NEW ORLEANS — Mitch Landrieu enters his final year as mayor of New Orleans drawing less attention to what’s been built than to what’s been taken down: Century-old landmarks, three honoring Confederate leaders and one heralding white supremacy, have disappeared from the city landscape at his behest.
Emotional debates, state and federal court battles and tense confrontations at monument sites marked the process. The drama played out over the nearly two years since he proposed removing the four monuments. The City Council approved the action in December 2015.
Landrieu won elections in 2010 and 2014 with strong biracial majorities. But he’s limited to two consecutive terms and his political future is cloudy. He’s held statewide office, having been elected lieutenant governor in 2003 and 2007. But, as a Democrat who just enraged die-hard lovers of Confederate iconography, his odds of returning to the statewide scene appear to have dimmed in a reliably Republican state.
“It’s hard to see where he’s going to land after this,” said Edward Chervenak, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans.
Landrieu’s father, retired state appellate court judge Moon Landrieu, was a two-term mayor in the 1970s who went on to a cabinet post in the Democratic administration of former President Jimmy Carter. Ron Faucheux, a pollster, political consultant and former Louisiana legislator, said Mitch Landrieu might be in line for an administration job should the Democrats retake the White House in 2020.
“His two best options would be Washington or mayor again,” Faucheux said in an email. “Both options are closed out for the next four years.”
Elected less than five years after the catastrophic flooding of Hurricane Katrina, Landrieu succeeded a term-limited Ray Nagin, who presided over a sluggish recovery and later went to prison for corruption.
Landrieu, 56, has held elective office since he won a state House seat at age 27. He has been mum on his political future. But he said Friday that he’s comfortable with his mayoral legacy, stressing that it boils down to more than just the removal of Confederate-related monuments. He ticked off a list of accomplishments including the construction and rebuilding of schools, construction on a new airport, establishment of dozens of primary health clinics and the opening of two hospitals.
“Before Katrina, we were a descending city, now we’re an ascending city,” he told The Associated Press as workers prepared to remove a larger-than-life statue of Robert E. Lee from its towering pedestal. “We have one of the lowest unemployment rates we’ve ever had. We have a credit rating that’s been raised three times. We’ve balanced our budget. We got through a $100 million deficit.”
It’s laid the groundwork, he said, for the city to compete in a 21st century world economy. Removing the monuments, he said, was a single, important element of the overall effort.
The monuments included one stone obelisk commemorating a rebellion against a Reconstruction-era government and overtly commemorating white supremacy. The others are bronze images of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard.
Landrieu’s decision remains a hard sell for monument supporters, among them Frank B. Stewart, a lifelong friend of Moon Landrieu and a supporter of the Landrieu family’s political campaigns. Stewart said he does not oppose the obelisk removal but said the statues are works of art depicting men whose legacies transcended the Civil War.
The 81-year-old former funeral home magnate took out newspaper ads castigating the younger Landrieu for not pushing a public referendum on monument removal. He’s dismissive of the suggestion that Mitch Landrieu’s removal of Confederate icons is comparable to Moon Landrieu’s moves in the 1970s to open city government to African-Americans.
“His father merely did what all of us did, get educated, eradicate discrimination, eradicate divisiveness,” Stewart said.
He accused the younger Landrieu of trying to capitalize politically on the 2015 killings of nine South Carolina church parishioners by avowed racist Dylann Roof: “Mitch is looking for an opportunity to make a name for himself.”
Landrieu disputes this, saying discussions on removing the statues began in his second term.
“I’ll let history be the judge,” Landrieu said. “But I’m proud of this. I think it’s an important moment not just for the city of New Orleans but for the country.”
Jesse Holland reported from Washington.