Biden’s Infrastructure Czar Says Fixing New Orleans Prepared Him for Job Ahead

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Critics say former New Orleans Mayor Landrieu was too slow to spend federal money to fix the drainage system

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Now, Mr. Landrieu, a 61-year-old Democrat who has also served as lieutenant governor of Louisiana and a state legislator, has been asked by President Biden to commit nearly $1 trillion in federal spending to repair and improve the nation’s infrastructure. Tap to take care.

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Mr Landrieu said he struggled with years of neglect of New Orleans’ infrastructure and his experience overseeing reconstruction efforts there gives him insight into the needs of thousands of local officials who will seek grants from the Biden administration.

“Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen almost everything I can see in this bill,” Mr. Landrieu said in a Wall Street Journal interview. “And so I’m eager to use the things I’ve learned, the things I’ve done well, the things I’ve done poorly, to devise a new mouse trap that will actually make the country stronger and better.” makes. “

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One of the main goals of his new job, he said, is to smooth out some of the bureaucracy, which preserves his ability to complete large projects as quickly as possible, leaving him open to criticism by eager contractors and the next mayor. .

When Mayor Latoya Cantrell took office, his administration said Mr Landrieu had moved too slowly in some areas, including the drainage.

“When we came into office, there was a combined $2 billion worth of infrastructure money sitting on the shelf for two years,” Ramsey Green, New Orleans’ deputy chief administrator for infrastructure, recently told the city council.

In Mr Landrieu’s appointment, Mr Biden said the former mayor’s relationships with local officials across the country would be assets overseeing the largest new federal investment in public works in decades.

“When I was in the White House, he was one of the busiest mayors in the United States,” said DJ Gribbin, a senior operating partner at private-equity firm Stonepeak Infrastructure Partners, special assistant for infrastructure. To former President Donald Trump.

Mr Gribbin said his initial skepticism of the Biden administration’s plan to appoint an infrastructure caesar was dispelled when he learned Mr Landrieu would get the job.

“Having someone like Landrieu in the role where he can act as an honest broker and a referee between agencies, and force them to come to a conclusion, is incredibly valuable,” he said.

As mayor, Mr Landrieu was adept at obtaining federal aid, supporters say include securing federal funding for a $1 billion international airport that opened in late 2019.

During his first two months as infrastructure czar, Mr Landrieu has been working mostly on the phone. He said he had spoken personally with 40 governors and dozens of mayors and groups such as the Conference of American Mayors, which he once led. He sent a letter to governors last week advising them to empower state-level coordinators to manage requests for infrastructure dollars.

“When you work with the federal government, the most confusing thing is knowing who to talk to, what to ask them, and how to get it,” Mr. Landrieu said. And then once you understand that, how to get it off the ground in one go, which is the hat-trick which is the hardest thing for the government. ,

The Landrieus is one of the most famous political families in the state. Mr. Landrieu’s father, Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, was mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s before heading the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Jimmy Carter.

Mitch Landrieu’s sister, Mary Landrieu, was a US Senator from 1997 to 2015 and then went on to work for Van Ness Feldman LLP, an energy and environmental law-focused firm. Its highest-paying lobbying client is Enterprise Products Operating LP, a North American oil and gas pipeline company, lobbying records show.

The White House said Mr Landrieu would distance himself from talks with his sister’s clients. Ms Landrieu declined to comment.

Some environmental groups doubt that Mr Landrieu will adequately channel infrastructure spending toward combating climate change, as the Biden administration has promised.

Mr. Landrieu’s appointment is “a huge gift to the oil industry,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a nonprofit that aims to help the oil and gas industry clean up pollution from its operations on the Gulf Coast. is to force. ,

“You can’t show anything they’ve given in regards to climate change, or pollution cleanup,” he said, noting the family’s long ties to the industry, which is one of the state’s biggest employers. is one. Mr Landrieu has also supported offshore drilling, one of the largest industries in the state.

Mr Landrieu defended his environmental record but said efforts to transition away from carbon need to consider the needs of communities dependent on fossil-fuel extraction.

“Mitch is a balanced man at heart, a lost art in Washington,” said Stephen Wegspack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. “We are a state that essentially fuels the country, and we strike a balance between energy production and environmental protection as well as anywhere in the world.”

Mr Landrieu is building his national reputation around his decision to remove Confederate statues from New Orleans. He started a non-profit called E Pluribus Unum with the mission of combating systemic racism and creating a more inclusive South.

A federal financial disclosure shows it paid itself more than $660,000 in 2020 and 2021 to run it. He earned over $1 million in that period as president of the Baton Rouge consulting firm, First Day LLC, whose clients included Businesshala Philanthropies, Emerson Collective, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

In the filing, Mr Landrieu said the business would remain dormant during his time in administration and that the client’s fees were set before he entered government service. Another source of income is a parking lot in New Orleans owned by a family firm, according to their financial disclosures.

When he became mayor of New Orleans in May 2010, Landrieu inherited a long list of problems: repairing damage from Katrina, managing consent orders governing the city’s prisons and juvenile facilities, replenishing budget reserves. and helped to eliminate corruption and malpractices in city contracts. His predecessor, Ray Nagin, in federal prison.

Several months after taking office, Mr. Landrieu determined the degree of dysfunction in assistants called “Eyes Wide Open Speech”, said Andy Kopplin, who previously served as deputy mayor and chief administrative officer for six years.

“We were literally paying bills two and three months ago with next month’s money, and we’ve been doing this for many years,” Mr. Kopplin said.

Former city officials said an initial decision was to include hundreds of potential repair and reconstruction projects in the city on a regularly updated list of 100 priority jobs. Still, the city spent years addressing the mismanagement of those projects, including jobs that bid up multiple vendors at once, an official said.

And Mr. Landrieu became the points man in a multi-year battle with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure that the city was compensated for a significant amount of post-hurricane rebuilding, including damage such as road and water-pipe failures. Granted, the city was retained as an indirect result of damage from Katrina. The result was a nearly $2 billion settlement and repair work that is still ongoing.

Former officials acknowledged that the Landrieu administration had collapsed due to power failures that had paralyzed the city’s sewer and water systems. The aging system of power turbines and pumps vital to divert storm water from the lower city is so old that Thomas Edison consulted on its design; It was long known to be weak.

Landrieu defended his administration’s efforts to address sewer system failures, saying it was a perfect example of critical infrastructure that cities and states would need federal aid to repair.

“It’s like driving a car that’s got 400,000 miles that you know is going to break down at some point,” said Mr. Landrieu. “And you can’t even find the wheels to replace it. And so cities like New Orleans that are poor cities don’t really have the money to rebuild those things. ,

By the time of torrential rains in August 2017, turbines had failed, causing devastating street-level flooding, and a political black eye for a mayor then reached the end of his second term in office.

“I think he was incredibly disappointed because I don’t think he understood how bad things really were there,” said one official, referring to the city’s sewer board.

Mr Landrieu responded by diverting personnel from City Hall to the sewerage and water agency and becoming more directly involved in the agency, these people said. One reminds him of grilling power turbine operators in a meeting over the details of how storm water pumps work.

Mr Landrieu also saw infrastructure spending as an investment beyond roads…

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