Stephanie Grace: Election underscores scarce resources

Back when he was fresh off his resounding 2010 victory, New Orleans Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu announced a series of topically organized transition teams, stocked with community leaders, to help set the agenda for his administration.

It was before one of those announcements that my colleagues in the press and I noticed something we’d never seen before. Carefully arranged across the floor were pieces of tape, each marked with a name. And sure enough, once the participants arrived, each stood in his or her assigned spot surrounding Landrieu.

To the casual viewer, the scene came off as a show of unity and collaboration. The presence of the tape added an unspoken layer: Yes, all those people were standing together with Landrieu — but they were also expected to know their place. It wasn’t long before things turned ugly at one of the key task forces when some members balked at their assigned role. Several members of the police chief search committee resigned or were removed when they raised public questions about the decision-making process. The dust-up caused the incoming administration’s first headache and, in retrospect, served as a sign of things to come.

That much is apparent from the people who are rallying behind retired judge Michael Bagneris, Landrieu’s highest-profile challenger for re-election. The Bagneris coalition consists largely of insiders who have had direct dealings with the mayor and who complain openly that he has control issues, doesn’t work well with others and doesn’t take kindly to disagreement. Their willingness to go public with their gripes is pretty remarkable, given that between the city’s long record of re-electing incumbents and Landrieu’s positive poll numbers, odds are pretty good that the mayor will win a second term (the NAACP’s Danatus King, one of those dissenting task force members, is also trying to unseat Landrieu).

Indeed, thanks largely to Bagneris’ campaign, Landrieu’s personality has emerged as a major re-election issue. Yet it’s worth remembering there’s more to some of the mayor’s interjurisdiction squabbles. There’s also the not-at-all insignificant matter of scarce resources.

If Landrieu’s prickliness and control issues are fair game, so is the fact that the mayor has found himself on the receiving end of several “unfunded mandates,” as he’s pointedly characterized them.

These include judicial rulings ordering the city to pay for things it does not control, including the federal consent decree for Orleans Parish Prison, the firefighters’ pension system, and Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell’s operations. As uncooperative as he can seem, as fruitless as some of these fights appear, Landrieu actually has to either get out of these obligations or pay for them. And that means either cutting expenses or raising revenue, neither of which is a particularly appealing option.

Bagneris has done a fine job of highlighting the personality side of the equation, but he’s done little to address the more complicated money end. He’s faulted Landrieu for resisting judicial orders, but he’s offered no real acknowledgement that they represent huge drains on a strapped budget. Nor has he explained how he’d pay for the 400-plus cops he vows to hire.

During the first televised debate last week, Bagneris targeted low-hanging fruit such as Landrieu’s well-compensated deputy mayors and “urban specialists,” whose collective salaries would only make a small dent in the total needed to fulfill all the city’s obligations, as Landrieu pointed out. But the challenger has yet to seriously address whether he’d be willing to cut popular services or raise taxes or fees to pay for all he promises to deliver, and the election is less than two weeks away.

When asked about his history of conflicts, Landrieu chalks them up to hard choices any mayor has to make. That’s overly simplistic; not all of his fights are about money, and his ability to get along with others is obviously a real issue.

Still, Bagneris and his supporters need to remember that if he manages to unseat Landrieu, he won’t just inherit the power and the glory. He’ll inherit those hard choices, too.

Correction: Friday’s column incorrectly characterized the Louisiana residents who would be eligible for coverage if the state were to accept federal money to expand Medicaid. The people affected make less than 100 percent of the federal poverty limit; those with incomes between 100 and 138 percent are currently eligible for subsidies.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.