Stephanie Grace: Landrieu’s influence only goes so far

“You go to war with the Army you have, “ former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once famously said. “They’re not the Army you might want to wish to have a later time.”

The same, one might argue, can be said about politics and governance. Which brings us to last week’s runoff elections in New Orleans and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s status, as he gets ready to embark on his second term.

If Landrieu’s 64 percent landslide in February’s primary over former Judge Michael Bagneris and local NAACP chapter President Danatus King was a validation, then the just-as-lopsided defeats by two Landrieu-endorsed City Council members last week was a brush back delivered by the same voters.

Landrieu, justifiably confident of his own odds from the beginning, had launched the election season by not just announcing a slate of council candidates he wanted his supporters to back but by recruiting term-limited at-large member Jackie Clarkson out of looming retirement to run for her old District C seat. His initial ticket included choices in each district race and eventually grew to include Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, term-limited out of the District D post, for an at-large seat.

Primary voters delivered the lopsided victory Landrieu wanted and went with three of his choices for the council — Susan Guidry, Jared Brossett and James Gray (Landrieu was also prepared to give his nod to LaToya Cantrell, whom he’d opposed in her initial race just a year before, but she attracted no opposition).

But Clarkson and Hedge-Morrell wound up in runoffs, and it was all downhill from there. In the end, Clarkson drew only 41 percent to former Judge Nadine Ramsey, and Hedge-Morrell lost to attorney Jason Williams by an embarrassing 68-31 margin.

So Landrieu will enter his second term with four presumed allies on the seven-member council. Yet, neither at-large member, Williams or Stacy Head, whom he did not endorse, can be counted on to be in his camp. That’s important, because the council presidency rotates between the two.

The upshot is that, while Landrieu remains politically strong, he’s got no monopoly on power. Head and Williams can each claim a citywide mandate independent of the popular mayor. Ramsey’s strong showing wasn’t just a win for her but for her most prominent supporter, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, who put an exclamation point behind his endorsement by hosting a fundraiser days after the election to help his candidate retire her debt.

Clarkson and Hedge-Morrell, of course, each had their own negatives that had nothing to do with Landrieu. Still, it’s hard not to view the elections in the context of the debate that Bagneris launched about the mayor himself.

From the beginning, Landrieu’s style has been an interesting mix of progressive and traditional.

He embraces data-driven analysis, “best practices,” public-private partnerships and the like. Yet, he’s also got old-school instincts, the type that often accompany a long history in public office.

He sometimes comes off like he’s assembling allies rather than building coalitions.

He trusts people who’ve been in the system — like Clarkson and Hedge-Morrell — when voters are far more skeptical and puts a premium on loyalty. Bagneris, who had plenty of his own entanglements with old-school insiders, was a flawed vehicle for the argument that the mayor can be too insular and controlling, and his criticisms didn’t come close to overshadowing the good voters saw in Landrieu. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t on to something. Certainly voters were not inclined to just give the mayor the council he wanted.

Elsewhere on the ballot, Landrieu backed the winner for coroner, Jeffrey Rouse, and, perhaps most interestingly, stayed out of the race between former Sheriff Charles Foti and incumbent Marlin Gusman, despite his devastating criticism of Gusman’s office as a place “where waste, fraud and abuse run rampant,” a quotation Foti reprinted in his own advertising.

Foti, though, was never a viable alternative, and Landrieu’s silence boiled down to accepting what he could not change.

He may be doing that a lot in this new term.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/gracenotes.