Mitch Landrieu says he’s enjoying his job as lieutenant governor, at least for now, although big changes could be in store for him in the near future. Whenever Gov. Bobby Jindal leaves the state, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu receives an initial phone call and then a letter. While the exchange and verbiage is both mundane and in legalese, the message to Landrieu is clear: hold down the fort until the governor returns. By now, it’s become routine, since Landrieu also had the same constitutional obligations under fellow Democrat Kathleen Blanco. (Actually, there was an instance during her term where Blanco and Landrieu were together outside Louisiana and the role fell upon late Secretary of State Fox McKeithen, who bragged to anyone and everyone about the great meals he was enjoying — alone — in the Governor’s Mansion).   

It’s all less exciting than it sounds. Landrieu says he hasn’t been asked to so much as sign a document or turn off the lights during such occasions. Still, it’s an important function of state government; should anything seriously befall Louisiana’s governor, the lieutenant governor assumes the top job. That’s why Landrieu has a security detail like Jindal, albeit significantly smaller. It’s also why the No. 2 sits next to the No. 1 during emergency briefings. While it’s easy to allow politics to turn the succession process, or rather the discussion of it, into a joke of sorts, Landrieu says he regards it with reverence, just like No. 2s from other states surely do. “This is something I take very seriously,” he says. “Every person in this position has to be prepared.”

To be certain, it’s rare for a lieutenant to move up while in the No. 2 slot. There have only been a small handful of lieutenant governors who have risen from their ranks while in office to become what you might call an accidental governor, practically all of them ineffective because they were placed on their respective ballots for strategic purposes similar to the way modern presidential tickets choose a VP from, say, the South or, more recently, a female evangelical governor from Alaska. Of course, nowadays the lieutenant governor and governor run individually, not on a ticket. Besides, no one in their right mind would want to assume the governorship through the death of another Louisianan.

That’s not to say Landrieu doesn’t want the job. In fact, he’s quietly been building a compelling story that can be told through a statewide run. In speeches and policy decisions, he’s branded a plan that places Louisiana squarely in the center of what he refers to as the “New South.” Landrieu has also implemented an outcomes-based budgeting system in his Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, the same system that Jindal’s Republican administration is attempting to launch now. Since 2005, Landrieu says his department has saved $16 million from targeted cuts and reorganizations.

At last count, Landrieu’s campaign was sitting on more than $100,000, and there don’t seem to be any challengers lurking in the wings. When asked directly if he wanted to be governor, Landrieu doesn’t hesitate. “One day,” he says. “Yes.”

But that doesn’t mean Landrieu’s gunning for Jindal. He’s a shrewd politician and must know, given Jindal’s poll numbers, that the only person who can beat Jindal — at this point in time — is Jindal. Instead, the endgame right now is all about patience and sound calculations. Maybe that’s why Landrieu has decided not to run for mayor of his hometown next year. (In 2006, Landrieu was handed a bitter pill when voters re-elected New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, but now Nagin is on his way out.) Although recent weeks have seen a handful of big names drop and enter the Big Easy contest, Landrieu is standing pat. “I haven’t changed my mind about that,” he said in an interview earlier this month.

As recent as last week, however, rumblings have surfaced about a poll in the field gauging Landrieu’s popularity, and sources from all along the political spectrum contend the lieutenant governor still has one foot, or at least a toe, in the race. A call requesting a follow-up interview with Landrieu on the mayor’s race was not returned. We’ll know where he stands soon enough; qualifying is Dec. 9-11, with the primary set for Feb. 6. If necessary, a March 6 runoff will be held.

If Landrieu does indeed stay out of the race, Joshua Stockley, former president of the Louisiana Political Science Association and a professor at UL-Monroe, says his options for upward mobility will be limited, if not concentrated on the office of governor. “As for Congress, I think it would be difficult for voters to elect two siblings,” Stockley says, referring to U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. “But it’s interesting to note that in recent statewide polls, Mitch is enjoying some of the highest approval ratings in the state. If there was a way to capitalize on that for him, you’d think it would be running for governor.” 

It’s not as if Landrieu doesn’t have other matters to tend to. Statewide tourism, which falls under Landrieu’s purview, has seen better days. And since 40 percent of Louisiana’s tourism business is directly linked to New Orleans, that’s where Landrieu has been focusing his energies. By the end of the year, he says his office will be done with a new master plan for the Crescent City. Another master plan for the rest of the state will be launched in 2010. He says places like Baton Rouge and Shreveport have “stepped up and benefited” during New Orleans’ recovery, but it’s time to get all the regions working in concert again. “New Orleans has had a difficult time getting back up and running, and the current environment hasn’t helped,” he says. “It’s hard to determine now what’s impacting us, the economy or Katrina.”

Another key constituency for Landrieu comes through his oversight of Louisiana’s accredited museums — and it’s a constituency the lieutenant governor has lost ground with recently. Last year, he pushed a law through the Legislature that gave him complete control over Louisiana’s museum system and its board. It was a culture war, with Landrieu arguing that his office needed to be more accountable for what’s going in what he deemed a dysfunctional system. Critics, meanwhile, labeled it a power play that took control away from those who know the system best. Landrieu says it’s working out “wonderfully.”

F. Rivers Lelong Jr., a partner with Jones Walker law firm and a member of the Louisiana State Museum Board of Directors, says he “remains concerned” about the new system, which is still in the process of being implemented. Specifically, he says Landrieu has abandoned hiring search firms and setting out a national net for top positions. “That’s abandoning our original goals of wanting to move the museum system forward and make it better,” Lelong says. “I don’t think it’s a good long-term policy for the lieutenant governor to be running the museum system. He won’t be lieutenant governor forever.”

Working outside of his proverbial box is nothing new to Landrieu. He’s also taken on juvenile justice issues and, more recently, he has made economic development a central focus of his office, even though there’s an entire department dedicated to the issue. When asked about this, Landrieu rattles off a set of numbers, as in, “Tourism and the cultural economy account for 300,000 jobs, and the tourism industry alone generates $800 million in tax revenue.” He’s likewise dipped his hand in film and music productions. “I don’t get hung up on what I should or shouldn’t do to help Louisiana and run my office,” Landrieu says. “I really don’t care where you move the boxes or the lines. I’m going to do my job.”

That line of thinking has caused Landrieu to enter the realm of administrative politics, where conservatives like Jindal call the shots and Commissioner of Administration Angèle Davis carries them out. Davis has received kudos this year for championing the reinventing government strategies of David Osborne of the Minnesota-based Public Strategies Group. Landrieu has been on the same bandwagon for years and originally hired Davis as CRT secretary before she moved on to Jindal’s team. He says that often goes overlooked. “I’m the one who brought Osborne to Louisiana,” he says. “I’m the one who hired Angèle Davis.”

The budgeting process calls for a new way of prioritizing funding requests and even has some departments bidding on who can deliver services better. While Landrieu has implemented the system within his own department, other statewide elected officials have been hesitant to change. He says Davis has done a good job pushing the alterations within her own office, but other agencies — not his — unfortunately won’t go with the tide. “I’m happy to compete for anything and against anyone in the state for money,” Landrieu says.

At the end of the day, above all else, Landrieu is a Landrieu. He doesn’t shy from that shadow either, even when you prod him about being a part of what some have called the Cajun Camelot or the Louisiana Kennedys. Along with his U.S. senator sister, Landrieu’s father, Moon, was at one time the popular mayor of New Orleans. He smiles brightly when telling stories about sitting under his father’s desk, no doubt learning the tricks of the trade. But he also likes to clear the air and kindly suggest that the “Landrieus are way more conservative than the Kennedys,” despite the labels critics use. “It’s just so Louisiana to be from a family where everyone does the same thing. Like the Marsalis family and music, the Brennans and food, the Mannings and football. But why doesn’t anyone ever call us the ‘Louisiana Bushes?’” he asks laughing. “I think I like the Mannings’ comparison better.”

Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him at www.jeremyalford.com

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