By now the local news outlets have published their big obligatory retrospectives. WWLTV filmed a soft-focus chat with Mitch and Eric Paulsen framed in front of a fireplace in Gallier Hall. Gambit sat down for an "exit interview." NOLA.com took a very NOLA.com approach and asked its readers/commenters to "grade" the mayor's performance. The Advocate took a thorough look back focusing on "key indicators" having to do with crime, housing, "the economy," and the city budget.
To paraphrase George Bush, being mayor is hard work. Okay, not really. You mostly just go around taking pictures with Mardi Gras Indians at Costco openings and whatnot. But it is a job where you are held accountable for a lot of things. Some of those things you even have a degree of control over. But not necessarily in the way the public perceives that you do. There are conditions a mayor is subject to that are beyond his control. A mayor's "grade" depends less on the change in such conditions than it does on what sorts of values are reflected in his policy responses.
It's unfair, for example, to blame the mayor for the crime rate. But we can ask who benefited from Mitch's crime policies. Signing on to the NOPD consent decree was the right move for Mitch. (We can argue he didn't have much choice there but at least he didn't put up a fight over it.) Other decisions; installing surveillance cameras everywhere, allowing Sidney Torres to launch his app patrol or whatever, working with shady contractors like Trident Services and Palantir; were less good. Crime was bad in New Orleans when Mitch took office. It is still bad as he leaves. If the bulk of his choices under those conditions leave us with a more intrusive and unaccountable police state, are we better or worse off?
Mitch happened to be mayor when there was a lot of federal money available to do a lot of big capital projects. He'll be remembered for the new airport, the new hospital, the streets he really did fix, the stuff he spent FEMA money on. But should he be credited for those things?
At least he didn't entirely screw them up. He clearly handled the nuts and bolts of it better than Nagin had been doing at the end of his term. But I would wager that much of it was going to get done one way or another. It's what happens when a city is supported by a big pipeline of federal money dedicated to infrastructure. In fact, there should always be such a pipeline in the "richest nation on Earth" and it is our continuing shame that it takes a catastrophic event in order to free resources that should be readily available in every city all the time.
As I've said many times, though, it was Mitch's job to ensure that the process of rebuilding "the city we always wanted to be" benefited those who most needed the help rather than those best positioned to take advantage of it. And on this count, not only is Mitch an unmitigated failure, he can be counted as a malevolent actor. Of all the words in the long Advocate retrospective, these are the most relevant.
In a poor city, the median household income hasn’t registered any measurable increase during Landrieu’s tenure, and black households have actually seen a decline. More than half of local renters are spending at least 30 percent of their income on housing, and some residents complain that ineffectual city policies and enforcement against the rampant use of sites like Airbnb have turned their neighborhoods into virtual tourist districts, with few places for permanent residents.Of course it can always get worse. I've got a feeling we're about to find out how much worse. But that's a subject for another post.