Opinion: Will Mitch Landrieu run?

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 Friday afternoon 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.

Mitch is now asked about running for president so often that his answers sound like ones that have been honed by repetition, shaved down sharp and smooth.

He recalls a recent exchange he had about the subject:

“Someone said to me the other day, ‘Are you running?’ I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘That’s what everybody says.’ I said, ‘What do the people who aren’t running say?’ ” We laugh.

But it seems to me that much of Landrieu’s 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.”

The other issue is, ironically, Landrieu’s noble quest to be a racial healer.

As he told me: “The thing I’m most excited about is, I’m leading an initiative to try to knit the South back together across race and class.” He says it’s called the E Pluribus Unum Fund, and its primary funder is Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.

He continues, “We’re in the planning period to see if there is a need to or a desire to actually build an institute for racial reconciliation in the South somewhere.”

And, he’s doing precisely what many of us have insisted white America do: He is a white man fighting to dismantle white supremacy, so that the burden isn’t only on the shoulders of the oppressed.

Later he adds:

“You can never countenance white supremacy. You can’t accept it. You don’t need to think about it. The judgment, the historical judgment on this, in my opinion, is closed. Now, people have a First Amendment right to say whatever they want, wherever they want, but the body politic, the people of the United States of America, cannot give any room for fertilization or growth of white supremacy. That will lead us to a place that will lead to a world war.”

That’s how Mitch talks. That’s how Mitch thinks. That’s who Mitch is.

I doubt he will run this cycle, even though he says it’s “ego gratifying” to be considered. 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.

Writes for The New York Times

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