NEW ORLEANS — “I am not already running for president.” He continues, “I haven’t done anything that a person who was running for president would do.”
That’s what the former New Orleans mayor and current whispered-about presidential possibility Mitch Landrieu told me as we sat at a window table in a hotel restaurant in the city’s French Quarter.
I have known Mitch for a while. I, like most people, call him Mitch. We are both born and raised sons of Louisiana. When he swept into the hotel lobby, greeting and razzing the staff, all of whom seemed to light up at the sight of him, he seemed relaxed, the way a person is when in transition, not beholden to the previous labor nor fully engaged in the next.
The 58-year-old Landrieu has spent 30 years in politics, but he really began to be talked about as a possible presidential contender when he moved to take down Confederate statues in the city and gave a powerful, poetic speech explaining why.
But it seems to me that much of Landrieu’s presidential trepidation, whether he articulates it as such or not, is that on the one hand he’s not exactly aligned with this moment, but rather speaks to a previous era that prized pragmatics and didn’t condemn compromise. And on the other, he envisions a future in which America’s intractable racial problems can actually be resolved.
As he told me:
“Centrism has come to be known as a lukewarm version of not standing for anything so you’ll stand for everything. I call myself, like, a radical centrist. Every organization I’ve taken over has been in, like, meltdown, and I had to build it back up. So, it requires really hard, tough decisions. But, those things always require some level of compromise.”
But the problem facing Landrieu is that being any kind of centrist Democrat when the party’s progressives are ascendant would be perilous.
He also recognizes the conundrum the all-important black Democratic primary voters in the South would be in when faced with a white man from the region and black candidates from beyond it.
As he put it:
“You don’t know how African-Americans in the South are going to perform if a white Democrat from the South is running against three really good African-American candidates. We’ve never had that before. You could have it this time. You could have Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Duval Patrick. So, that theory has never been tested before.”
It would be a hard debate stage to manage without looking like a white savior, coming to fix America’s race problem and saying that he was a better choice to do so than the women and minorities in the race.
But, that is not Landrieu. One thing that I’ve always admired about him is that he’s not race blind, but race conscious. He talks straight about race, its complexities and its absolutes.
Mitch is still trying to figure out if this is his moment, but even if it isn’t, I’m sure he’ll one day have a moment.