Hurricane washes Landrieu into spotlight

Senator from Louisiana draws praise, criticism for her outspokenness

Katrina's Wake

September 16, 2005|By William Neikirk | William Neikirk,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - As the water began to rise in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina's roaring arrival, U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu said it didn't take her long to realize the city's levees had been breached and a disaster was at hand.

"As a person who had worked on the levee system for 25 years, I knew what that meant," the Louisiana Democrat said yesterday. "It was just the most sinking feeling to know what was happening, even though television wasn't saying it."

Katrina devastated the city where her father had once been mayor and where she had been elected as the youngest woman member of the legislature before becoming a U.S. senator in 1996.

It also vaulted this diminutive, plain-spoken, assertive woman into the national spotlight as a critic of President Bush and the sluggish federal response to the hurricane.

Even more important, she has become one of Louisiana's most prominent public figures as America's taxpayers are being called upon to shell out perhaps $200 billion or more to rebuild the city and the Gulf Coast over the next several years.

To many analysts, this role will put her political skills, honed by the state's rough-and-tumble politics, to a severe test and will be a factor in determining the fate of her city.

Landrieu taps into a rich vein of Louisiana political culture that includes such colorful characters as Huey "the Kingfish" Long, its former senator, governor and virtual dictator; former Gov. Earl Long; former Sen. Russell Long; former Gov. Edwin Edwards; and political consultant James Carville.

Over the past 30 years, it has become increasingly Republican and now is a solid GOP "Red" state, notwithstanding Landrieu's two victorious Senate races.

No public official has been more vocal in lashing out at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its since-departed leader, Michael Brown, or even at Bush for staging what she called a "photo-op" when the president made his first visit to a New Orleans in ruins.

In contrast, the state's GOP senator, David Vitter, said state and local officials, mostly Democrats, were also at fault for their performance in the aftermath of the hurricane.

In the first week after the storm hit, Landrieu even had the audacity to say on national television that she would punch anyone, including the president of the United States, who criticized local sheriffs, police officers and firefighters trying to keep order in a chaotic city.

Though threatening the president is a crime, the Secret Service took it as a joke. The White House brushed off her remarks.

In the Capitol yesterday, she said these local officials were heroes, some had lost family members, and she meant every word.

"I do not take it back, I don't apologize for it. I said I would punch anybody, including the president," she said in her slight Cajun accent.

Landrieu has received mixed reviews for her performance during the flooding of the city and for her often-combative relationship with federal authorities over the slow response.

But now the 49-year-old senator, along with other members of the Louisiana delegation, says political unity is required as the U.S. begins the enormous, costly task of rebuilding the city.

Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said the senator's criticism of Bush could come back to haunt her.

"From what I have seen, her reaction has been to blame Bush, and she doesn't seem to accept any responsibility for how she has represented the state," he said. "That's not very constructive."

Christopher Kenny, a political science professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, said Landrieu is getting a mixed reaction in her home state. Some people are upset with her, and others are upset with Bush, he said.

James Duffy, a Democratic political consultant, said the senator and other top state officials have a tremendous responsibility to present a unified front to the nation and to avoid political, social and even racial divisions that have haunted Louisiana in the past.

If these divisions emerge, he said, "I don't think the American people will have the stomach for [rebuilding]."

Landrieu's political future (she would stand for re-election again in 2008) hinges crucially "on how she deals with the follow-up, and the kind of leadership she can bring," Duffy said, rather than on her criticism of Bush.

If the state falters in its persuasive efforts with Washington and the American public, "the city will die," he said.

The senator said in an interview yesterday that "if this happened to San Francisco, or to Baltimore, or to Chicago or Seattle, the good people of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast would stand up to support their rebuilding efforts."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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