Mayor calls for N.O. to ‘press on’ in inaugural address

Mayor Mitch Landrieu opened his second term in office Monday with an inaugural address that declared New Orleans at a crossroads, alluding to progress over the past four years in attacking problems like violence and blight while committing to “press on.”

“Today, I ask all of you gathered here, let us keep pressing on and recommit ourselves to creating a city where no one — no one — gets left behind,” Landrieu told a crowd of several hundred at the Saenger Theatre on Canal Street. “Every generation comes to this point. Every generation is given a moment to bend that arc of history.

“And 300 years from now,” he continued, “when historians look back, they will remember how we, the people of New Orleans, in this moment, in this time, came together to do what was hard for the sake of doing what was right, and gave light and freedom, goodness and life to those generations we do not yet know.”

When he first took office four years ago, Landrieu spoke of a “great promise not yet fulfilled,” citing challenges on every front from crime, education and jobs to coastal stewardship and lingering racial tensions.

On Monday, he aimed for the same balance that he struck during his successful re-election campaign, declaring that New Orleans has “gotten used to winning” even as he surveyed the “huge challenges” that remain.

His speech at the Saenger, as well as the traditional interfaith service that preceded it, came with a soundtrack of booming gospel hymns. The L.B. Landry-O.P. Walker High School Choir shook the balcony of St. Louis Cathedral with “How Great Is Our God” and “Oh Happy Day.”

At the Saenger, members of the NOLA United Gospel Choir sat among the officials onstage, nearly re-creating one of Landrieu’s campaign commercials with a rendition of “Pressing On” over a projected video montage of scenes from the city’s recovery.

The mayor’s father, former Mayor Moon Landrieu, administered his son’s oath of office, as he did in 2010.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the clerks of the civil and criminal district courts, the new coroner and all seven members of the City Council were sworn in as well.

Officials began the day at 8:30 a.m. with a nondenominational service at which Archbishop Gregory Aymond delivered a homily that echoed the mayor’s own themes — present in both his inaugural address and his re-election campaign — of unity and common struggle.

“Let us never forget that we are all one body,” Aymond said, alluding to a passage from an epistle of St. Paul, selected by the mayor as a scripture reading, that stresses how different parts of the whole function as one entity. “We must work to preserve the unity that exists among us and work for an even stronger unity.”

The mayor, joined onstage by his wife, Cheryl, and their five children, said that “after years of trial by fire, we as a people have changed” and “found a new way.” He claimed “the old mistrust between business and government” has given way to “mutual benefits and cooperation,” and that “differences of faith, race or neighborhood” have been replaced by “common ground” and “shared humanity.” And, he argued, “This is why we are winning.”

It was certainly no policy speech. Landrieu stuck mainly to elevated themes about promise and redemption in a speech that lasted just over 20 minutes, capped by the entrance of the “Roots of Music” marching band down both aisles. There was no mention, for instance, of challenges such as restructuring civil service, just now shaping up as a major debate among city officials.

His only brief nod to the messy details — and financial headaches — he will have to confront over the next four years came about halfway through his address when he acknowledged, “We must find a way to pay for new, looming liabilities from the firefighters pension fund and federal consent decrees,” even while building “a police department with 1,600 officers so we can make our city safe.”

Still, the mayor did not shy from pointing out how far behind the city remains on many fronts. In one area after another he cited progress, then pivoted to speak about how much better things could be.

On public education, he pointed to rising test scores and graduation rates but then said that “too many of our kids still struggle at failing schools,” adding, “Let’s make a commitment that New Orleans will become the first urban school system in America with not one failing school.”

On budget issues, Landrieu said New Orleans went from being nearly “$100 million in the red” when he took office to having “a balanced budget,” but he also warned of “huge challenges” in figuring out how to fund firefighter pensions and court-mandated reforms at the local jail and police force.

On his top priority, reducing murder and other violent crime, Landrieu pointed toward a “stark contradiction.”

“From the rich soil of New Orleans comes our great prides: our close-knit neighborhoods, our second-lines, our cooking, our music, our love and warmth of our families and friends,” he said. “But from this same fertile ground, from this same remarkable place, grows an ominous fruit planted from the seeds of violence.

“The death and destruction,” he continued, “will only end if we tear that noxious weed out by the root.”