As recently as seven weeks ago, Mitch Landrieu appeared to be coasting to a second term as mayor of New Orleans. Now, less than two weeks before the Feb. 1 primary, former New Orleans Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris has taken the race to Landrieu, challenging him on nearly every front. Neither candidate is taking anything for granted.
Another challenger, civil rights attorney and president of the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP Danatus King, is struggling to gain attention. By all accounts, including endorsements, it's a two-man race between Landrieu and Bagneris. Early voting started Jan. 18 and continues through Saturday (Jan. 25).
Bagneris' entry came as late as possible. He officially resigned his judgeship (as required by state law) on Dec. 11, 2013, the first day of qualifying, then filed his papers on Dec. 13, the final day to join the fray.
The challenger wasted no time framing the race as "a tale of two cities." In some ways, that's an appropriate metaphor: Landrieu touts the city's accelerated rebound and much-improved national reputation since he took office; Bagneris reminds voters that some parts of town have yet to join the city's recovery.
It's almost as if they truly are campaigning in different cities. Landrieu points to a 20 percent reduction in murders in 2013; Bagneris says Landrieu and New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) Superintendent Ronal Serpas are fudging crime statistics. Landrieu's TV ads show him uniting and leading a diverse city that was bitterly divided after Hurricane Katrina and the second mayoral term of Ray Nagin; Bagneris and his supporters portray Landrieu as an iron-fisted, "my way or the highway" hegemon who punishes those who disagree with him.
"I decided to run because I looked around and saw that the city was headed in the same direction as Detroit," Bagneris told Gambit. "I saw that we were about to be tossed on the trash heap of metro areas, and I did not want that for my city. I want the city to be strong, progressive, vibrant and safe. ... Our city is in a critical situation. I would not have given up a judgeship for fun and games. This is serious, serious business."
Landrieu, of course, sees it differently.
"When I came into office, the decisions that I had to make were between bad and worse," Landrieu said. "We made some tough decisions, but those decisions took New Orleans to a better place. I don't think it's arguable. We're better off in terms of housing, the budget, homelessness, [the New Orleans Recreation Department], the city's overall economy and jobs, and the murder rate. We caught ourselves, as a city, from falling off a cliff, and New Orleans is now recognized as one of America's great turnarounds."
The two men differ on almost every issue, but nowhere are their differences more pronounced than on the issue of crime. Landrieu concedes that New Orleans still has a long way to go to shed its image as a murder capital, but the most recent numbers are encouraging. Bagneris calls such talk "smoke and mirrors."
"In 2013 we had 155 murders," Landrieu said. "That's the lowest number of murders in this city for almost 30 years. I believe that NOLA for Life, which is the city's attempt to change a culture of violence on our streets, is working. We also are reorganizing NOPD from top to bottom in order to police constitutionally. Low police morale should not be a surprise. Police officers have been under assault from attorneys, the feds, and others since Katrina — and we're trying to change the culture of the department to comply with a federal consent decree."
Bagneris said violence is "still prevalent" on New Orleans streets. "NOLA for Life is killing us," he scoffs. "It's a great public relations tool, but billboards don't create arrests."
The challenger also blasts Landrieu's handling of NOPD. "He started out with 1,540 cops," Bagneris said. "We have, even with his numbers, less than 1,200 today. We are losing a police officer every three days. ... We have to stop the hemorrhage first — the blue hemorrhage. Only then can you deal with a transfusion. ... The first thing that I would do as mayor is change the police chief."
On the issue of blight and housing, the two men again offer competing visions of New Orleans.
Bagneris disputes the mayor's boast that his administration has removed 10,000 blighted properties. He said City Hall is inflating the number by "fixing the first floor of a six-plex or eight-plex and claiming to have remediated six or eight blighted properties."
The challenger offers a three-fold plan to fight blight: one level for the working poor; one for middle class public-sector workers (cops, firefighters, teachers and city workers); and one for entrepreneurs. The key is to get properties the city has seized back into commerce.
"I want to institute a 'sweat equity' program for poor working families, those who qualify, to get blighted properties and rehab them within 18 months — and if they can do that, the city should turn over title to those properties," Bagneris said. "For middle-class families, work with banks to encourage them to live there and bring the property back, and then turn title over to the lenders and those families. And for entrepreneurs, we can have a public-private partnership that they drive, and they could split the proceeds of a sale after each property is rehabbed. This gets rid of blight, creates homeowners, expands the tax base and doesn't cost citizens a dime."
Landrieu points to a resurgent real estate market in New Orleans and to successes in building new communities where crime-ridden housing projects once stood. "Four years ago, all housing prices were going down," he said. "Now they're going up in many neighborhoods. In public housing, we have seen a complete reorganization since taking down the Big Four [housing projects]. The vote to demolish them came under (Mayor) Ray Nagin, but we were responsible for making it happen. Now you have low-income housing that is really good: Columbia Parc, Harmony Oaks and others.
"We've also reduced homelessness by 75 percent and worked with private foundations — such as the $20 million low-income housing grant we got from Barnes & Noble — to bring back housing in neighborhoods that were struggling."
The mayor also points to major rebounds in areas such as Freret Street, Mid-City, the Tulane Avenue corridor and the St. Claude Avenue corridor.
Bagneris acknowledges progress in some parts of town, but he said it hasn't spread to New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward.
"When the mayor took office, the black middle class was 35 percent of the black population," Bagneris said. "It has decreased since then. It is now 31 percent. The white middle class jumped from 60 percent of the white population to 68 percent. You have a net difference of 12 percent."
Pollster Silas Lee, who has surveyed New Orleans voters for 30 years and who is not working for either candidate, said neither candidate's strategy is a surprise.
"They offer competing interpretations of how the city is doing," Lee said. "Mitch is saying things are good and the city is going in the right direction. Mike is saying things are on the wrong track, that the quality of life is in limbo, that we need a change to get the city back on track. ... The outcome turns on the question of which one most voters believe."
One irony of this race is the fact that Landrieu now faces criticism for being intransigent and heavy-handed. In 2006, many felt he lost the mayor's race to Ray Nagin because he was too deferential to his opponent. In the intervening eight years, Landrieu apparently got over that problem. No one accuses him of being a softie these days — least of all Bagneris, with whom the mayor publicly feuded over the location of a new Civil District courthouse.
"This mayor understands that the office has limitations," Bagneris said, exuding confidence in his ability to win the race. "I will collaborate, not dictate."
Landrieu brushes aside criticisms of his style, saying it comes from an old guard that "decided to have one last death rattle."
"There seems to be a small segment of this community that would rather curse the darkness than light a candle," he said. "When you make decisions and do it for the right reasons, when you're trying to save a city that's about to die, you have to tell some people 'no.' When you tell some people 'no,' they will do what is expected: mount a challenge. They want to go back; we want to go forward. It doesn't surprise me. But measured by any yardstick in terms of where we were, where we've gotten and where we're going, I think my record is very good — and people should stay focused on the record, not on the rhetoric."
Bagneris said his criticisms of Landrieu go beyond the stylistic. "Mitch also doesn't get a lot on substance points," he said. "Too many people see Moon, not Mitch. There's not a whole lot of substance there. It's all smoke and mirrors. People are buying into the smoke and mirrors."
Lee said the key for Bagneris will be whether his message, which is echoed by disaffected politicos who have endorsed him, will resonate among rank-and-file voters.
"With any incumbent, you'll always have a dissatisfied minority feeling that they are not included or have been disrespected, people who used to be on the inside and who are now saying that things are not the same," Lee said. "Does that filter down to the person on the street? That's the challenge that Michael Bagneris has.
"He has to convince people that we need to make a change, and he has to do it quickly. For that to happen, you need a pre-existing belief that things are bad. If that doesn't exist, you have to create that impression among a majority of voters. That's hard to do in four weeks. You need to have a chorus saying that, not just the candidate. It cannot be a solo act. It has to be a symphony of dissatisfaction. That's what he's trying to build here. He's been able to attract a few choir members, but he needs to expand the number of people who join his team and carry his message."