(City of New Orleans)
Mitch Landrieu inherited a mess. When he took over as mayor of New Orleans in 2010, recovery from Hurricane Katrina was still painfully slow. But as Landrieu himself notes, the city’s problems didn’t start with the storm. New Orleans had long been bleeding population, and mismanagement and corruption were commonplace at City Hall.
Adding to the list of problems, the city faced a shortfall of $100 million, or about 20 percent of the budget. Landrieu got rid of boards and commissions, and he professionalized the city’s staff, so people were hired because of what they know, rather than whom they know.
Similarly, one of Landrieu’s first acts was to remove himself from the contracting process. It was a strong signal about his style of management, which has helped New Orleans attract some $100 million worth of help from the federal government and national philanthropic groups. “I don’t think those kind of relationships would happen if people didn’t believe he had brought change to the city,” says Amy Liu of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.
The city has done particularly well on his watch. According to a Brookings study, the number of businesses being started is about two-thirds greater than in most cities as measured on a per capita basis, and well over double the rate in New Orleans prior to Katrina. The city has a thriving tech startup scene and has become a major magnet for young people with college degrees.
Equity remains a concern; Landrieu himself recognizes the city still needs to do a better job connecting struggling residents with opportunities concentrated in the downtown core and tourist sections. And New Orleans has plenty of other serious problems. Blight, crime and poverty all remain unacceptably common. But polling shows most residents believe the city is moving in the right direction, with clear improvements in school performance and access to health care.
It’s easy to look back and think New Orleans had nowhere to go but up. But when Landrieu took office, conditions were ripe for a spiral into bankruptcy and despair. Instead, the city has been one of the nation’s fastest-growing since the recession. “New Orleans has the best mayor in America,” Norman Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute, tweeted in October.
Being mayor is the one job that Landrieu, a former lieutenant governor, always wanted. (His dad, Moon Landrieu, was mayor of New Orleans for most of the 1970s.) He has been a strong leader at a time when his city needed it the most, helping New Orleans rebuild in ways people can be proud of. Now, he said in a commemoration of Katrina’s 10th anniversary in August, it’s time for members of the New Orleans diaspora to come home. “We’re not even close to finished,” Landrieu says today, “but you’re beginning to see the product of really good governance.”
-- By Alan Greenblatt
Read about the rest of the 2015 Public Officials of the Year and watch his acceptance speech below: