Brace for Impact

Will New Orleans Survive a Collision with the Jeff Landry Administration?

When it comes to the current spate of authoritarian ideologues running amok in American politics, it can be hard to know when to panic over their reactionary rhetorical fireballs.  Sometimes it seems like they just like to hear themselves talk, and inflammatory statements are strong currency in the electoral attention economy. But does that mean we shouldn’t heed the autocrats’ warnings?

Those New Orleanians dreading the day former Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry takes the governor’s office know that our future depends on the extent to which the governor-elect means what he says. As inauguration approaches, one particularly disturbing threat from an appearance on a Tucker Carlson Tonight segment on New Orleans crime hangs ominously over the city. “The place is being run like a third world-country,” Landry said. “In Louisiana, we have one of the most powerful executive departments in the country. The governor is extremely powerful. He has the ability to bend that city to his will, and he [Edwards] just doesn’t. But we will.”

As attorney general, Landry had plenty of follow-through on his zealotry. In pursuit of Orwellian book bans to support his Don’t Say Gay agenda, Landry set up a hotline for constituents to snitch on subversive librarians. And even more worryingly, he has already attempted to withhold much-needed state resources to bring New Orleans into line with his extremist pro-life agenda. When New Orleans leadership indicated that they would not use City resources to enforce the abortion ban, Landry led the charge to deny New Orleans the $40 million needed to replace our antique steam-powered turbines. If he was holding infrastructure money over our heads even before he was elected governor, what happens after they hand the state purse strings over to him on January 8?

Like many New Orleanians, I stepped into the voting booth on October 14 fearing that Landry’s ascension was inevitable, but believing we were at least heading for a runoff. When I heard the election results, I was stunned. Landry’s victory was almost complete across the state. New Orleans was the only place where Landry lost over 50% of the vote, though since voter turnout in Orleans Parish came in at a shockingly low 27%, it hardly made any difference. Jeff Landry was going to moonwalk his way into office on January 8, and there was nothing left to do about it.

Immediately after the election, I saw a grim resignation settle over the city. Few seemed eager to analyze what had happened, or discuss what a future under Landry might hold. And once October’s international headlines completely hijacked the civic conversation, to hear people talk you’d think extremist politics was a phenomenon only happening to other people, somewhere else.

So when I heard that former mayor Marc Morial derailed a New Orleans Film Festival Q&A to furiously address the Democratic Party’s failure to put up any kind of meaningful resistance to Landry and plead the urgency of meeting the political moment, his behavior struck me as both unusual and refreshingly sane. For New Orleans, the inauguration of Jeff Landry is a major historical crossroads. Everything we know and love is on the line, and every choice we make is carrying the weight of the future. Shouldn’t we all be talking about this, all the time?

Marc Morial has been a witness to the theater of Louisiana politics his entire life. He has been an actor on its stage for almost as long, starting as a pre-adolescent, when he served as the first African-American page in Louisiana Senate history. He was elected as a state senator in 1991, and served as mayor of New Orleans between 1994 and 2002. But while his New Orleans roots run about as deep as they go, for the last 20 years his work as the head of the National Urban League has placed Morial’s political fortunes elsewhere, giving him the unique vantage point of an insider looking at the situation from the outside. And what he sees from where he is standing is a city facing an existential threat.

“Rest assured that this is a war on New Orleans,” Morial tells me over the phone. Marc Morial is a busy man, but after I reach out for an interview he wastes no time getting back to me, and he lets the 15 minutes his team allotted for the interview slide into half an hour of passionate exhortation. “This is motivated by politics and race, pure and simple,” he declares. “This is rightwing politicians trying to score points by beating up on New Orleans because it’s majority Black.”

When it comes to Louisiana racial politics, Morial knows of which he speaks; the former mayor’s family is steeped in it. His mother, Sybil Haydel Morial, is a Seventh Ward native and Black descendant of one of Louisiana’s oldest plantation families. His father, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, comes from an old French-speaking Creole family, was mentored by the legendary civil rights lawyer A.P. Tureaud, and served as the city’s first Black mayor. “I had this incredible opportunity as a little boy to spend time at the capitol while my father was in the legislature,” Morial remembers. “My father’s time was a tectonic shift in Louisiana politics—when he was elected to the legislature in 1968, he brought, as a one-person Black caucus, significant legislative advocacy.” By the time he followed his father to the legislature, the conservatism his father had fought against was at an all time low. Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards had roundly defeated KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, and, according to Morial, Black politicians “had power and influence in state politics.”

But history does not march forward so much as it spirals. In this state, where there is racial progress, violent repression is rarely far behind. Louisiana’s 1868 Reconstruction-era Constitution, for instance, contained the most civil rights in state history to date. But thanks to the brutal extremist backlash, the 1898 constitution that followed was written with the stated purpose “to perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana.” Whatever progress was made in Morial’s era of Louisiana politics, we seem to be entering the part of the historical cycle where the other shoe drops.

With Landry in the governor’s mansion and a Republican legislative supermajority, the stated intent to roll back whatever prison reform gains have been made under John Bel Edwards, which Landry refers to as “a dangerous game of catch and release with criminals” will face little opposition. The newly formed Violent Crime Task Force has already met to discuss how to roll back the bipartisan legislative package designed to reduce Louisiana’s exceptionally high incarceration rate. It is also possible that a number of proposed legislation vetoed by Governor John Bel Edwards will be revived, including laws to try 17-year-olds accused of serious crimes as adults and create the crime of approaching a police officer within 25 feet while they are engaged in law enforcement duties. And, notoriously, there is the legislation Landry is backing to release juvenile crime records that singles out East Baton Rouge, Caddo, and Orleans parishes, the state’s three largest majority-Black parishes.

In New Orleans, the conversation around the state’s criminal justice system has changed radically since the days when district attorneys like Harry Connick Sr. and Leon Cannizzaro could withhold evidence, impose life sentences for minor infractions, and jail sexual assault survivors without outcry. The anti-crime proposals of Landry and other Republican political leaders may hearken back to that time, but now they’ll meet a population of mass incarceration-weary New Orleanians who just might refuse to go back.

If so, a few of Landry’s recent maneuvers could provide a way for him to bend the city’s will on the matter, so to speak. In a press conference announcing his appointment of Major Robert Hodges as state police chief, who would be increasing the amount of state troopers dispatched to New Orleans, Landry also announced that those arrested by state police in Orleans Parish would be prosecuted by the office of Attorney General-elect Liz Murrill. Murrill’s office will be represented by former prosecutor Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue, the daughter of former D.A. Leon Cannizzaro and a vocal supporter of Governor-elect Landry on issues regarding the applications of federal oversight that hold city and state law enforcement agencies accountable for abuses of power. So when New Orleans’ conscientious objectors to mass incarceration seek to push back against these policies, they will have to contend with a self-contained, state-controlled system of policing and prosecution in which the city, and perhaps even the federal government, cannot interfere.

Many in New Orleans are loath to jump to dystopian conclusions about Landry’s governorship before he steps into office, knowing how often strident election rhetoric quietly recedes once the business of governance is at hand. Incensed though Morial is, he also sees plenty of bluster in Landry. He remembers the initial hostility of Mike Foster (a good old boy conservative who was governor for most of Morial’s term as mayor) which faded before what he sees as the politician’s overriding pragmatism. “You have to have some sense of ideology, but you can’t be a straitjacketed politician when you are a local elected leader.”

Senator Royce Duplessis, a member of the governor-elect’s handpicked New Orleans transition team, told WWL that he is “cautiously optimistic” about working with Landry. “I’m going to work with this governor—work with whoever—to make sure the voices of New Orleanians are represented,” he said. Duplessis, however, did make it clear that he would not welcome stunts like Landry’s withholding of Sewerage & Water Board money over ideological differences. “I’m hoping… we can not get caught up on unnecessary wedge issues.”

It’s hard to say if other members of the New Orleans transition team share Duplessis’ cautious optimism, as they have largely declined to comment. But though we may be unaware of exactly what was discussed when the New Orleans committee met—absurdly, in Lafayette—their interests are hardly unknowable. Headed by shipbuilding magnate Donald “Boysie” Bollinger, much of the list reads like the society pages of St. Charles Avenue magazine, and the map of interconnections between these powerbrokers is vast.

Bollinger, for example, is chairman of the Audubon Nature Institute, the aquarium and zoo operator whose CEO is Ron Forman, another prominent member of the transition team. For years, Forman was also the chairman of New Orleans & Company, the tourism marketing body whose CEO is transition team member Walt Leger III. Another member, Gregory Rusovich, is on the New Orleans & Company board, and is the immediate past chairman of the New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, which was founded by fellow transition team member John Casbon. Former D.A. Leon Cannizzaro serves on the team alongside his daughter Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue, who campaigned to recall Mayor Cantrell alongside its primary funder, transition team member Rick Farrell.

To the uninitiated, these names and organizations might run together, but those who walk the halls of power know that anyone occupying a leadership position in one of these organizations has the keys to the city in their pocket. For decades, they have watched mayors and council members come and go, making their own plans for the future of the city and protecting their interests at all costs. Landry’s selection of the heaviest business hitters in New Orleans is a tacit acknowledgement of the state’s economic reliance on New Orleans, and which people he considers willing and able to help him keep the golden goose of New Orleans tourism in its cage. Landry may have been talking about crime when he threatened to bend the city to his will, but there’s no separating money from the will of the state.

Asked what the best possible outcome for Landry’s governorship might be, Councilmember-At-Large JP Morrell also recalls the functionality of the Mike Foster years. “Best case scenario, Landry somehow morphs into Mike Foster,” he told me during our sit-down interview at his City Hall office. “The ideal collaboration would be a candid one in which the city and the state can have a dialogue about what we can agree on—for instance, we can agree that the city of New Orleans shouldn’t flood.”

Morrell was not selected for the transition team, though he is one of the two highest ranking elected officials in the city (the other being Mayor Cantrell, who, glaringly, was not selected either) as well as a former state senator. In all probability, his time in the legislature did not endear him to the governor-elect. Part of Morrell’s legislative legacy is championing the repeal of the racist, antiquated allowance of non-unanimous jury decisions for felony convictions, and Landry was not among those who saw this as a victory long overdue. After the law was finally taken off the books, Landry vociferously argued against allowing retrials for those prisoners convicted by the Jim Crow juries now legally recognized as unconstitutional, denying that the law, drafted during the openly white supremecist 1898 Constitutional Convention, was inherently racist.

Morrell, like Duplessis, is committed to a functional relationship with Baton Rouge, though unlike Duplessis, never during our interview did he use the word “optimistic” in connection with Governor-elect Landry. When I questioned the likelihood of the best case scenario he proposed, he acknowledged there were some serious obstacles in the way. “It’s hard to address the variable of how toxic politics has gotten since then,” he says. Agreeing that political discord seems to be the order of the day, I ask him for the pessimist’s forecast. “Worst case scenario is four to eight years of the state going to hell in a handbasket and everyone actively collaborating on the state level to blame New Orleans for the fact that governance has failed,” says Morrell matter-of-factly. “Look at the dystopian playbook: ‘I can’t solve your problem, but let me tell you why you should be angry about something else.’”

No aspect of Landry’s past supports this grim projection so much as his recently uncovered financial ties to a roofing fraud scheme. Earlier this year, the indefatigable investigative reporter David Hammer reported for WWL on what he called “the largest insurance fraud case in Louisiana history.” The scam was masterminded by a Houston law firm (described by one judge as “far-flung agents of chaos”) to swindle thousands of Louisianans out of their desperately needed insurance money after Hurricane Ida. On April 5, Zach Moseley, one of the firm’s lawyers, was referred to Landry’s office for a criminal investigation, and on the same day, Moseley made a substantial contribution to Landry’s campaign. Landry offered no comment as to whether accepting significant funds from a subject of his office’s investigation might compromise said investigation, and refused to say whether or not he would return the money. Instead, he greeted the report with the hostility he reserves for critical journalists, dismissing Hammer’s attempt to hold him accountable with the customary accusations of lies and election interference.

Landry may not shy away from intentionally shocking behavior on the front lines of America’s culture wars, but Hammer’s investigation offers a rare window into a more cynical shadow agenda that transcends firebrand partisanship. The other 63 parishes that voted Landry into office would do well to note that their new governor has no qualms accepting money taken from storm-battered Louisianans, money that would have meant the difference between shelter and exposure. Amidst extreme weather, accelerating land loss, and skyrocketing costs of living, Louisiana’s next governor unabashedly chose to align himself with the out-of-state disaster profiteers victimizing his constituents.

From the outset of his career, Landry has been a faithful representative of oil and gas interests, and has referred to climate change as a hoax. Knowing that the next disaster is always just around the corner, what kind of support can Louisianans expect to receive from their government when it happens? During emergencies, the role of a governor is to act decisively for the public good, and allocate resources according to need. As long as he’s been in politics, Governor-elect Landry has leveraged his political power for the benefit of a few to the exclusion of the rest, behavior that we probably shouldn’t assume will miraculously go away. During the next big hurricane, wherever it strikes, who can say whether he’ll distribute supplies and fund the right programs, or hoard our relief money and have state troopers shoot us in the floodwaters at the first sign of social unrest? New Orleanians are not the only ones with reason to fear come inauguration day.

“Every Governor, regardless of party, has an obligation to represent the best interests of all people, and to represent the interests of the vulnerable,” says Marc Morial. “The jury’s out on Landry—is he going to be a governor for all or a few?” Morial is remembered by many for practicing what he preaches now, from the youth social programs that helped bring down New Orleans crime by other means than prosecution, to the effort he made to build bridges between all 64 parishes, reminding Louisianans that the fates of the city and the state were inextricably tied.

But he also wonders how a politician could have that kind of run today, amidst escalating political tensions and the pervading sense of despondency. “People seem to have lost their energy to fight for the future,” he says, the low voter turnout clearly on his mind. He admits how daunting that fight really is. “The coastline is disappearing. I’ve been flying in and out of New Orleans for 40 years, and now when I look down from the airplane window I can see that all of the marsh is disappearing.” He sounds human and sad, like everyone does when they love something they’re afraid to lose.

Landry campaign signs remain posted in December on Washington Avenue in Central City  (Photo: Dan Fox)

The despair permeating the atmosphere makes it easy to see the election of Jeff Landry as checkmate for the city of New Orleans. Certainly, his instinct for power and strategic talent has made him a formidable opponent. But make no mistake—this city still has plenty of moves left. New Orleans has a home rule charter granted through the Louisiana Constitution which leaves us with some measure of independence. A home rule charter means the local government can exercise all powers not explicitly denied by law or constitution. In New Orleans, the rampant political infighting does not bode well for the united front that would be required for the City to confront the state, but it’s comforting to know it’s an option. And though only around a third of Louisiana parishes currently have home rule, the state constitution protects their right to adopt it whenever they want to change, meaning any parish which becomes disillusioned with the governor will not need his permission to take back some of their power from the state.

And then there is always the New Orleans economy. Our residents may be close to drowning in high costs and low wages, and the tourism engine may be run by an elite group with a feudal approach to collective prosperity; nevertheless, the power of any economy will always come from its people—the New Orleans economy cannot run if we refuse to run it.

With all the political and economic influence Landry has amassed, claiming power on behalf of the people will require winning the battle of wits. As JP Morrell put it, “The extreme right desperately does not want you to be informed. If you truly understood what people were doing on a real, practical level, and fully understood what the ramifications were, you could hold them to account.” This means staying vigilant about how power is being consolidated. It also means understanding that power in the context of the historical wounds that continue to haunt our present, and doing our best to heal them when and where we can.

All that is a very tall order, and most people probably don’t anticipate New Orleans choosing this outcome for itself. If I were a betting woman, I’d wager that Jeff Landry is one of them. I shudder to imagine him on election night, exchanging smirks with his campaign manager after the record low voter turnout numbers in Orleans Parish came in. Likely the campaign interpreted the data the same way many Democrats did—as evidence that despair had hardened into indifference, and that New Orleanians won’t be putting up much of a fight in the days ahead.

Then again, maybe we’ll surprise him.

illustrations by Henry Lipkis

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