What happens on election day this fall may determine whether New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu will be on the ballot in 2015, and must in part motivate a decision that easily could backfire to keep him from running for governor next year.
Last week, Landrieu put in a request to the state to supply New Orleans with 100 state troopers to police the city, in response to a horrific seemingly random shooting in the open in the French Quarter that left one dead and several injured. Legally, state policeman have jurisdiction anywhere in the state and Landrieu was taking advantage of a power often invoked by past governors at local officials’ requests. However, given manpower constraints, the state will provide only 50 through Labor Day. This past holiday weekend 30 already were there.
Word that at a major worldwide tourist mecca without warning one could catch a bullet will travel fast, and it doesn’t exactly thrill the residents and workers there that random bullets fly about the area (I used to live just down the block from where it happened), so undoubtedly Landrieu’s action was designed to allay fears of a major industry which contributes mightily to the city’s coffers as well as to constituents. But the event and subsequent request also may have a more political motive, to build support for a tax increase on Orleanians, its path to reality beginning with a statewide referendum this November.
The incident may allow Landrieu to justify this substantial increase, which could be as many as 10 mils, dedicated to fund police protection with a federal consent decree in the background forcing the city to spend much more than anticipated. Landrieu will argue that failure to pass this, which even if approved statewide then would require a local election to approve scheduled with City Council approval, would cause a financial crisis – even though his administration hasn’t exactly made strides in squeezing out inefficiency in one of the state’s highest per capita spending local governments. Yet he won’t let this crisis go to waste in spinning it so that it serves as evidence of the drastic need for that money.
The problem for him in all this is that the public may not buy the narrative. Landrieu has had the chance to deploy a counterargument that, during his terms, he has made the crime situation better in the city as the murder rate has fallen after his first couple of years in office. He insists this operates as the prime indicator of the public safety scene in New Orleans, due to other violent crimes being relatively low. These factors validate his stewardship, so goes the argument, justifying entrusting his administration with tens of millions more dollars a year.
But upon more thorough investigation, that tale begins to fall apart. For one thing, the city trend merely mirrors the national trend. For another, while both the raw numbers (about a third of where they were 20 years ago) and murders per hundred thousand figures have declined, that per capita figure still stays very stubbornly high, after having been the highest in the country now in third place, at a rate almost 10 times the national average for cities and almost three times higher than similar-sized cities. And that’s taking into account that around 100,000 fewer people live in the city than did two decades ago.
Some crime statistic experts also have doubts about the validity of statistics that purport to show that in number of all major violent crimes New Orleans is unexceptional. They suspect the figures are too low for those other than murder, for a variety of reasons involving administrative actions or the city’s culture, cancelling the assertion that New Orleans is a “safe city with a murder problem.” In their view, it’s much more dangerous than statistics lead on, so a decline in the murder rate has much less of an impact on violent crime generally than otherwise believed.
Finally, doubts also have emerged about how well the city uses resources intended for policing. The city now has fewer sworn officers than it has for over four decades and the lowest overall staffing levels in three dozen years, and Landrieu’s years in office have followed that continual downward pattern. Very embarrassingly, the city’s own inspector general in May released a report questioning resource allocation, arguing that with current funding the police department could do a much better job of having officers available for patrol and response, which occasioned an entirely negative appraisal from the NOPD and Landrieu even as the document contained some compelling comparative national evidence.
In other words, Landrieu’s story that progress is being made but cannot continue without lots more money, as demonstrated by needing to beg the state for troopers, can be parried by pointing out that any fall in the murder rate may be due to national sociological/demographic trends, that the underlying pathologies that continue to allow an absurdly high murder rate continue regardless, that the problem is even worse in being masked by invalidly low rates of other major violent crimes, and that the means to address these things already are available without reaching into the citizenry’s wallets. Under this interpretation, the request for state backup sends another signal confirming the basic failure of Landrieu’s policing policy and implying that any additional monies extracted by the city from the public are not only superfluous, but wastefully throws good money after bad policy.
That’s a narrative Landrieu definitely does not want propagated into the wider public consciousness, beginning with the vote coming up this fall. If a majority of the state’s public voting in that election can become convinced that it’s a policy rather than monetary issue, then even the argument that Landrieu will try to make that non-Orleanians should cast an affirmative vote to allow Orleanians to decide the matter to tax themselves among themselves won’t cut it with that segment.
And that could have catastrophic consequences for any ambitions he might have to ascend to the office of governor in 2016. Quite properly, statewide rejection of the amendment will reflect statewide rejection of him and will dampen any enthusiasm for his candidacy the next year as well as provide plenty of fodder for his opponents to fire at him.
While practical considerations may have forced the move, the political ramification of making the supplemental request to the state might make or break Landrieu’s political future. If it’s seen in the light of justification for increased taxation to keep the city on the right path that Landrieu shepherds into reality, it provides a vindication of his political strength. However, if seen as part of a blind continuation of a failing worldview by a stubborn and ambitious politician that ultimately contributes to the defeat of any tax increase, mayor of New Orleans could be the last full-time political gig Landrieu gets for some time.