Dennis Persica: Landrieu speaks out on violence

Did Mayor Mitch Landrieu just have a “Sister Souljah moment”?

For those of you too young to remember — or too busy to Google it — the Sister Souljah moment happened in 1992, when Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, running for president, criticized inflammatory comments by the author-activist-entertainer.

Clinton did so in a speech to a meeting of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.

Pundits at the time said that by criticizing a black activist before another black activist’s organization, Clinton helped shore up support among voters who thought he was too liberal.

The fact that some African-Americans criticized his comments probably didn’t hurt Clinton among those voters he wanted to appease.

Landrieu didn’t come anything close to Clinton’s “moment,” but that’s not to say he won’t reap benefits from it.

Last week in Washington, Landrieu and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter called for national action to combat the “virus” of young African-American men killing each other.

In just about any civil rights discussion these days — let’s take, oh, say, the Trayvon Martin case as an example — you can bet that conservatives will play the black-violence violence card.

The card reads something like this: “Why are black people concerned about the death of one young African-American when scores of them are being killed every day?” Or, maybe: “Before African-Americans complain about discrimination keeping them down, they should look to the real problem that besets their community, young black men killing each other.”

Of course, it’s absolutely untrue to say that African-Americans don’t care about the problems in their communities. But efforts to combat the problems don’t get the attention or airtime that something like a march protesting Martin’s slaying does.

In his Washington comments, Landrieu proposed big-government solutions to fight violence, such as more money for community policing. But he also said people have to take more responsibility in their communities and criticized the practice of “babies having babies.”

I’m not saying that Landrieu’s comments were politically opportunistic. If a mayor wants the best for his city, then it makes sense that violent crime is one of the blights he’d want to eradicate.

And Landrieu has shown that he cares. He goes to crime scenes and meets with the people who’ve lost relatives to violence. In far too many cases recently, many of those victims of violent crime were children — not teenagers, but children, ranging from 11 years old to 23 months.

Landrieu doesn’t need a Souljah moment in his quest to be re-elected, anyway. There is something to be said for the notion that Landrieu lost his 2006 race against Ray Nagin because conservative voters didn’t like his sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, or even his dad, former Mayor Moon Landrieu.

But after the sobering experience that Nagin’s second term turned out to be, Landrieu didn’t have to worry about the city’s conservatives anymore; they had played with fire and gotten burned.

But if he were to seek office in a statewide election — for governor, or to succeed his sister in the U.S. Senate — Landrieu might have to worry about voters like that again. Or, who knows: a young, forward-looking mayor of a beloved American city who can show some evidence of a turnaround while he was in office would seem to be a textbook choice for — wait for it — a running mate on a presidential ticket.

If Landrieu decides to seek office beyond the city limits of New Orleans, having taken up a favorite conservative complaint could only accrue to his benefit.

Dennis Persica writes about people and places in the New Orleans area. His email address is depersica@theadvocate.com.