New council members could prove more independent of Landrieu

Faced with a growing reputation for picking fights in the run-up to his successful re-election campaign, Mayor Mitch Landrieu offered this evidence to the contrary: During his first term, he said, the City Council has made unanimous decisions 98 percent of the time — an indication, he argued, that public officials in New Orleans are largely on the same page.

But while voters gave Landrieu another four years by an overwhelming majority, it’s less clear whether they gave him a City Council that will be as inclined to agree with one another, or with him, as the current lineup.

The recent elections must have been whiplash-inducing for the mayor: Just six weeks after he won a second term with 64 percent of the vote, the electorate soundly rejected the two council candidates he was backing in runoffs, Jackie Clarkson and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, both of whom Landrieu could usually count on as allies during the past four years.

Instead, voters elected Nadine Ramsey and Jason Williams by large margins, choosing two newer faces who both promised to bring a spirit of independence to a council that has often been in lockstep with the mayor.

Stacy Head, who easily won a second term as one of the council’s two at-large members in the first round of voting and who backed Williams in the other at-large race, said she is optimistic about the council’s new makeup. More inclined than her colleagues to criticize the administration, Head argues the council has too often prioritized agreeing publicly when they “don’t really agree.”

She hopes that having more independent-minded members on the council will force the mayor to seek input and compromise, rather than taking a majority vote for granted, she said. “I think that a council with more independence will result in more successes,” Head said.

Of course, predicting how a new council will operate is more complicated than pointing out who endorsed whom.

James Gray won his seat — twice now — with Landrieu’s support, yet he’s been willing to buck the mayor, at least on occasion. Last year, he persuaded a majority of his colleagues to delay the effect of part of the mayor’s taxi reform package, a move Landrieu quickly vetoed.

On the other hand, LaToya Cantrell won her seat the first time despite Landrieu’s endorsement of another candidate. She seems to have forged a good working relationship with the mayor anyway, and he backed her for a second term in December, though no one qualified to run against her. And Landrieu didn’t strike out completely with the new council: One of the new members, state Rep. Jared Brossett, was elected with Landrieu’s endorsement in the Feb. 1 primary.

Still, the new council could produce more pushback than usual for a mayor who places a high value on public unanimity — captured succinctly in the campaign slogan “one team, one fight, one voice, one city.”

Landrieu says he has brought New Orleanians together behind his vision for a more vibrant city, and as he made a case for a second term, he pointed to his relationship with the council.

“This City Council and I, unlike previous mayors and previous city councils — although we’ve had a couple of bust-ups — have had very minor disagreements,” Landrieu said. “You remember the ‘gang of five.’ We have not had that.”

That comparison may still hold up during Landrieu’s second term. No one is predicting an opposition bloc on the council like the “gang of five” that made Mayor Dutch Morial’s life so difficult in the 1980s. In that era, the mayor faced not just differing opinions on the council but a full-fledged rival political faction, led by then-Councilman Sidney Barthelemy, who eventually succeeded Morial as mayor.

But two of the council’s new faces did win their seats in part by promising to be independent, and in interviews since the election, they both reiterated that stance.

“This council is going to be much more responsive to the needs of the citizens, whereas before, the council wanted to make sure votes came off 7-0,” Ramsey said. “People want a council that’s going to work with the administration but is also going to stand up for what their concerns are.”

Ramsey doesn’t foresee acrimony: “There will be disagreements, yes, but it doesn’t have to play out in any angry way.” However, she did say she expects the council to revisit the mayor’s taxicab reforms, a move that would almost certainly cause conflict with the administration.

Williams talks in similar terms about how he sees the new council’s relationship with the mayor shaping up. He said he doesn’t see any big philosophical differences between himself and Landrieu but expects to push back when he thinks it’s necessary.

“I’m going to keep an open mind and keep my hands on the pulse of the people and what their needs are,” Williams said. As for the mayor, “when it appears he’s wrong, I’m going to say what I need to him. I think that was a mandate from the people.”