively, a culture war, with Landrieu arguing that his office needed to be more accountable for what he called a dysfunctional system. Critics, meanwhile, labeled it a power play that took control away from those who know the system best. Landrieu says the new arrangement is working "wonderfully."
F. Rivers Lelong Jr., a partner with Jones Walker law firm and a member of the Louisiana State Museum's board of directors, says he remains "concerned" about the new system, which is still in the process of being implemented. Specifically, he says Landrieu has abandoned hiring search firms and setting out a national net for top positions. "That's abandoning our original goals of wanting to move the museum system forward and make it better," Lelong says. "I don't think it's a good long-term policy for the lieutenant governor to be running the museum system. He won't be lieutenant governor forever."
Working outside of old comfort zones is nothing new to Landrieu. For example, he has made economic development a central focus of his office, even though there's an entire (and quite separate) state department dedicated to that subject. When asked about his "cultural economy" push, Landrieu rattles off the numbers: "Tourism and the cultural economy account for 300,000 jobs, and the tourism industry alone generates $800 million in tax revenue." He likewise has sought to promote Louisiana as a center for film and music productions. "I don't get hung up on what I should or shouldn't do to help Louisiana and run my office," Landrieu says. "I really don't care where you move the boxes or the lines. I'm going to do my job."
That philosophy and approach have sometimes put Landrieu at odds — though quietly — with Jindal and Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, the governor's chief budget officer. Davis gets credit for championing the reinventing government strategies of David Osborne, of the Minnesota-based Public Strategies Group. Landrieu says he has been on that bandwagon for years. (He originally hired Davis as his DCRT secretary before she was hired by Jindal.) "I'm the one who brought Osborne to Louisiana," he says. "I'm the one who hired Angele Davis."
The budgeting process calls for a new way of prioritizing funding requests and even has some departments bidding on who can deliver services better. Landrieu says Davis has done a good job pushing the changes within her own office, but other agencies — though not his — are resisting. "I'm happy to compete for anything and against anyone in the state for money," Landrieu says.
To many across Louisiana, Landrieu will always be defined by his last name. He doesn't shy away from that, even when prodded about being a part of what some have called the Cajun Camelot or the Louisiana Kennedys. His sister is a U.S. senator and his father, Moon, was a popular mayor of New Orleans. He smiles brightly when recounting stories about sitting under his father's desk as a child, no doubt learning the tricks of the trade. He also is quick to note, "The Landrieus are way more conservative than the Kennedys.
"It's just so Louisiana to be from a family where everyone does the same thing," he continues. "Like the Marsalis family and music, the Brennans and food, the Mannings and football. But why doesn't anyone ever call us the 'Louisiana Bushes?'" he asks, laughing. "I think I like the Manning comparison better."
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him at www.jeremyalford.com.