https://player.megaphone.fm/POL9225641472?MIAMI BEACH, Fla.—Mitch Landrieu thinks Donald Trump “is wrong most of the time, because he takes a myopic, narrow view.”
As he tells it, that’s not Landrieu the Democratic mayor of New Orleans talking, or Landrieu the heir to one of the most famous names in Southern Democratic politics, or Landrieu who gets chattered about as a dark horse Cajun entry into the 2020 presidential field. It’s the Landrieu who just took over as the president of the Conference of Mayors, reflecting what he says is the consensus view of the 1,400 Republicans and Democrats looking at Washington and judging it from their seats at city halls around the country—as Mayor John Giles, the Republican mayor of staunchly conservative Mesa, Ariz., put it, “is there any sanity in government anymore?”
Thanks to Trump and to lots of others in the federal government, Landrieu said, actually governing has gotten more difficult for the people who have to think about it each day.
“We want you here, we need you here. But if you’re not coming, we’ve got to do two things: contain you, or get you off of us,” Landrieu told me in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast.
He’s blown away, for example, by how Congress has approached repealing the Affordable Care Act, Barack Obama’s signature health-care law. Take it beyond politics, or morality, or even the hot-off-the-presses Congressional Budget Office score showing that the new Senate proposal would leave 22 million fewer people insured. Mayors like him, he says, have to deal with the consequences.
“When all those people in the cities don’t have health care, where are they supposed to go? And how do we provide enough drug treatment centers and emergency rooms,” Landrieu said. “And if you don’t have an answer for that, why are we doing this again?”
These are strange times for mayors. They like to style themselves as beyond the partisan fray, focused on results and solutions instead of politics, and are wary of taking on the president directly. Even former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, a sometime Republican who called Trump a con man at the Democratic convention last year and arrived here to announce $200 million in innovation grants for cities in response to Trump’s politics, quickly shot down a reporter who suggested as he arrived that he was saying people should look past the state and federal government.
Likewise, Landrieu said that the line he delivered in his speech that “America’s greatness is alive and well in cities and towns across this country—from urban to rural to suburban, from coast to coast,” purposefully didn’t mention Trump’s name because he’s trying to avoid a battle, though he obviously took a shot at the president’s famous slogan.
“What I’m doing is directly challenging what the word great means,” Landrieu said, explaining the parsing he’s attempting.
Yet the agenda that the Mayors’ Conference has been putting together for two years, and has now officially adopted, puts mayors in direct opposition to the Trump administration on some of its core issues—health care, immigration reform, climate change and infrastructure spending—even if some mayors don’t want to frame it that way.
“Those things are not in opposition so much to President Trump,” said Landrieu, whose state went for Trump by nearly 20 points in November. “We’re just testifying to what it is that we see.”
Echoing many mayors, Republicans and Democrats alike, Landrieu said he’s seen no practical thinking coming out of the White House. Take Trump’s border wall idea, Landrieu said. In Washington that’s a debate about principle and morality, but if the president brought that idea to mayors, the discussion would be, “Where’s that wall going to go? How long does it have be? How deep does it have to go in the ground? What are you going to make it out of? How’re we going to pay for it? When do you want to start, when do you want to end?” Landrieu said. “What are you trying to accomplish, and is there a better way to do it?”
As for the Republican majorities in the House and Senate that aren’t on the same page as all the Republican mayors who’ve signed onto the Conference agenda—including people like Giles, who acknowledged he’s still struggling to get his two Arizona Republican senators to see things his way—Landrieu said that answer is simple: “Congress is out of touch with the American people,” he said. “They’re stuck. I can’t unstick them.”
Landrieu is a proud Democrat, and most of his members in the Conference are Democrats. But he doesn’t want to be a leader of The Resistance. He wants to be a leader of The Workaround, or what happens when leaders in government give up waiting on Washington.
The Obama White House used mayors to end-run Congress, too, but on purpose, bringing them in for meetings and staying in close touch. They’re not used to how things are now, when they know that this Republican White House is much less interested in working with them.
Under Trump, “I don’t know that there’s much of a relationship,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat.
They say they’re not sure if what they’re seeing is something more significant, or just an administration still taking shape.
“Is this a fundamental re-look at what a federal government does, or is this the beginning?” wondered Louisville, Ky. Mayor Greg Fischer, also a Democrat.
Thanks to his famous last name—his older sister Mary spent three terms in the Senate before being knocked out in 2014, and his father Maurice “Moon” Landrieu ran New Orleans during the 1970s (both were in the audience to cheer him on as he became president on Monday)—Mitch Landrieu was never going to be a nobody. Yet to his surprise, after six years as Louisiana lieutenant governor and seven as mayor, Landrieu shot to national attention in May for a soaring speech he delivered explaining his decision to remove three New Orleans monuments to the Confederacy, calling on his city to think about the pain and hate behind them and the “difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”
He wasn’t expecting to be called both a Marxist and a Nazi. He wasn’t expecting city contractors to refuse to do the removal work. He wasn’t expecting the death threats. Even after a lifetime of living in Louisiana, he wasn’t expecting just how festering the wound of racism really was, especially after what was churned up in the 2016 election that left the country in “a heightened state of anxiety that contributed to the freedom that people felt to be really nasty and really mean and really intimidating.”
He also wasn’t expecting how much he’d break through, which is a lesson he said he hopes other mayors take in.
“You don’t have to say, ‘I’m just a mayor, so I can’t talk.’ You really have to think about the power and responsibility that you have now,” Landrieu said.
That doesn’t mean, by the way, that he’s running for president, despite the scattered operatives already mapping out a straight-talking southerner plan for him. His answer is the standard “no intention” and “never say never” lines, but insistently not coy: “I’m not planning to run for president, I’m not running for president. I can’t tell you if they offered me the job I wouldn’t take it, but that generally is never going to happen.”
Landrieu and many of his member mayors say their organization is proof that the country isn’t actually as divided as it’s often made out to be, and that the split along party lines in the 2016 electoral map that Trump likes showing off is a warped picture demographically and geographically, with 70 percent of the country living in and around cities and 90 percent over the GDP generated within them.
But for all the talk of workarounds, Landrieu says he’d rather work with the White House. So would other mayors.
“We’ll shut ourselves out if we identify as opposition to the administration,” said Giles.
They all say they’d love to talk more with the president about infrastructure spending, or their needs from the Housing and Urban Development and Transportation departments.
None of them are holding their breaths.
“There are things that we could agree on if there was some action,” said Dayton, Ohio Mayor Nan Whaley, who’s one of the Democrats now running for governor in her home state. “If opposition is action versus no action, then we’re going to have an agenda.”