Morial graduated from Penn in 1980 with a degree in economics and African-American studies, and then went on to Georgetown University for a law degree in 1983. After a two-year stint as a state senator in Louisiana and an unsuccessful run for Congress, he was elected mayor of New Orleans in 1994the third black candidate to hold that office. He won office in a divisive runoff election against fellow Democrat Donald Mintz in which the vote split along racial lines, with Morial taking 54 percent of the total vote but gaining 85 percent of the black vote, while his white opponent garnered 91 percent of the white vote. He inherited a city riddled with an entrenched culture of police corruption, decaying streets, and a murder rate so high that it earned New Orleans the tag of “Murder Capital, U.S.A.” The timing was perfect for a young, energetic candidate possessing what one local columnist characterized as “smarts, vigorousness, and the width of political support to undertake major reforms.”
In Morial’s eight years in office, the crime rate dropped and wide-ranging reforms helped clean up the police department. His approval ratings soared into the 70s, making him one of the most popular mayors in decades.
He accomplished this feat with an approach that was different from that of his father, who had died of asthma in 1989 at age 60. “His father was very fiery and in-your-face; you knew exactly where he stood, and he didn’t run from controversy, to put it mildly. He liked controversy,” says veteran pollster Ed Renwick, director of the Institute for Politics at Loyola University in New Orleans. “Whereas Marc is much smoother, much more ‘Come, let us reason together.’ He comes across as a nice person. So they had very different styles of leadership.”
For his part, Morial says he never felt pressure to be like his father, recalling, “There were people who said, ‘I wish you were more like your father,’ and there were other people who would say, ‘I’m glad you’re not like your father.’ It was a mixed bag. He would tell me that we were from different times. Everything he got he had to fight for, at every turn of the road. In my career, I was able to stand on his shoulders, in a way.”
The prevalence of gun-related deaths in New Orleans and other cities spurred Morial and other mayors to consider the bold step of holding the gun industry accountable for some of the costs of gun violence, much as the states had done successfully in suits against tobacco companies. In 1998, Morial was the first to file suit, against 15 gun manufacturers, three trade associations, and several local pawnshops and gun dealers. The suit sought to “recover the damage to the city from the gun industry’s sale of guns that are not ‘personalized’ to incorporate safety designs to prevent their use by children and other unauthorized users.” The Louisiana legislature ultimately passed two laws preventing the city from pursuing the suits, but a point had been made. Morial says he would take the same course of action again, despite the predictable backlash from the gun lobby.
“I’m not an anti-gun person. I’m not an anti-hunting person. But my own view on the issue has to do with the fact there’s just a proliferation of military-style weapons in inner-city communities,” he says.
If Morial is convinced of the efficacy of the gun suits, he is less sanguine about his unsuccessfulsome say ill-conceivedattempt to change New Orleans’ charter to permit him to run for a third term as mayor after winning his second term in a landslide. The measure was defeated soundly by voters in 2001.
“The whites didn’t want it, period; they never supported the third term for anybody, black or white,” says Renwick. “And a lot of the black politicians didn’t want it because they felt it kept them from progressing. They wanted some of the office and the power. So for different reasons, he ended up with a biracial coalition against him.”
Morial says the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sapped some of his enthusiasm for the campaign, and there is a wistfulness in his voice as he reflects on the defeat that closed his tenure in New Orleans. “It’s clear that the charter change affected the way people looked at me,” he says. “It was a long-shot campaign. Nobody’s perfect. But I’ve been pretty successful by being a risk-taker. Looking back, I think my batting average was pretty good.”
After the end of his mayoral term in 2002, Morial had returned to law practice briefly before being tapped to lead the Urban League in May 2003, succeeding Hugh B. Price, the organization’s head since 1994. The three previous presidents or chief executivesWhitney M. Young Jr., Vernon E. Jordan Jr., and John E. Jacobalso served at least nine years at the helm, which gives a little more weight to Morial’s comment that it is “highly unlikely” that he will seek elected office again, in large part because of the toll it can take on families.
“It’s really not in my plans,” he says. “I never got into politics to make it a lifelong career.” Morial is married to New Orleans newscaster Michelle Miller, with whom he has a son, Mason, who turns three in April. The couple was dubbed one of Ebony magazine’s “Ten Hottest Couples” in 2000. He also has a daughter, Kemah, 23, from a previous relationship.
Henican, a veteran TV commentator, thinks his childhood friend could use his platform to reach a wider audience.
“In the cable-TV talking-head network, there isn’t really a first-string core of go-to people among young black leaders,” he says. “The country is ripe for a next generation of black leaders. The Jesse Jacksons and that generation are more or less at the end of the line. Somebody will emerge, or a couple of people.”
He mentions newly elected Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, as one likely voice. But by virtue of his upbringing and political background, his strong relationships with other black leaders, and his personal skills, he says, “I think Marc is uniquely positioned do that.”
David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press and is the Gazette’s regular sports columnist.
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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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