One of the hallmarks of Mayor Marc Morial's early months at City Hall was his infectious optimism. Even those who opposed his first bid for mayor conceded that his upbeat, "can-do" attitude set him apart.
Now, eight years later, as Morial prepares to leave the mayor's office, his sense of optimism appears to have taken root. The latest "Quality of Life" survey by UNO pollster Dr. Susan Howell shows that New Orleanians feel pretty good about their city and its prospects for the future.
The survey is taken by Powell and her students every two years and dates back to the 1980s. She says voter optimism peaked two years ago, but remains strong today.
For example, voters were asked, "How satisfied are you with life in Orleans Parish?" A total of 67 percent answered either "very satisfied" or "satisfied." That ties the highest score ever recorded by the survey -- exactly the same as in the 2000 poll -- although slightly more answered "very satisfied" then (12 percent) than now (8 percent). Equally important, only 8 percent answered "very dissatisfied" this year, compared to 9 percent two years ago, while those who were merely "dissatisfied" accounted for 24 percent this year, 1 percent more than in 2000.
Thus, New Orleanians remain satisfied with life in general by a margin of more than two-to-one. Not many mayors can produce those kinds of numbers on their way out the door. In 1994, for example, at the end of Sidney Barthelemy's tenure as mayor, the UNO survey showed voters were dissatisfied by a margin of 54-45 percent. Morial turned those numbers around -- and then some.
Still, there are signs that the unbridled optimism of a few years ago has waned slightly.
Interviewers asked voters to reflect back on the past five years and say whether New Orleans had become a better or worse place to live. Forty percent answered "better," compared to 20 percent who responded, "worse." Again, that's a two-to-one margin. Thirty-six percent noted no change, and the rest didn't know.
Two years ago, however, 49 percent said things had gotten better, compared to only 16 percent who said they'd grown worse -- a three-to-one margin.
Looking ahead, voters in New Orleans expressed unprecedented optimism, which bodes well for Mayor-elect Ray Nagin. When asked if they thought New Orleans would become a better place in the next five years, a record-high 58 percent said "better." Better still, only 5 percent answered "worse" -- by far the lowest score ever for that response since the survey began in 1988.
Two years ago, the same question elicited "better" from 49 percent of those interviewed, which was a high-water mark at the time, with only15 percent predicting things would get worse.
Nagin thus begins his tenure as mayor with voters thinking things will get better by a margin of more than 10-to-1. Whatever happens, he can't say voters have an attitude problem.
On a personal level, Morial continues to score well among voters, despite getting his butt kicked in last fall's "3T" referendum. In the most recent survey, 74 percent of those interviewed said they approve of Morial's performance in office -- exactly the score he earned two years ago. He has scored in the mid-70s in this survey every time, in fact.
Another consistent high score was earned by outgoing Police Chief Richard Pennington, who lost the mayor's race to Nagin by a lopsided 59-41 margin in February. Despite that loss, voters still think he's been a great police chief. He has scored at least 80 percent on the approval question in every survey -- and did so again this year.
Coincidentally, an 80 percent approval rating is exactly the same score earned by Pennington's friend and counterpart in Jefferson Parish, Sheriff Harry Lee. Jefferson Parish President Tim Coulon likewise received a 78 percent approval rating.
Often times, incumbent politicians dread reading survey results. But this year, there's good news all around.