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Meet Mitch Landrieu, the 2020 dark-horse Dem

The Hill logo The Hill 6/16/2017 Amie Parnes
Meet Mitch Landrieu, the 2020 dark-horse Dem © Provided by The Hill Meet Mitch Landrieu, the 2020 dark-horse Dem

Democrats looking for new blood to revitalize their party are taking a close look at New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is suddenly being discussed as a dark-horse presidential nominee.

After delivering a powerful speech last month on the removal of Confederate monuments from his city, Landrieu made national headlines and won praise from Democratic strategists looking for ways to ignite hope in their party.

That Landrieu is a new face from outside Washington makes him even more intriguing to hard-nosed Democratic strategists.

"I find him to be an incredibly fascinating political figure," said Jamal Simmons, one of the Washington Democrats turning an eye toward Landrieu. "When you think 'Who are the non-Washington figures in the left that ought to have a say in where we go? I think a lot of people would point to him."

Democrats bruised by their upset loss in 2016 say they've learned the lesson of needing the right candidate for the right time. Even as Hillary Clinton, the consummate political insider, won the presidential nomination last year, Democrats saw excitement continue to grow around Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who was the ultimate outsider.

Now, as the party looks to rebuild, Democrats say Landrieu and other non-establishment politicians like him could be the future of the party.

For Landrieu, it means increasingly fielding questions about a White House run in 2020.

The mayor has told those around him and those who pose the question that he's focused solely on his current job and his upcoming role heading the Conference of Mayors. He is not thinking about a presidential bid, he has repeated countless times.

But Democrats say his speech on the removal of the confederacy monuments struck a tone that the party craves.

"To literally put the confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past, it is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future," Landrieu said.

The speech caught the attention of parts of the liberal political intelligentsia.

Jonathan Capehart, an editorial writer for the Washington Post, wrote that removing the monuments, "which came after hearings, votes of the City Council and legal challenges to prevent it from happening, put him and anyone else involved in danger."

"But that didn't stop him from doing it or speaking out," Capehart said.

Ryan Berni, the deputy mayor of external affairs under Landrieu, said the monuments speech was "never intended for a national audience."

But he said the address, which was written by the mayor himself, stood out "as a way to move forward" on race issues.

"...It was genuine and that's why it was able to resonate beyond the local audience it was intended for here," he said, adding "It's always flattering to have your work recognized."

People who have known Landrieu, who previously served as lieutenant governor of Louisiana, say he aspires to higher office.

"He's always been looked upon as the one in the family who would go the farthest," said one longtime associate. "And I think he has those political aspirations."

Landrieu's family is considered Louisiana royalty. His father, Moon Landrieu, also served as mayor of New Orleans and also as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. His sister, Mary Landrieu (D-La.) served in the U.S. Senate for nearly two decades before losing to Bill Cassidy.

Bernie Pinsonat, a Louisiana-based pollster who has known Mitch for two decades, says if the opportunity presents itself "he'll definitely see how deep the water is."

"I can't imagine he'd say no if there are people willing to invest in him," Pinsonat said.

Adam Sharp, a Democratic strategist who worked for Mary Landrieu while she served in the Senate, added that the last two contested Democratic parties have "illustrated the expanding economic and racial fault lines in the party."

"Having won statewide in a deep red state and citywide among a predominantly black, Democratic electorate, he has some track record in bridging these divides," Sharp said, adding that "There may be more paths open for him nationally than there are statewide right now."

Landrieu would have success in appealing to progressives. He sought to curb violence by pushing gun safety laws last year. "We are not going to stop until we change a culture of violence to a culture of peace," he said at the signing of the city's gun ordinances.

While Landrieu, a white senator from a red state, would have some success appealing to African Americans, he is a relative unknown and would seem to face challenges in seeking the Democratic nod.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has broader name recognition and fundraising prowess. Sanders would be 79 in the fall of 2020, but hasn't ruled out another run. A long list of other candidates, from Vice President Joe Biden to perhaps another half-dozen members of the Senate, could also get in the race.

Ed Chervenak, a professor of politics at the University of New Orleans, said that while Landrieu has "turned the city around and moved it forward," his presidential prospects for 2020 seem like a long-shot.

"It's hard to see the leap from mayor," Chervenak said.

But that may be an antiquated way of seeing it, according to Simmons.

Few thought Donald Trump, a businessman who had never held elected office before, would defeat a crowded field of big names in the Republican primary and then Clinton. And Sanders nearly took out the Clinton machine.

"Normally you'd say you can't be a mayor and run for president but these aren't normal times," Simmons said.

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