How to Spend $1 Trillion? Mitch Landrieu Wants a Say.
ELM CITY, N.C. — Inside this brick-walled town hall just feet away from a freight train line, a crowd of Black, white and Indigenous small-town leaders sat eager to hear how President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan would help their communities.
The mayor of the town of Bear Grass asked how the administration would ensure that the money trickled down to her roughly 100 residents. Another wondered if the funding meant schoolchildren would no longer rely on a bookstore for access to broadband internet. The mayor of Lewiston Woodville asked if her community would finally have a grocery store.
Sitting in front of the crowd was Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor now tasked with making sure the huge injection of federal funds reaches those who need the money most.
“It’s our job on the implementation side to stay on it like a dog on a bone and make sure the execution is as close to what the president’s vision is,” Mr. Landrieu said in an interview during a recent trip. “If we’re going to have a fight, we have a fight and we can get it resolved sooner rather than later.”
Over the past year, Mr. Landrieu has been on a national tour of sorts for Mr. Biden’s infrastructure package, hopping commercial flights around the country to pitch the funds for roads, bridges, broadband and clean energy. And while the decisions about how to spend the money largely fall to state leaders, Mr. Landrieu is out promoting the plan, sometimes even negotiating with local officials who disagree with the president’s ideas about how best to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure in an equitable way.
Mr. Biden has said he wants the money to help repair the damage from the United States’ history of racial disparities in how the government builds roads, highways and other physical infrastructure. State and local officials have often steered roads through Black communities, isolating them from parks or economic gain and destroying neighborhoods.
Before the midterm elections, Mr. Landrieu had traveled to 37 cities and spoken to every governor except Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, both of whom have openly clashed with the Biden administration.
Mr. Landrieu discussed the package with the governors’ chiefs of staff instead.
“And they all want the money,” Mr. Landrieu said, adding that both states have followed the administration’s recommendation of appointing a local infrastructure coordinator.
Traveling the country with the keys to a $1 trillion infrastructure package is also an effective way to build alliances for a future presidential run. Mr. Landrieu is often mentioned as a possible candidate — a path he dismisses when pressed.
“I’m focused on getting this money to the ground,” he said.
A native of the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans, Mr. Landrieu helped the city rebound after Hurricane Katrina in part by securing millions of dollars in federal funding. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Moon Landrieu, who helped defend federal civil rights mandates and advocated integration as New Orleans’s mayor. The younger Mr. Landrieu confronted the nation’s history of racism himself when he spearheaded the removal of four confederate monuments in New Orleans in 2017.
Mr. Landrieu is now responsible for ensuring that equity is at the center of Mr. Biden’s infrastructure investments. He said one way to make sure that happens is by pushing states to repair existing roads and bridges — or connect them to underserved communities — rather than just extending them through neighborhoods that had been splintered by the highway expansion of the 1950s.
The bulk of the package is distributed directly to the states, although local leaders must submit to the federal government plans on how they will spend the funds. Any additional funding from discretionary grants is dependent in part on whether the states design projects with a focus on underserved communities and the environment, Mr. Landrieu said.
At least 6,000 projects funded by the infrastructure package were underway at the start of the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, according to the White House, and roughly $185 billion from the package had been distributed to states.
Some Republicans have said states should be given even more leeway over the funding.
“Excessive consideration of equity, union memberships or climate as lenses to view suitable projects would be counterproductive,” 16 Republican governors wrote in a letter to Mr. Biden and Mr. Landrieu this year. “Your administration should not attempt to push a social agenda through hard infrastructure investments.”
After receiving the letter, Mr. Landrieu’s team set up meetings with some of those governors to hear out their frustrations, his aides said. Some pushed back on the administration’s call for installing electric vehicle charging stations every 50 miles on interstate highways.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina were particularly frustrated over guidance that said states should prioritize repairing highways rather than extending them. Mr. McMaster even brought it up with Mr. Biden directly, according to a senior White House official.
Spokesmen for the governors did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Landrieu and his team assured the governors that they had the discretion to spend the federal funds on projects they deemed beneficial to their states. But if the states followed the administration’s priorities, including its guidance on reducing environmental harm, it may increase the chances of receiving additional federal grants.
“We don’t have to OK their plans unless we think those plans meet with our criteria. Now there will necessarily be a conflict because not every state wants to do the same thing and then we have to work with them,” Mr. Landrieu said. “And then there’s a negotiation that goes on in every one of the programs.”
While speaking to residents and public officials across the nation, Mr. Landrieu often goes out of his way to say that Mr. Biden’s focus on equity is not just a matter of race but also ensuring small rural towns receive as much federal support as big cities.
“When we talk about equity, we’re talking about everyone that was left out, and it involves rural,” he said. “It involves white folk and Black folk and brown folk who live in rural communities and have been left out.”
He has also heard from skeptical residents who have gotten promises from public officials before, only to find that their children have suffered the consequences of contaminated water from lead pipes. But with persistent labor shortages and supply chain issues, it could take years before voters see the result of the infrastructure funding.
Representative Deborah K. Ross, a North Carolina Democrat who joined Mr. Landrieu at a round table on the infrastructure package’s investments in broadband internet in Raleigh, said the bill was an investment in the future.
“It is an injection into our economy,” she said.
During the event in Raleigh, Mr. Landrieu tried to focus the audience on how the funding could address internet disparities.
“A little girl does not need to be sitting in the back of her mom’s car outside of a Chick-fil-A or a McDonald’s or some other place just trying to do her homework because she doesn’t have access to high-speed internet,” he said.
A day before, while announcing investments in solar-paneled school buses at John Lewis Elementary School in Washington, D.C., Mr. Landrieu knelt down to hear an animated fourth grader showcase his knowledge of how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Landrieu responded by reminding the child that the money for electric school buses “is coming from President Biden and Vice President Harris.”
“I’m a politician, so I want to get credit for everything that I do,” Mr. Landrieu later said. “But at the end of the day, what makes a great leader is saying that I’m going to invest deep, foundational money so that the public can benefit later on.”