Tavis: On May 3rd Mitch Landrieu will be sworn in as mayor of New Orleans, which will follow his tenure as lieutenant governor of Louisiana. He is part of a legendary family from New Orleans, including his father and former mayor, Moon and his sister and current U.S. Senator, Mary. He joins us tonight from New Orleans. I don’t know whether to call you lieutenant governor or mayor. What should I call you, Mitch?
Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu: Mitch would be good.
Tavis: No, no, no, no, no. (Laughter) We’ve been friends a long time but you deserve to be called Mayor-elect, and so congratulations, Mayor-elect Landrieu.
Landrieu: Thank you very much, Tavis, it’s great to be with you.
Tavis: Why would anybody right now, respectfully, want to be mayor of a city (laughter) with this many challenges?
Landrieu: I get asked that question a lot, and of course there are some people that like walking into situations that are calm and peaceful and everything being okay. There are other people that really like challenges. I happen to be one of those individuals that really likes going places where you’re needed the most, where you think you can do the most good, and really are the most complicated.
But on top of that it’s much more basic. This is my home. It’s really the only place that my father and my mother, my brothers and sisters, my kids have ever known. It’s a common theme around the city of New Orleans; we’re resilient people because we have to be. We love this place with all of our heart and all of our soul and I just wanted to try to do something that I could to help make it better.
Tavis: You think you can do that?
Landrieu: I think that I can. I’ve been doing this now for 22 years – 16 as a legislator and six as a lieutenant governor, and I’ll say this – everybody has really got to do what it is that they can in the areas they think will be helpful, whether it’s in government or the medical profession or housing, not-for-profit or faith-based.
This has to be an all-hands-on-deck opportunity, really, to rebuild this city, because it’s not just about the people that live here. It’s an American city, it requires a lot of work by people across the nation, and we’re all going to have to work hard to make it right.
Tavis: Do you think that that kind of help after five years is forthcoming? What about the notion that many people just have Katrina, New Orleans fatigue?
Landrieu: Well, let me say this – I think that if we just sat around and waited for other people to help us, that might be true. But really, what’s been happening on the ground here in the last year or so is people are beginning to really kind of wake up and start working really hard on new, innovative ways to solve old problems. We’re actually in the education field and some other fields really starting to set the pace.
We’re attractive a lot of interest and a lot of talent from across the country, and so really right now it’s a tale of two cities, but we’re starting to move in the right direction. I think people are really excited about the possibility of New Orleans finding herself again. So we’ll see. I think it’s going to be very hard, I think we have a lot of really difficult challenges, some not unlike what other parts of the nation are facing, but unlike it in the sense that we’re doing many of them all at the same time here.
So it’s a great challenge, but listen – I don’t believe that there’s any problem here that can’t be solved. There’s no divide that’s been created that can’t be bridged, but we’ve got to find a way. It’s part of what it is that we do, and in American cities you’ve got to find a way to fix it.
Tavis: Is there too much being made or having been made out of the fact that you are the first White mayor of this chocolate city, if I can use that phrase, since your father 32 years ago?
Landrieu: Well, I think that that’s a very wrong way of looking at the world. A lot in the world has changed in the last 40 years. One of the most special things about the city of New Orleans is how diverse a people we really are. There’s been a new generation of individuals that have all grown up together, so I don’t really see myself as a White mayor. I’ve never seen New Orleans as a Black city.
One of the things that’s beautiful about New Orleans is how culturally rich we are and how well we have worked together. People call us a gumbo. It’s really important that we get focused on the very simple notion that diversity is a strength, it’s not a weakness.
It’s not about taking power from some people and giving it to others, it’s about everybody getting together, finding common ground, focusing on the things that matter to us all, which is pretty simple – crime, and the ability to feel safe personally and to make sure your sons and daughter are safe on the streets of New Orleans as well.
Making sure every kid’s got a great opportunity to a great education, making sure that everybody has the right to work with dignity in a place where you have the opportunity to realize the American dream.
Those are fundamental things that everybody in the city of New Orleans wants. Bringing everybody together to find high common ground, in my opinion, is a very high purpose and it’s one that hopefully we’ll be able to work towards in the next couple years.
Tavis: I hear and I appreciate the overview, but it begs the question, five years after Katrina, when you take office in a matter of days, where do you start?
Landrieu: The first place you start is with the police department. We’ve had some very difficult trouble recently with our police department. Many of the things stemming from what happened post-Katrina and Rita. The department has to be reorganized and reoriented.
The second thing is safety on the streets of the city. I have the most heartbreaking things that have happened to me during my transition is young boys, really 10, 11-year-old. One or two have come up to me and said, “Mr. Mitch, I just don’t feel safe in my home.”
That’s heartbreaking, and when kids, who get worried about storms and things like that, begin to say they don’t feel safe in their home because the ever-present nature of crime makes them unsafe, that’s something that we need to change, not just here, but all across America.
But we have a really particular problem here that we’ve got to work on. That’s the first one. Schools are the second. We’ve been making a lot of headway with innovative ways of approaching different models for schooling, from public schools to charter schools to private. We continue to work on that because every kid’s got to be able to learn.
Then the third is job creation. Those three things won’t be possible if the city government doesn’t work well, so we have to spend a fairly substantial amount of time reorganizing the structure of city government, making sure everybody knows where the money’s going, that it’s going to be well-spent, that the citizens are getting a great value for it.
All of those things are hard. Each one would be hard by themselves. But when you have to do them all together, it’s a particular challenge. It’s something that I think the people of this city are up for.
Tavis: What do the numbers suggest to you in terms of the amount of people who have returned to the city post-Katrina?
Landrieu: Well, it was very interesting. We lost a lot of people. It was really heart-wrenching to have our brothers and sisters all over the country. We’re very thankful to Atlanta and to Houston and Memphis and other places that took our citizens.
People have been slowly moving back. My sense of it now is after five years that the people that have come – that were here before that have come back for the most part have set the level. Now what’s going to occur is people who are going to commit to live here for the rest of their lives are new folks coming in.
For the first time in a very long time more people have actually moved into the city than moved out over the past 30 years. So we’re seeing a different trend and a different mix as well. It makes it very interesting.
New Orleans is going to be a laboratory for innovation and change. I think a lot of how it goes in the future depends on the work that we’re going to do in the next 12 to 18 months. If we can restore confidence, if we can restore hope, if we can make some meaningful progress that people can actually measure, people then who are on the cusp, businesses that wanted to invest here, they didn’t because they were nervous about it, people that wanted to move here but were concerned about it didn’t, may actually start deciding to come on back in because now would be a great time to move to the city.
Tavis: You call it a laboratory of invention and change; others call it gentrification.
Landrieu: Well no, they’re not necessarily the same thing, and they’re not mutually exclusive either. But I think what’s happening on the ground here for people that actually live here, people are finding new ways to solve old problems. People that before would rely on government are now innovating themselves in their own neighborhoods.
So this isn’t new people coming in that are changing, this is people who actually live here who are beginning to pull their neighborhood organizations together more tightly, who are working more closely with the faith-based organization and the not-for-profits, not just waiting on government to solve their problems.
But making sure that government fulfills its responsibility as well. The change is actually coming from the people who are here, not necessarily the people who are coming out. The folks that are coming here from without are actually learning what it is that the people of New Orleans are teaching them, not because we’re so much smarter than everybody else but because we have had to adapt or die, and adaptation is a much more preferable pathway.
Tavis: (Laughs) No doubt about that.
Landrieu: (Laughs) No, no question.
Tavis: How big a challenge and in what ways are you being challenged, if you are, by this oil spill just off your coast? We’ve been reading, of course, about these, what, 42,000 gallons a day now spilling into the ocean right off the coast of New Orleans. Is that impacting the city?
Landrieu: Well, to a certain extent it is, even though it’s a little bit off into federal waters. It continues to highlight to the nation how important our economic security and national security is based on the drilling that we do here, which goes to the issue of the coast.
You know this and you’ve been a great advocate for it, that we’re losing 100 yards of our coastline every 30 minutes. That coastline is actually protecting those oil and gas pipelines that produce over 30 percent for the nation’s energy. If we don’t restore that coast, you may find out that those oil and gas pipelines may be more compromised; the city of New Orleans could cease to exist as you know it in the next 100 years, and the nation’s economic security and national security will be compromised.
It’s very important that if we’re going to drill, we do so safely and that we protect that as well as the places where the people in the southern part of the country live.
Eighty-five percent of us in this country, by the way, live in coastal areas, so again, Katrina and Rita were not just about New Orleans. There were a lot of lessons that the nation can learn from us if they just pay attention to the things that are going on down here, and of course that is one of them.
Tavis: Finally, in your role as lieutenant governor you have been in charge of tourism and culture for the state of Louisiana. I know you’re going to bring that experience and all those contacts to the city of New Orleans, because New Orleans, if it’s anything, it’s a city that thrives and exists, quite frankly, to a large degree on tourism.
That said, what kind of impact does “Who dat,” winning the Super Bowl, what kind of impact does a network like HBO doing a series called “Treme,” what does that do for the city?
Landrieu: Well, besides just making you giddy and joyful, it’s important that the people from around the country know that tourism is a major economic engine for us, but that tourism is only successful because it lays on top of a very vibrant and rich and deep culture.
As much as New Orleans wants to emulate some things that are going on in Atlanta and New York and Chicago and other places in terms of best practices, we really don’t want to be like them. We want to be more like ourselves.
So as we have successes that come our way, like the Saints winning the Super Bowl, it gives us a great sense that if we just stay at it year after year after year, eventually we will win. Or you have “Treme,” they finally get it right. It’s not a movie where they come down and they do bad Southern accents, it’s really a place that captures our intellect, our dialect, our culture and our music as the Jazzfest, which is this weekend – we’re going to have 400,000 people, 800 small businesses are going to be fed by that.
Then of course in a couple of weeks we have the Essence Festival, which is the largest gathering of African Americans in the country. It reminds us that we can hit levels of excellence in one field, and if we can do it in tourism, if we can do it in sports entertainment, then we can do it in biomedical research and development, then we can do it in maritime, then we can do it in aerospace, then we can do it with digital media and technology.
We have the opportunity to grow the city of New Orleans into a great American city again, and hopefully in the next couple of years we’ll take some steps towards that end.
Tavis: He’s been lieutenant governor of his state for six years now, and now just elected the Mayor-elect of the city of New Orleans. He is Mitch Landrieu. Mayor-elect Landrieu, congratulations. Good to have you on the program. I hope to talk to you again in the months to come.
Landrieu: Tavis, thank you for your help and thank you for all of your support.
Tavis: Appreciate you.