Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Monday that President Barack Obama is endorsing his bid for re-election, an unexpected coup that also underlines how seriously the mayor is taking his main challenger for the top job at City Hall.
The president’s backing could bring obvious advantages. Obama, who has been greeted by adoring crowds during the handful of visits he has made to New Orleans since taking office, is deeply popular in this heavily Democratic, majority African-American city.
As New Orleans’ first white mayor since the 1970s, Landrieu still polls well among black voters, but he will doubtless be looking to shore up black support as he takes on two African-American challengers. Now he’s got the backing of America’s first black president.
“It’s very unusual for a president to get involved in endorsing a candidate where all the challengers are Democrats,” said local pollster Silas Lee. “Landrieu obviously wanted to prevent any hemorrhaging of support, especially from the African-American community.”
Reeling in such a high-profile endorsement — a rarity in city politics — is in keeping with the mayor’s approach to the campaign so far.
Landrieu clearly is taking nothing for granted despite high approval ratings and the advantage of incumbency, particularly since Michael Bagneris resigned his Civil District Court judgeship to join the race. He has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars getting television ads in front of voters during prime-time events, including football games.
Obama’s endorsement, in the form of a written statement released by the Landrieu campaign, offered unequivocal support for the mayor.
“Mitch has been a fierce advocate for the people of New Orleans, helping create jobs, reduce crime, improve our children’s schools and rebuild hard-hit communities,” Obama said. “Today, with the city poised for even more progress, there is no question that Mitch has earned a second term as mayor — and I hope the people of New Orleans will give him one.”
Bagneris responded by accusing Landrieu of trying to “hide behind Washington insiders and his big sister,” suggesting that Obama’s support was a favor to U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., the mayor’s sister.
“Washington can’t protect us from crime,” Bagneris said in a prepared statement. “Washington can’t restore our peace of mind.”
Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said the mayor has his own relationship with the president and that his sister was not involved in securing the endorsement. He declined to go into specifics about how Landrieu might take advantage of the endorsement during the campaign.
The president has occasionally made similar endorsements but typically stays out of local races, especially in contests between fellow Democrats. He supported Bill de Blasio in New York against Republican Joseph Lhota but did not back a candidate in the Los Angeles mayoral contest when two Democrats were vying for the office last year.
Whether or not Mary Landrieu played into his calculation, Obama’s decision to come out for her brother does point to the intersection in this year’s elections between local and national politics, as well as Landrieu’s family connections.
Obama and national Democrats are counting on another successful Senate run for Mary Landrieu. She cast a crucial vote for the president’s health care reform bill and is one of the last Democrats from the South in the Senate. But given Louisiana’s strong GOP leanings — Obama won just 40 percent of the popular vote here — the president will probably avoid campaigning on her behalf.
As in every election, Mary Landrieu is in the cross-hairs of a Republican effort to pick off potentially vulnerable Democrats and gain a Senate majority. And there’s been quiet speculation — made public recently in a column by Gambit editor Clancy DuBos — that some of the same conservative activists who want to dump her might put money behind Bagneris in an effort to tarnish the mayor and his sister in one go.
Bagneris, a Democrat, dismisses those rumors. His campaign manager, Greg Buisson, called them part of a “whisper campaign” aimed at hurting Bagneris’ candidacy and said his financial disclosures prove otherwise. So far, there’s been no evidence of any Republican spending in the campaign.
For Bagneris, though, Obama’s endorsement is the second high-profile snub he has had to endure from the White House in the past few years. In 2010, Mary Landrieu recommended Bagneris for a federal judgeship, but the Obama administration declined — without offering any public explanation — to nominate him for the seat.
Editor’s note: This story was edited Jan. 7 to reflect that U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu was not involved in securing the president’s endorsement, according to Ryan Berni, a spokesman for the mayor.