Stephanie Grace: Mayor goes big in campaign opener

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu went characteristically big as he launched the opening salvo of the new campaign season.

Landrieu’s first television ad, which debuted 48 hours after qualifying for the Feb. 1 primary closed, was a lavishly produced piece set to a stirring gospel-tinged soundtrack. It aired in what counts as prime time, just after the first quarter of the Saints/Rams game — luckily for Landrieu, probably before too many disgusted fans changed the channel. And it introduced the sweeping themes of resilience and recovery, zeroing in on before-and-after shots of Katrina-devastated landmarks and neighborhoods, now cleaned up and back to some semblance of normal, or at least heading in that direction. For all the insider tongue-wagging about now-retired Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris’ last-minute entry into the mayor’s race, for all the talk of the mayor’s squabbles with other politicians, the ad was a reminder of just how much Landrieu has going for him as he seeks a second term.

The visible progress the ad spotlights is certainly incomplete. It’s hard to argue that the Lower 9th Ward, one featured neighborhood, is back to normal, particularly when a top Landrieu aide recently admitted to the City Council that there’s simply no demand for Road Home properties there.

But it’s also very real. During his first four years, Landrieu pursued aggressive policies that have put a real dent in the city’s blight problem. Shiny new or renovated public facilities have opened up all over the city, with more to come. Unlike the previous four years under Mayor Ray Nagin, there’s definitely a sense that things are happening.

The ad sends another message as well. While Bagneris is just getting started, Landrieu’s already got the resources — $1.6 million as of the last filing — to stage a slick, affecting and expensive campaign.

That’s on top of the visibility he gets from just being mayor, and having run three prior citywide races on top of his campaigns for the Legislature and lieutenant governor, and having a father who was once mayor, and a sister in the U.S. Senate. Bagneris comes from a prominent family, too (although a lot less well-known than the incumbent’s) and once served as Mayor Dutch Morial’s executive counsel, but he hasn’t had to campaign since he first won his judgeship two decades ago, the only time he faced opposition.

In an interview with The Advocate, Bagneris said he’s not challenging Landrieu out of pique over the mayor’s opposition to a new, stand-alone Civil District Court (Landrieu wants the judges to join the administration at the old Charity Hospital). He said he’d focus on the things that aren’t going so well, such as crime and the condition of the city’s streets, as well as the employment market.

“I have friends with college degrees and some with advanced degrees who can’t get a job,” he said. “For all these reasons, I decided to get into the race. I just truly, truly believe I can do a better job.”

A main point of attack, he suggested, would be the mayor’s multi-angle, anti-murder strategy, dubbed “NOLA for Life,” which includes everything from billboards to midnight basketball to an anti-gang task force. Landrieu points to a declining murder rate to validate the initiative’s success, but Bagneris suggested he’d tap into a general sense that the city remains dangerous.

There are other candidates on the ballot too. Danatus King, head of the local NAACP, kicked off qualifying by sending out an odd news release insisting that, contrary to unspecified media reports, he did too have the $750 needed to get on the ballot — not exactly a strong opening bid. Also signing up was Manny “Chevrolet” Bruno, a comic and perennial candidate who is more about winning laughs than votes.

To the extent there is one, Bagneris is the threat in the bunch, and he has the potential to piece together disparate groups who have issues with the mayor over some particular policy or another, those who remain frustrated by crime, and perhaps even Republicans who want to weaken the family name in advance of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s tough re-election fight next year.

He can definitely give Mitch Landrieu a headache. Whether he can give him a run for his money is a whole other question.

Stephanie Grace’s email address is sgrace@theadvocate.com.