There he was, on the shore of Lake Charles in Calcasieu Parish, the lieutenant governor leading the evacuation as Hurricane Rita hit.
He could feel when the hurricane wasn’t there, and then when it suddenly was. That’s the closest Mitch Landrieu can compare to May 7, the day he left office as mayor of New Orleans. Until then, he slept with his cellphone on his chest, always on edge, waiting for the police chief or fire chief to call — or if he left the phone downstairs, to be awakened by the officials banging on his door. The morning of his departure, he got up, went to new Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s inauguration, sat through her speech and wished her well. That afternoon, a tugboat caught fire on the river. One of the barges it was pushing slammed into a dock. Another barge hit a ship.
“My immediate reaction is, ‘Well, let me pick up the phone,’” Landrieu says, “and say, ‘Where are we and what are we doing?’ And then I realized, that’s not us. That’s them. Now, the next thing you think is, ‘What can we do to help?’ And the answer is nothing.”
For the first time in 30 years, he had no power. No office. No platform.
But he still has a lot to say.
After eight years in his dream job and as he nears turning 58 in August, he wants to take a moment by himself to think. But ever since his speech last year about taking down four Confederate monuments—when he launched himself into the center of a national conversation about race and racism, and saw the hate that others see, and confronted what’s inside America and Americans—he hears at every turn people urging him to think about running for president, and telling him that he’s made for the moment to go up against President Donald Trump and what his presidency has unleashed in the country. And maybe he is, he thinks. But with a 2020 field that could include a dozen or more serious Democrats, he wonders: Is running for president the only way to get anyone to pay attention?
“You’ve never had a president, Republican or a Democrat, speak like this and give license to the kind of darkness that you see going on,” Landrieu said in June, in Brooklyn, in a way not many white southerners tend to do publicly. “And I don’t think you can let people run from that without being called out for it on this particular issue. There is plenty of room in the United States of America to have a vociferous debate about left, middle, right. On the issue of white nationalism, and white supremacy, that is a notion that ought to be rejected forcefully by everyone on the political spectrum. It looks sometimes the same. People make it like you can blend in, and you can’t do that. You’ve got to call it out for what it is.”
Landrieu dwelled on the reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, starting fresh from destruction and re-conceiving what the city could be, making decisions that were not always the most popular—some of which remain controversial.
“I think we’re going to come out of it OK,” Landrieu said, “but we’re not going to come out of it by accident.”