Against the Grain

Mitch Landrieu’s 2020 Moment

His upcoming book presents a timely message of racial reconciliation that will excite the Democratic base. And moderates will cheer his record revitalizing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (right) and chief of police Michael Harrison at the start of the Krewe of Zulu parade in New Orleans on Feb. 13.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
March 6, 2018, 8 p.m.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu isn’t on many pundits’ short list of Democratic prospects for the 2020 presidential campaign. He’s barely known outside Louisiana, will be out of office in May, and hasn’t held a public office higher than lieutenant governor.

But there’s something unmistakably distinctive about Landrieu’s record that stands out in a crowded field of not-ready-for-prime-time senators and representatives shamelessly looking to pander to progressive activists. He’s a red-state Democrat who removed Confederate statues from his city and offered a stirring defense of his decision that drew praise from civil-rights leaders. He’s got a business-friendly record and touts his work reviving the city’s economy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And he has demonstrated an ability to sound an inclusive message without engaging in the racial box-checking that defines the left wing of today’s Democratic Party.

Even though he’s declined to entertain the possibility of a presidential campaign, he’s showing all the signs of someone looking to raise his profile in Washington. He showed off his Southern charm with a well-received speech and skit at last weekend’s exclusive Gridiron Dinner. He’s wrapping up his term as president of the United States Conference of Mayors. Most significantly, he’s out with a book this month, In the Shadow of Statues, that directly confronts his home state’s history of racism and calls for a “new and better South.”

The book reads like it’s written by a politician with presidential ambitions. There’s ample criticism of President Trump. In it, Landrieu provocatively writes: “The parallels between David Duke and President Trump, as demagogues, are breathtaking. … Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan is the dog whistle for all times.”

Landrieu, the first white mayor of New Orleans since the 1970s, discusses his own personal evolution on racial issues in describing his decision to take down the Confederate monuments. “I have been searching for my way through race for all of my conscious life and will keep doing so until God mercifully takes my last breath,” he writes in the introduction.

He tackles the issue of poverty in recounting his fury at the state- and federal-government ineptitude dealing with Katrina, leaving no politician unspared. “Blaming the poor for their poverty shows an America with a warped soul. The legacy of poverty is hardest for people struggling to get out of it,” Landrieu writes.

And despite his clear appeal to African-American voters, Landrieu rails against the scourge of identity politics in attacking predecessor Ray Nagin’s panders to black voters in order to win reelection. “We were not a white city or a black city, but a multicultural city. … I had to find a way to make the African-American base I had built see that a vote for me was not a vote against their self-interest,” Landrieu recounts.

Even though the book was written before the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Landrieu includes a timely shot at the National Rifle Association and calls for limiting the accessibility of guns—positions that distinguish him from traditional Southern Democrats. But if he runs for president, he’ll have to answer for the city’s persistently high crime rate, which ranks as his constituents’ biggest criticism.

On paper, there are a lot of parallels between Landrieu and another once-overlooked politician from the state next door. He’s a charismatic white Southerner who has the potential to forge a diverse Democratic coalition of moderates, progressives, and African-Americans. Outside of former Vice President Joe Biden, most potential 2020 candidates are catering to a narrow niche of primary voters.

Like Bill Clinton, Landrieu is capable of roasting his partisan rivals while laying on a charm offensive. At the Gridiron Dinner, he zinged Trump to his face, while concluding with an optimistic, unifying message that even the president singled out for praise.

The Democratic Party has a glaring lack of top candidates with executive experience; they hold just 16 of the nation’s 50 governorships. It helps explain why there’s a sudden boomlet of mayors looking to make the leap to the presidency. Landrieu is joined by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (who already has traveled to New Hampshire), New York City’s Bill de Blasio, and South Bend, Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 fray.

But there’s another, more significant void for the Democrats that Landrieu would fill: He’s a Southerner in a party that’s virtually devoid of leadership below the Mason-Dixon line. In fact, he could end up as the only Southern candidate in the entire crowded Democratic presidential field. That’s more than just a niche; it could position him as a front-runner in delegate-rich states across an entire region.

With Trump’s job-approval ratings facing a hard ceiling, his best opportunity at reelection will come if Democrats nominate someone too far to the left for suburban swing voters to stomach. The Democratic Party’s best chance to avoid that fate would be nominating someone, like Landrieu, with proven cross-ideological appeal.

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