NEW ORLEANS — Mayor Mitch Landrieu strode into a battered city park in the troubled Central City neighborhood one recent Saturday, stopping to clap a boy on the shoulder and watch him twirl a basketball. Wearing jeans, sneakers and a New Orleans Saints football sweat shirt, he looked like a coach, solidly built, with a gravelly tenor that projected over the field and basketball courts.
Volunteers working nearby called out "Mr. Mayor!" and stopped him for hugs as he worked the crowd. They included young African American and white professionals with small children in tow, retirees, the local city councilwoman, police chief, firefighters and the leader of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe.
"It takes all of us working together to improve the city," Landrieu said, to applause.
Nearly nine years after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, which was already beleaguered by crime and urban decay, Landrieu has been credited with successfully managing a revival. He proved a marked contrast to his predecessor, C. Ray Nagin, whose trial on federal corruption charges began Monday. When Republican Sen. David Vitter said last week that he would run for governor in 2015, some anticipated a potential matchup with Landrieu, 53.
New Orleans grew to 370,000 residents in the last five years, regaining 80% of its pre-Katrina population. Crime rates have fallen below pre-Katrina levels. Post-recession, the city has rebounded, with more new businesses per capita than the nation overall. A recent University of New Orleans survey gave the mayor a 65% approval rating, with 60% among African Americans, who are more than half of the electorate.
"A lot of people thought he was just going to march right in and have a coronation," said Edward Chervenak, a political scientist at the university.
Yet Landrieu, a former state legislator and lieutenant governor, faces an unexpectedly tough reelection race. He has countered stinging public criticism from two Democratic opponents, both African American, during the campaign and a slew of debates. Trying to tap African American voters' frustration with the pace and uneven benefits of rebuilding, his rivals have sought to force Landrieu into a runoff.
The very thing that eased Landrieu's political career — his powerful family — could hurt him. He is the younger brother of Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) and son of the city's last white mayor, Maurice "Moon" Landrieu, who marshaled support from the African American community to shepherd New Orleans through another storm — desegregation.
When President Obama endorsed Landrieu this month — a rare move for the president in a Democratic mayoral primary — Landrieu credited the ties he forged with the White House during post-Katrina rebuilding.
"I have a personal relationship with President Obama that transcends his relationship with Sen. Landrieu," the mayor said.
But one of Landrieu's opponents, former Civil District Judge Michael Bagneris, once an aide to the city's first African American mayor, Ernest "Dutch" Morial, called the endorsement a favor to Landrieu's "big sister" who is facing a tough reelection race next fall.
"Do you think the president woke up one day and said, 'I'm going to help my buddy Mitch'?" Bagneris said over coffee at a downtown New Orleans hotel.
Bagneris, 63, won the endorsements of both the Orleans Parish Democratic and Republican executive committees (no Republican candidate is running). It was a rebuke to Landrieu from some of the city's political class but not a major blow: Landrieu won without the Democratic committee endorsement in 2010.
Bagneris, who served 20 years on the bench, has faulted Landrieu for failing to unite and revive the city faster, to curtail crime and to ensure African Americans a share in employment, city contracts and growth.
"He's not his dad. His dad actually did bring people together. That's not his style. He has not done anything to extend the hand of cooperation," Bagneris said, explaining why he calls Landrieu "Half Moon."
According to a report released last year by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, the city's African American men have struggled with unemployment, with only 53% employed as of 2011, the most recent year available. Minority-owned businesses have benefited less from the recovery than they have in other large cities, the report found.
Another of the mayor's opponents, Danatus King, president of the local NAACP branch, told Landrieu during a mayoral debate that New Orleans had become two cities — the haves and have-nots.
Landrieu said it was tough to satisfy everyone. He noted that when he took the city's helm in 2010, it was 25% over budget because of overspending, with a shortfall of about $30 million. The murder rate was the highest in the nation. The Police Department was understaffed, plagued by high-profile misconduct. Much of New Orleans was still reeling from Katrina, which had hit five years earlier, and was in need of new streets, schools and hospitals. On top of all that, less than a month before his inauguration, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, sending oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and taking a heavy toll on tourism and fishing.
Landrieu said he became "an emergency room physician in a war zone."
He pointed to signs his redevelopment strategy was succeeding: new streets beside the park, a new school and a novel low-income housing development of pitched roofs and porches that mimic the local style. Now that the city has stabilized, he said, "we're the nation's laboratory for change."