President Joe Biden’s place in presidential history may rest in the hands of Mitch Landrieu.
Like his Democratic predecessor, Biden got one major, long-lasting bill passed (the American Rescue Plan, while important, was made up of temporary measures), along mostly partisan lines—the ironically named bipartisan infrastructure law. Now, he has to trust that the man brought in to manage that money can do so wisely enough to secure Biden the legacy he craves. Landrieu’s own ambitions, meanwhile, are a poorly kept secret: Certain “Wall Street types” are already whispering about a Landrieu-vs.-Biden presidential primary come 2024. So who is Mitch Landrieu, and is the president wise to trust him?
Landrieu’s record so far as infrastructure czar isn’t easy to ferret out. His position at the White House is exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, since he’s technically a White House staffer, not a Senate-confirmed government official. And so far, public reporting has failed to detail his efforts and methodologies for administering billions in infrastructure spending. But a brief look at his political past potentially gives some clues as to how the law’s $1.2 trillion might be handled.
Landrieu became mayor of New Orleans in 2010 after rising through state politics in the Louisiana House and as lieutenant governor. Hardly a rags-to-riches success story, his father Moon Landrieu was a well-known mayor of New Orleans a generation before him in the 1970s. Mitch Landrieu and his sister, former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, have gone to great lengths to uphold their dynastic family tradition of using political jobs for personal benefit at a direct and brutal cost to their constituents. At nearly every turn, Landrieu sold out the poorest residents of a storm-ravaged New Orleans to turn a profit, all while dangling the keys to the city before the ravenous maws of tech CEOs Peter Thiel (Palantir) and Brian Chesky (Airbnb).
Retrospectives of Landrieu often tout his leadership in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But today, basic water and sanitation infrastructure in the city is still barely functional, thanks to New Orleans’s scandal-plagued Sewerage and Water Board.
During the time Landrieu served as mayor, which subsequently made him board president, the board was riddled with financial oversights, reckless with ratepayer money, and potentially criminal in its contract administration. In August 2017, dysfunction at the board led to a catastrophic flood response, which was followed by the Landrieu administration misleading the public about the degree of infrastructure breakdown and scapegoating civil servants for the crisis it failed to prevent. “Instead of standing up and saying this is a problem, and [now’s the time] to deal with it, [City Hall says] we’re going to shoot a civil servant an hour until this problem is resolved,” former board president Scott Jacobs said at the time. Two years earlier, Landrieu narrowly avoided house arrest for refusing to pay court-ordered back wages to the city’s firefighters, who serve as critical first responders during floods.
But it’s not just what Landrieu didn’t accomplish. It’s also the way his financial interests contributed to the destruction of the city he was supposed to protect. Landrieu was personally invested in multiple fossil fuel companies as recently as 2021. His White House financial disclosure revealed stock holdings in Duke Energy, Entergy Corp. (the equally scandal–plagued company that provides energy to New Orleans), NextEra Energy, Dominion Energy, Eversource Energy, and Sempra Energy. During his campaigns for mayor, lieutenant governor, and the Louisiana House of Representatives, he received at least $134,000 in campaign contributions from fossil fuel interests.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Landrieu strongly and publicly supports the fossil fuel industry. In 2015, on reflection of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he said on MSNBC, “I think oil and gas production is good. People are gonna keep driving, and we need fossil fuels, and we need to make sure that we keep drilling.” In 2010, he expressed his desire to see an Obama-era offshore drilling ban be lifted—during a conversation about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The Landrieu administration fiercely fought legal claims from residents of Gordon Plaza, a housing subdivision in New Orleans where majority-Black, first-time home buyers were encouraged to buy houses in the late 1970s, even though city officials knew the development was built atop at least 149 toxic contaminants from a former garbage dump. Mitch Landrieu’s father, Moon Landrieu, was one of the mayors to oversee the development. The 57 families of Gordon Plaza, who were exposed to at least 49 carcinogenic chemicals and have since suffered from appallingly high cancer rates, filed a suit against Landrieu’s administration. City lawyers under Landrieu fought the residents in court and refused to pay damages.
Landrieu also ushered the mass surveillance company Palantir and its predictive-policing technology into New Orleans, subjecting Black residents to additional punitive policing. Palantir, a data-mining firm founded by far-right billionaire Peter Thiel with seed money from the CIA’s venture capital arm, has used its technologies to advance deportations and policing. In New Orleans, it successfully evaded scrutiny by establishing its entrance into the city as a philanthropic relationship through Landrieu’s signature “NOLA for Life” program. Landrieu then gave Palantir access to all of the city’s criminal and noncriminal files, without the knowledge or consent of the public or City Council. Landrieu’s administration also spent $40 million expanding surveillance cameras throughout the city and selected a new police commissioner in a process plagued with transparency issues.
Thiel was not the only tech baron to profit off Landrieu. The former mayor also allegedly negotiated with Airbnb lobbyists prior to New Orleans legalizing short-term rentals, which skyrocketed in subsequent years—paired, of course, with a nosedive in affordable housing. In addition, Landrieu was an advocate for the city’s rapid embrace of charter schools. The city’s school district is now 100 percent charter. The system, which began with the mass firing of over 4,000 mostly Black women teachers, has been accused of violating Black students’ civil rights and exacerbating racial inequality. At the same time, an assessment of his mayoral efforts between 2014 and 2016 shows that the vast majority of already suspect city contracting and infrastructure funds went to white-owned firms.
Having failed to protect New Orleans from the rising tide of climate change during his mayoral tenure, Landrieu helped launch the conservative super PAC New Democracy in 2017, which was created to steer the party away from progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders and instead recommended that candidates campaign on expanding oil and gas, increasing border surveillance, preserving private health insurance, and cutting back on federal benefits. Then, in 2018, he founded a “racial justice nonprofit” from which he was paid a salary of over half a million dollars. He named the nonprofit “E Pluribus Unum.” In classic Democratic insider fashion, he was also a CNN commentator and brought in over $1 million as CEO of a consulting firm during that period.
It’s important to understand that Landrieu is part of a genuine political dynasty. The rest of his family’s business and political dealings inevitably entwine with his own work. Former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu was the chief congressional sponsor of the Keystone XL pipeline and is currently a lobbyist for fossil fuel interests with energy lobbying firm Van Ness Feldman. She received a whopping $1.7 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas sector while serving as senator. In 2022 alone, Van Ness Feldman has reported lobbying on behalf of dozens of firms and municipalities that would stand to benefit from a slice of Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure pie.
Mitch Landrieu has also helped secure his daughter a senior position in Biden’s Domestic Policy Council as the council’s director of labor and workers. Her public résumé sports no labor experience, save for a stint studying at the Kennedy School.
This Wednesday, June 1, signifies the official beginning of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warned last week of another above-average season, likely to include 14 to 21 named storms and three to six major hurricanes hitting the Gulf Coast. One weather expert, University of Miami oceanography professor Nick Shay, even said that a particular major predictor of destructive storms in the Gulf of Mexico looks troublingly similar to how it did in 2005, the year of deadly hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
It doesn’t help South Louisianans’ sense of impending doom that the city government of New Orleans cheerfully reminded its constituents on Monday that “the first line of defense against a disaster is personal preparedness!” In other words, you’re on your own when it comes to surviving hurricanes worsened by the burning of fossil fuels, which the politicians of South Louisiana have wholeheartedly endorsed.
Meanwhile, 1,085 miles away in Washington, D.C., Landrieu is now poised to funnel billions of dollars in infrastructure spending into other hands like his. We need more scrutiny into how that is playing out. Because if the past is precedent, then his preference will be to use the infrastructure money to privatize public goods, enable fossil fuel expansion, and turn a blind eye to the people who are steeling themselves for the next school shooting, the next deadly hurricane, and the next pandemic.