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The Mayor of New Orleans Has the Wind at His Back

Mitch Landrieu is presiding over a major economic turnaround.
by Adam Kuschner for National Journal

NEW ORLEANS—Among the many other changes unfurling in this town, its chief executive is another kind of break from the past. Mitch Landrieu is the first white mayor since his father left that office in 1978; to get the job, which he began in 2009, he had to assemble a broad-based, multiracial political coalition. The Landrieus may be a political dynasty in Louisiana (the mayor’s sister, Mary, is a three-term U.S. senator), but these are tough times for political machines in New Orleans, and Mitch has been able to slough off patronage awardees from city posts and contracts, inching closer to a meritocratic administration. He talked with National Journal’s Adam B. Kushner, a New Orleans native, about how the city’s economy is transforming, and how to make it last. Edited excerpts follow.

NJ There’s a sense of optimism I’ve felt in my reporting that I don’t remember from growing up here.

LANDRIEU Anybody who comes to New Orleans right now feels a palpable spirit of energy and hopefulness. They see physical manifestations of that transformation taking place in front of their eyes. You can see the medical complex going up, designed not just to take care of people’s health care needs or train doctors or do research, but also as a fairly aggressive step toward information and economic development. You take the smart thing coming out of the research and turn it into a product; we’re going to take the technology and transform it into a industry sector. The second thing is that we now have a working system of schools. We’ve redesigned the governing mechanism, and consequently you’ve seen the scores—which are what counts—begin to grow exponentially from the inner city. The achievement gap between kids here and in the [rest of the] state is closing rapidly. Graduation rates are now better than the national average, and that’s a structural change.

The people in New Orleans are not just deciding to build the city back the way it was. They’re accepting responsibility to build it the way they always wanted it to be. It’s amazing how many young people we have from around the country who are starting to create stuff.

NJ How do you build a knowledge economy? And how does it serve upwardly mobile New Orleanians who don’t have elite educations?

LANDRIEU Generally, we’ve been a place with a lot of raw material and talent and intellectual capital, and we’ve extracted it and exported it. Think of Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center. So if you want to have a knowledge-based economy, you’ve got to create the kind of jobs. GE Capital basically said, “I like what you’re doing down there.” They put 300 jobs downtown. Gameloft [which develops smartphone games] did the same. Pre- and postproduction film work is happening here now. All of a sudden, you’re attracting these industries, and then you’ve got to supply them with workers. Kids are coming to New Orleans and don’t want to live in the suburbs; they want to live downtown, so we have a construction boom, restaurants opening up.

NJ Are the young people who move here staying?

LANDRIEU Yes, they’re becoming citizens and leaders of New Orleans. I have a bunch working in my office right now. They’re moving into government, running for office, starting businesses. And because those jobs are here now, there’s a pathway to prosperity, a pipeline to success, through primary and secondary education, from college and tech schools to [knowledge-economy] jobs. You want to train people so that an older, African-American woman living in [a new, mixed-income development downtown] can walk down the street and have the job as phlebotomist at the new health center. You’ve got to train workers on the low scale, the medium scale, and the high scale. The same thing can be true about high schools and colleges.

NJ Violent crime here is 80 percent worse than the national average. Does that put a ceiling on economic growth?

LANDRIEU You have to know the difference between the crime rate and the murder rate. For the crime rate, we’re number 73 in the nation, meaning that major American cities are much less safe than New Orleans is. But the murder rate is 10 times the national average. Both those things are depressors, which is why we’re spending so much time working on that. Who’s killing, who’s being killed, where they are, and how to change that—it’s a complicated problem that has provided no easy answers for a long time. We hope, as the police department and the school system get better, and culturally we identify where the problems are, we can change it. But there’s no question that it has a negative impact. It should not be a ceiling. It is absolutely possible to change that trajectory. New York City did it; Chicago did it to a certain extent, though they’re having trouble now.

NJ How can you tell whether the gains in the tech and entrepreneur sector are lasting and will take deep root? These haven’t really begun to represent a major share of growth yet.

LANDRIEU When Forbes says we’re the most improved and best for jobs, when The Wall Street Journal says we’re best for business, something’s happening. [New Orleans was the most improved metro on The Journal’s “Best for Business” list last year, up 44 places from 2010. Forbes ranked Louisiana most improved on its “Best States for Business” and gave New Orleans the top spot for “America’s Brain Magnets,” attracting college graduates under 25.] They’re looking at objective data on a sea change of how a place operates. U.S. News & World Report says Tulane is the most popular school. All this stuff has nothing to do with culture and tourism and food. Now, seven years on, they’re beginning to see how change works.

NJ How can the improvements outlast your tenure?

LANDRIEU There’s probably no more important structural change for the future of the city than how the schools work. At some point, the governance of the school system has got to come back to local control [it is now administered by the state]—but not until we have absolute stability. We don’t have that back yet. When it comes back, the new school board must be designed as an oversight board of schools that are run at the site, where the principal has autonomy, where he can fire and hire based on merit, students are accountable, and parents have choices. Those are the kinds of inputs that will close the achievement gap.

This article appeared in the May 4, 2013, edition of National Journal.

Congressional Budget Office Predicts Six Million People Will be Forced to Pay Obama Healthcare Tax Next Year

Pay the Man

About six million U.S. residents in 2016 will be expected to pay a penalty under the Affordable Care Act for failing to obtain health insurance, up from a previous estimate of four million, according to a revised report released yesterday by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT).

Election Day: 48 more days…

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