ELM CITY, N.C. – The man entrusted with promoting President Joe Biden's $1 trillion infrastructure plan barreled into this North Carolina town of 1,200 with the same rumbling intensity as the passing freight trains that shake anyone sitting in a chair.
It should be an easy sell. But Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor and the administration's infrastructure coordinator, knows the diplomacy it requires.
On a visit to Elm City last week, he toured the town's quaint library decked out for Halloween. At an antique store with long johns hanging from the rafters, he tried to buy old license plates to commemorate the day, only to be told that someone else had spoken for them.
It was at the restored train depot that he got down to the business of the day, fielding a question about how a small-town government without a staff could possibly get its sliver of the infrastructure pie.
Landrieu kept it simple: Work with other communities.
“All of you are small, medium or large, but none of you has everything you need to do anything on your own," he said. "So, this is kindergarten stuff. I don’t know if your mama sent you to school with a sandwich and some potato chips, but you wanted somebody’s M&M’s. And you had to learn how to trade and make friends.”
Landrieu speaks often with anecdotes and metaphors, the New Orleans accent offering a below the Mason-Dixon Line bonhomie to the audience. He uses the language of chatty simplicity to explain the big ideas that can get lost in a divided country.
And he comes bearing gifts, the promise of jobs and dramatic local improvements. For nearly a year, Landrieu has barnstormed a country with that same message of what's possible when people work together, even in a bitterly polarized era playing out before the midterm elections.
What Landrieu has seen is just how much effort it takes to get the money to where it matters — and to get a small measure of credit for the administration for progress that can seem like it's coming at glacial speed.
What's riding on that $1 trillion?
It’s more than just whether Democrats can retain the House and Senate. There’s the survival of thousands of American communities that need some combination of jobs, road improvements, new sewage pipes, high-speed internet and help to fight climate change.
Landrieu sees himself playing the role of a bridge. But where he goes from here is an open question. The son of a mayor and the sister of a former U.S. senator, Landrieu is often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate and could benefit from traveling the country to dole out cash for local projects.
After multiple hurricanes and a devastating oil spill, Landrieu redeveloped his home city as mayor from 2010 to 2018. He made the controversial decision to remove its Confederate statues, jumpstarting a national conversation on race. Soon came a pair of fateful phone calls that brought him to Washington.
Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, phoned Landrieu about a year ago to ask if he would be willing to talk with Biden about how to implement the biggest infrastructure infusion of cash since the 1950s.
“Sure -- the president can call me any time he wants,” Landrieu recalled answering.
Deese phoned back the next day. “Well, I talked to the president and he would like you to come up and run the thing.”
"What thing?” Landrieu said.
"The whole infrastructure thing,” said Deese.
Nearly a year later in the orange haze of dawn, Landrieu, 62, whistled as he strolled through the wood-beamed terminal of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
“I love airports because they make me think that we’re going to be OK in America,” Landrieu said last week after climbing into a Ford SUV. “You’ve got to believe that that airport was full of people that thought differently and acted differently, but nobody was yelling and screaming. And everybody had one purpose: to get where the hell we’re going.”
Even if they share a destination, though, they may not always agree on the road to get there. Administration officials love to point out how Republicans who voted against the infrastructure bill are nonetheless seeking its cash for local projects, and even taking credit for them. But Republican governors want more flexibility with how to spend the money, saying the rules can increase costs at a time of high inflation.
Landrieu said action on long-delayed infrastructure projects can't foster “political” unity, but it can create a sense of “national” unity — if the American public and its leaders look past divisions on abortion, civil rights and more to focus on shared goals.
The challenge is that it’s still early for voters to appreciate projects that are generational in scale. Landrieu explains the dilemma by referencing the French post-impressionist artist Georges Seurat and his painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grade Jatte.” The painting of Parisians on the banks of the Seine is composed entirely of colorful dots of paint that, when viewed at a distance, form a full picture.
So far, Landrieu says, the infrastructure effort is just a bunch of dots on the canvas. He’s trying to sell people on how those dots connect.
Since February, Landrieu has gone to 37 cities, encouraging government officials and businesses to apply for infrastructure grants and loans. Some 6,000 projects are already under way. He numbers his conversations with governors, mayors and others in the thousands. That suggests he’s reaching much more deeply into Republican territory than Biden, who can be a lightning rod for GOP criticism.
Landrieu has gotten roughly $185 billion in infrastructure spending out the door. His trip to North Carolina with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week was to announce $759 million to lay broadband fiber for internet in rural counties.
That sum is a lifeline for places like Warren County in North Carolina. Census figures show it lost more than 11% of its population between 2010 and 2020. A fast internet connection is a must for businesses and residents to stay.
“What I hear often is I cannot find a place in Warren County that gives me the speed that I need,” said Charla Duncan, the county’s community and economic development director.
Landrieu listened intently as Duncan spoke during a roundtable with Vilsack and North Carolina officials. When Gov. Roy Cooper said that one million North Carolina residents lack high-speed internet, Landrieu registered that number with his eyes. He would use it later that day in Elm City.
Landrieu has been giving voters a deeply political message ahead of the midterm elections, trying to convey that Biden cares about them and is improving the capacity of government to meet their needs. It’s an uphill battle as high inflation weighs on the minds of voters and has left Biden’s approval rating at just 43%.
As a scion of a Louisiana political dynasty, Landrieu has spent his life dwelling on the gap between how governments function and how they should operate. He was a state legislator and lieutenant governor before serving as New Orleans mayor. His father, Moon, held the same job when Mitch was a child and teenager.
On the day Landrieu was born in 1960, he says, his father was one of two state representatives to vote against segregation, and racial, class and other divides have always been a part of how he thinks.
He studied the political divisions after removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments and starting the nonprofit E Pluribus Unum. He traveled across the South and talked with coal miners in West Virginia who felt abandoned by government leaders.
He sees infrastructure as a vehicle for economic opportunity, yet demurred when asked if he planned to stay in his post as he said he serves at “the president's pleasure.” Landrieu suggested his fate could change after the Nov. 8 elections and the possible ascension of the GOP to House and Senate majorities.
"We’ll see what happens in a couple of weeks and then the world changes dramatically around here,” he said. “I don’t really know the answer to that question.”