Landrieu Hopes to Unseat New Orleans' Nagin

Next month, New Orleans residents will vote in one of the most important mayoral races in the Crescent City's history. Ed Gordon talks with one of the candidates, Louisiana's current lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu. If elected, Landrieu would be the first white mayor of the city in three decades.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On April 22, New Orleans residents will vote in one of the most important mayoral elections in the city's history. The winner must lead this devastated city through a daunting recovery and woo back thousands of displaced residents. At least a dozen candidates are vying for the office. The frontrunners are incumbent mayor Ray Nagin, and Louisiana Lt. Governor, Mitch Landrieu. Both are Democrats and onetime allies.

Many say race will play a factor in the election. Nagin is African-American and Landrieu, white. The color of the candidates, only two of the 12 are black, reflects a deeper change in the city itself. Once a majority black city, New Orleans hasn't seen a white mayor since Landrieu's father left office in 1978. But Katrina devastated many of the city's predominantly black neighborhoods, displacing tens of thousands and temporarily, if not permanently, changing the face of New Orleans politics.

I recently asked Lt. Governor Landrieu why he wants what will clearly be an almost impossible job. He says he has no choice.

Lt. Governor MITCH LANDRIEU (Lt. Governor, Louisiana): When your parents' home gets destroyed and three of your siblings' homes get destroyed, and all of your friends and relatives, including our home, really just gets in a position where the city that you knew and you love gets hurt, the rule of thumb is you go where you're most needed. And I feel like this is where I am most needed and can be most useful at this time, because the city is going to need something very unique.

All the things that were okay pre-Katrina in New Orleans, things that were just average, are really not acceptable. We're in a situation down here where we were on our backs, now we're on our knees--and I just feel like it's the place where I need to be right now.

GORDON: Your father was mayor of New Orleans for eight years and had a sterling record fighting segregation in that city and was beloved by many blacks there. You are going to, if in fact you win, will face a unique position in trying to rectify many wrongs that were there prior to Katrina and certainly heal some of the wounds that raised after in terms of the racial divide. How can you handle that?

Lt. Governor LANDRIEU: Well, first of all, thank you for those comments about my father. I think both my sister and I have, in our public careers, done justice not only to the legacy that he left us, but we've developed new friendships and partnerships, and the younger generations of African-Americans and whites in New Orleans have gotten along very well.

The racial piece that stuck in the mind of the national consciousness after Katrina, while real and important, didn't fully reflect what happened on the ground when we were pulling each other out of the water. African-Americans and whites weren't worrying about what color everybody was; everybody was helping everybody, and there were thousands of acts of kindness on the ground. And people are so focused on getting out of the water and getting back in their houses that the racial implications that were raised in the national media aren't nearly as stark on the ground as they are.

Although we know race is a problem here, as well as across the nation, many of us get along very, very well and are looking forward to joining arms and rebuilding the city together.

GORDON: But there is a difference between getting along, being able to sit and enjoy the same type of music, food, camaraderie in that sense. And as you say, this is not subject to New Orleans only, but the economic and social divide otherwise that certainly plague that city, as well as many others in this country.

Lt. Governor LANDRIEU: Well, there's no question about it, and of course that cuts across racial lines as well. When you look at the impact on this storm, it really did not discriminate. It hurt white and black, rich and poor. I've developed tremendous relationships with other African-American lawmakers and business leaders all whom have a stake. And so the real opportunity and challenge for New Orleans is how do we maintain what we call the soul of America, our culture, our art, our music, and all of those wonderful things that people around America love about us, but at the same time, create the business acumen that you see in Atlanta, where we actually lift up everybody through the economic structure and give everybody a chance to participate in economic opportunities.

That's the challenge. And the only way you do that is by making sure that everybody is at the table, that it's an open table, and that we have open and frank discussions about our strengths and our weaknesses.

GORDON: Are you at all concerned that people won't see this as a true and fair election?

Lt. Governor LANDRIEU: Well, that's a really interesting question. I have maintained from the beginning that everybody that has a right to vote should have an opportunity to vote. I support and have advocated for having satellite voting places outside of the state of Louisiana. I stood side by side with the Black Caucus in the legislature to make sure that the absentee voting rules and regulations were as fluid as they could be. I also sat at the table and advocated very strongly in the legislature for satellite voting places outside of New Orleans.

We are somewhat circumscribed by the federal judge's decisions in it and have called the election for the 22nd. So we have to make sure that everybody knows about. The Secretary of State is mailing out information right now. I'm traveling, of course, as I'm sure other candidates to Atlanta and to Houston and to Memphis to talk to the diaspora to make sure that they know that not only are they welcomed, but it's very important that they participate in the future of the city.

GORDON: We heard Mayor Ray Nagin talk about a keeping and making sure that New Orleans comes back as a, quote, "chocolate city." One of the things that has been taken issue in terms of what you said -- and I want to give you an opportunity to clarify -- is that you were quoted as saying, I am talking about going in and changing the DNA of government in New Orleans. Talk to us about what you meant when you said that.

Lt. Governor LANDRIEU: Absolutely. When I became lieutenant governor, one of the things that I did was said, look, we have to transform the way government operates. What I was talking about was making government more efficient and doing something which we call budgeting for outcomes, where you actually set priorities, because you can't do everything. And based on what the priorities you set, the budget follows the priorities.

We don't have time in Louisiana because of the tremendous challenges around it to waste a dollar that America or any other citizen or taxpayer pays us. And so it's our responsibility if we are going to ask the federal government or the American taxpayers to send money down here to make sure that every dollar is spent very well and that every department runs as efficiently as possible, and we stay focused on whatever the priorities are that the citizens themselves say they want government to attend to.

GORDON: When you look now in hindsight with what happened with federal, state and local government, how much do you believe incompetence played a role in what we saw?

Lt. Governor LANDRIEU: We now know that 90 percent of the damage in the New Orleans metropolitan area was caused because the levees failed. Those levees were designed, engineered and built by the Corps of Engineers, which is owned and operated and run by the federal government. And the Powell Doctrine, as it relates to international relations is that if you broke it, you fix it. And so to the extent that incompetence led to those design defects, I think it's important for the federal government to own up to that responsibility and to fix basically what they broke.

The other 10 percent of it, as the nation was able to witness, was in a flawed evacuation plan, that those of us on the ground who are rescuing people could have told you very early on had to do with three things. One, there's no clear command and control as it relates to urban disasters of this type anywhere in the America between the state, federal and local government.

And the communication problems were the things that just strangled everybody on the ground. And when Congress finished doing their investigation of who did what wrong, they found out that those three things contributed to it, but what they also found was that after September 11, that commission found the same exact thing. And so the lesson to be learned from this is that every urban center in the country has to be prepared to respond to a terrorist attack, an earthquake, a fire or of some sort, better than we were in New Orleans.

GORDON: All right. That being said, let's put you in the mayor's chair today. We are hearing from not only the Army Corp of Engineers who had been saying, some of them, and certainly some who have moved away, telling for years that those levees weren't going to withstand a category 5 or 4. We are hearing now from experts who are seeing the rebuilding of these levees suggest that again, they won't withstand a category 4 or 5 and that it is as much the problem of the soil, as it is the building of the levees and materials, as anything else. What do say today? And what do you say to people who will say to you, why should I move back when you can't assure my safety?

Mr. Lt. Governor LANDRIEU: Well, let me say this, the first and the most important thing that everybody should consider before we decide what neighborhood can be rebuilt and what not is safety. Secondly, for years, for the past 20 years, many of us have been telling the federal government about the elimination and the erosion of the coast, which is our first barrier to any kinds of major storms, and that has fallen on deaf ears.

As it relates to the levees themselves, everybody down here is uniform in their need and their cry for category 5 level levees, but to date the federal government has said all we're going to do is restore it to category 3 and that should put you back in a position where you can be safe. Well, if we're fortunate enough not to be hit by another storm of that size, then I think we're going to okay.

However, it may be impossible to protect us from every kind of threat that we have, and so until and unless the federal government comes down here and actually builds category 5 levees, which is going to take some time, and until and unless we build a hurricane protection system that is close to what the Netherlands has and then does the coastal webland restoration, we are not going to be as well protected as people think.

However, people down here have been through many storms. The important thing is to inform them of what the risks are, and people then are going to decide what is in their best interests.

GORDON: We heard the governor of Texas very critical of the White House suggesting that the feds had turned their back on Texas in relation to monies promised after Katrina and certainly after them taking evacuees in. How much do you believe that the monies that have been allocated, but not spent, are going to funnel their way down to the city and state in the long run?

Lt. Governor LANDRIEU: Well, you know, that's a good question, and it's been really difficult because what the federal government and Congress have done, although they're sent some money down here, is pit Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi against each other. Well, especially in the New Orleans area, one of the things that's important to us is that everybody who was here has an opportunity to return and that we're able to reestablish our communities and our families.

Diversity is always a strength down here, not a weakness. Having said that, it doesn't bode well for the states that have been hit to have to just fight over crumbs. It's important for, for example Texas, which has been wonderful to the people of Louisiana to be helped in a way that they need to because of the extra burden. Just like it's important for the city of Baton Rouge that's housing 50,000 New Orleans residents to be reimbursed as well, as it is for Mississippi.

We shouldn't be given a bone with a little bit of meat on it and be made to fought over it. All of these areas should be made whole because this was an American tragedy that requires an American response.

GORDON: All right. Well, Lieutenant Governor, we appreciate your time, and we'll extend our invitation now, if in fact you win the election, we'd love to have you right back here.

Lt. Governor LANDRIEU: I would love to come back anytime.

GORDON: Thanks

Lt. Governor LANDRIEU: Thank you.

GORDON: NEWS & NOTES also invited incumbent mayor Ray Nagin to appear on the program. He has yet to take us up on our offer.

Coming up next, the Patriot Act quietly re-upped and an NBA wife says it's okay to cheat--just once. We'll discuss those topics and more on our roundtable.

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