Stephanie Grace: Landrieu speech short on specifics

It was probably too much to expect that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu would use his second inaugural address Monday to make any big news.

Unlike his predecessor Ray Nagin, who would sometimes blurt out ambitious ideas without having done a bit of legwork or even informing his staff, Landrieu plays things close to the vest. On the occasions when he does announce a new initiative or project, you can bet it’s already well underway.

Landrieu, who was easily reelected in February following a largely well-reviewed first term, didn’t stop much to dwell on the city’s progress, and he didn’t limit his specific examples to items in the administration’s portfolio. Landrieu gave shout-outs to everything from the city’s anti-blight efforts to the lustrous renovation of the Saenger Theatre to the newly rebuilt Big Four public housing developments. And education, an area where the mayor has been a forceful advocate but plays no formal role, took up a good chunk of the speech.

Noting that “we made a choice to change” a school system that was among the worst in the country, Landrieu highlighted good news such as rising graduation rates and test scores, and falling dropout rates. He acknowledged a handful of college-bound public school seniors who peppered the crowd at the Saenger and announced that this year’s graduates have landed a collective $53 million in scholarships.

“And this is good,” he said, “but too many of our kids still struggle at failing schools.”

That segued into the most specific goal of Landrieu’s whole speech: to see to it that in the next four years, “New Orleans will become the first urban school system in America with no failing schools.”

Rather than a victory lap, this broad thematic speech was, to a surprising extent, a progress report.

“Now the path at our backs stretches for many, many many miles, and we’ve made tracks,” he said. “But the road ahead is long, and it is steep.”

And one key measure of that progress, the mayor argued, should be how widely the city’s promise is spread.

In fact, the speech contained numerous echoes of Landrieu’s chief challenger’s campaign — not the personal conflicts and interagency grievances, but the emphasis on crime and opportunity for all in a city where spotty prosperity coexists with chronic unemployment among African-American men.

Landrieu had acknowledged these ongoing challenges during his campaign against retired Judge Michael Bagneris, of course, but he also painted a more positive overall picture. His speech Monday suggested that, personal animosity aside, the two weren’t really so far apart in assessing the city’s most daunting problems.

Landrieu linked the city’s ongoing fiscal challenges to his struggle to fund reforms mandated by federal police and jail consent decrees and to hire hundreds of new police officers, key pieces of the administration’s overall public safety strategy. He also got metaphorical, describing the “ominous fruit planted from the seeds of violence that have taken root” in too many neighborhoods.

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

He also made repeated reference to inequality and wrapped the speech up by asking the audience to “recommit ourselves to creating a city where no one gets left behind.”

How does the mayor propose to get there? Presumably by continuing the anti-crime NOLA for Life program he launched in his first term, finding new revenue sources — quite likely in the form of some sort of tax increase, or perhaps several — and continuing to use the bully pulpit that comes with the office. If Landrieu’s got other new ideas, he’s not sharing them just yet.

In other words, rather than outlining a route, Landrieu launched his second term by zeroing in on the final destination. The rest we’ll have to figure out along the way.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.