NEW ORLEANS - As the son of the city's first African-American mayor, Marc H. Morial sought to make his own mark when he took over New Orleans' top political post in 1994.
His most notable act was hiring as police chief a reformer who reined in a department notorious for corruption and violent behavior and put more cops on the street, cutting violent crime by 40 percent.
Working with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which elected him president in June, Morial became a leading national advocate for reclaiming old industrial sites and rebuilding blighted neighborhoods.
At home, he persuaded the City Council to spend $273.5 million to expand the convention center named for his father, Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial.
So, at age 43, with his pedigree and demonstrated prowess in office, why is his political future in doubt?
Because a glass ceiling has traditionally blocked African-Americans from moving upward to the governorship or a U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana. Because a Republican administration in Washington means a job offer there is highly unlikely for a high-profile Democrat. And because New Orleans, like many U.S. cities, has a charter that limits a mayor to two consecutive terms and voters in the past have been loath to tinker with the charter.
Still, Morial is doing his best to hang on in the Big Easy. He has secured the required 10,000 signatures on a petition to change the charter. A referendum is scheduled for Oct. 20.
"I expected it to be challenging," Morial said last month, sitting in his spacious office in downtown New Orleans. "We're going to be working really hard to convince the voters.
"I really think it's going to be a race about whether people have the courage to change."
Morial has his share of supporters, who chant "four more years" at his appearances.
And he uses his national platform to talk of his vision of a 21st-century mayor.
Modern mayor as CEO
"No longer is the mayor expected to be the chief political boss, the No. 1 social worker in town, the mere dispenser of municipal favors," he said in his inaugural address as president of the U.S. mayors organization. "What the mayor is today is a problem solver. The mayor is an entrepreneur. The mayor is a CEO."
But polls taken in New Orleans indicate that this mayor, a consummate public relations man for the city - from its food to its musical roots - hasn't been able to sell his constituents on the need to change the 1954 charter.
And the results of past efforts to change the charter do not hold much cause for optimism. One failed in 1961, as did another in 1983, when the beneficiary would have been Morial's father.
"I'm against [a third term] although I think he's been a good leader," said developer Ashley Farnet, in what seems to be a typical view locally. "He's been a very good mayor for the city.
"I think he's done a good job, but I think when you allow a person to stay in office it gives them a lot of power. I'm opposed to it in all offices, not just the mayor."
The prospects for higher office don't seem promising.
"The glass ceiling is simply a fact of political life here," said Ed Renwick, director of Loyola University's Institute of Politics. "We do not have and have not had any black statewide officials in the 20th century. There were one or two after the Civil War, but not since Reconstruction. I think there will be a black statewide official probably in the next eight to 10 years, but it won't be governor."
In 1995, U.S. Rep. Cleo Fields, a black man, ran unsuccessfully for governor but lost to Mike Foster. In 1999, Foster was re-elected after defeating another black challenger, Rep. William J. Jefferson.
"To win, you'd have to get all the black votes plus about a third of the white votes, and that is an extremely rare occurrence in Louisiana for that to happen," Renwick said. "He could run for Congress, but of course he'd have to take on a black congressman. He could run for the Supreme Court, or he could run for district attorney."
Some of Morial's foes say he is power hungry and doesn't want to relinquish the prestige that comes with the mayor's job.
"I'm mostly disappointed that the tack they've taken is to prevent people to have a right to vote," Morial responded.
A few groups have formed to oppose Morial's efforts, including Citizens to Preserve the Charter, which numbers two mayoral hopefuls - City Councilmen Troy Carter and James Singleton - among its members.
Come back in 4 years
The group's spokesman, attorney Ron Nabonne, said, "Term limits have always been an important pillar of our home-rule charter. We're not debating whether or not the mayor has done a good job. ... I give him high marks for the job he's done with the Police Department, but the performance is not the issue on Oct. 20.
"The issue is whether or not our city should change a good law ... for the political ambitions of any one person. ... That's bad public policy."
Morial knows that some people would like him to step aside temporarily and use the law degree he earned at Georgetown, after gaining his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
If Morial still wants to be mayor after a four-year hiatus, they say, he can run again.
"If they want me to come back in four years that means my successor has failed, and that's not good for the city," replied Morial. "I don't want anybody to fail, because if they fail the city's failing. All I'm asking for is a right to run."