Mayor Mitch Landrieu easily wins second term

Mitch Landrieu was re-elected mayor of New Orleans on Saturday, fending off misgivings about crime and stagnation in poor neighborhoods by holding up notable accomplishments against blight and murder, and by pressing an unremittingly optimistic vision for a once-reeling city.

With all precincts reporting, Landrieu captured 64 percent of the vote, 2 percent less than in 2010, but almost doubling the vote of his nearest competitor, former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris.

WWL-TV called the race just moments after the polls closed at 8 p.m., drawing an ecstatic response in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency downtown, where the mayor’s supporters had gathered to await the outcome. The mayor addressed them shortly after 9 p.m., surrounded by more than a dozen family members and telling the same comeback story that carried him to a second term.

“Four years ago, New Orleans faced the biggest crisis that any city in America has ever faced,” Landrieu said. “Four years ago, we found our city in disarray and on the brink of collapse. Four years ago, the recovery was stalled. Our great city was heading in the wrong direction. What we were doing just was not working.”

“Together,” he continued, “we locked arms and we pledged that we would try to do something different.”

In a way, his victory only confirmed what the New Orleans political class had been predicting for months. No mayor in the city’s modern history has been denied a second term in office. Landrieu’s approval ratings have slipped only modestly in four years, and surveys suggest that a clear majority of residents feel life in New Orleans is improving.

Voters went to the polls after days of lurid testimony in the trial of Ray Nagin, embracing a mayor who is so far untainted by allegations of corruption even as the city’s last mayor is engulfed in them.

Across the board, from the mayor to the sheriff to the City Council, this year’s incumbents looked ready to benefit from a growing, if still guarded, optimism about the city’s prospects more than eight years after Hurricane Katrina.

By no means erasing the stark racial divisions that persist a generation after New Orleans began electing its first black leaders, Landrieu nevertheless proved again that a white candidate could garner enough African-American support to win.

If his father Moon Landrieu, still remembered as the mayor who integrated City Hall, helped his son garner a black majority four years ago, the younger Landrieu could at least make the case Saturday that he has done more to unify the city than he is sometimes given credit for.

And his commanding lead will raise more questions about the waning influence of old-guard black political organizations that once dominated city politics. Almost all of them — COUP, SOUL, BOLD, LIFE and TIPS — wanted the mayor ousted.

Landrieu faced a viable black challenger in Bagneris, a two-decade veteran of the bench. Tentatively at first but then without reservation, Bagneris joined the third candidate, local NAACP President Danatus King, in decrying a “tale of two cities” — a recovery story in which poor and black neighborhoods have yet to rebound.

He also tried to undermine the notion that New Orleans is becoming a safer city, pointing out that many violent crimes — aside from murder — remain just as common as when Landrieu took office, or even more so.

Shortly after the mayor spoke, Bagneris addressed supporters at Dijon Resturant in the Lower Garden District, and he made no apologies for running an underdog campaign. “I’m sure that your hard work will be rewarded,” he told supporters. What “you have done now is call attention to some very serious problems confronting this city.”

By not getting into the race until December, Bagneris gave himself only seven weeks to mount a challenge, and he struggled to broaden his appeal beyond a diverse collection of groups more opposed to Landrieu than enthusiastic about his opponent — from police officers to firefighters to taxi drivers.

Meanwhile, Landrieu responded with a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz and an aggressive ground game. He spent heavily on slick commercials — a new one each week — that aired during playoff football games, and he sent campaign staff to scour neighborhoods in the days leading up to the vote.

Landrieu’s margin of victory will give him an undeniable mandate for his second term, combined with a City Council that still looks mostly friendly to the mayor’s agenda, even if several key races were headed for a runoff on Saturday.

Stacy Head, his most common sparring partner on the dais, held onto her seat. But it was not clear that her opponent, Eugene Green, would have been any friendlier to the mayor.

Incumbents Susan Guidry and James Gray and newcomer Jared Brossett won election, all with Landrieu’s backing. Two other seats will be decided in runoffs.

In any case, Saturday’s vote will give Landrieu another four years to pursue a vision he already has begun to sketch. There seems to be little standing in the way of Landrieu’s plans for a new, modern airport, a project the mayor is counting on to attract new airlines, businesses and tourists.

With a new director at the Sewerage & Water Board — one of his own top aides at City Hall — and money from sharply higher water bills, Landrieu will press ahead with the rebuilding of New Orleans’ water system, an undertaking he has promised will create 10,000 new jobs.

There also will be grueling challenges to confront when the mayor returns to work Monday. However many votes he collected, Landrieu will still be at the mercy of a federal judge keeping tabs on reforms at the New Orleans Police Department, with a team of third-party experts issuing regular progress reports.

Another federal judge is supervising reforms at the local jail, and even if Landrieu does not run it, he may still need to find more room in his budget over the next few years to pay for improvements there.

“The pathway forward for all of us is not and will not be easy,” Landrieu acknowledged Saturday. “We see big challenges all around us. We have crime, we have unemployment, families and communities that face deep struggles. But we cannot lose heart, and we cannot leave anyone behind.”