Mitch Landrieu had already served his home state of Louisiana for decades: 16 years in the state house of representatives and six years as the lieutenant governor. After eight years as mayor of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Landrieu led the effort to rebuild the devastated city while working to find common ground with officials in both private and public realms.
Landrieu is known for his ability to find practical solutions to complex problems. It was the catalyst when President Biden asked him to implement the bipartisan infrastructure bill when it passed in 2021, and it is that spirit in which Landrieu spoke to Sanford students.
Landrieu was the Fall 2023 David M. Rubenstein Distinguished Lecture, coupled with a fireside chat interview by alumnus and friend David Rubenstein on Sept. 7 in Reynolds Theater on the Duke campus.
As he recounted in his interview, he was fishing when the White House called. His mind wasn’t on Washington, D.C., or the current happenings on Capitol Hill. He was admiring his brother’s new boat and getting ready for a day on the Louisiana water.
“We are getting ready to put the boat in the bayou, and the phone rings; it is Brian Deese (Senior Advisor to the President of the United States at the time), and he says, ‘Well, the President needs some help, I heard you knew things about rebuilding stuff. Would you be willing to talk to the President?’ I said sure! But I wasn’t really paying attention to what was happening in Washington then. I was fishing.”
“I went home and told my wife that when the President calls and asks you to do something that is this important, it is hard to say no. I was honored to have this chance to serve.”
Service was one of the main themes for Landrieu during his visit to Sanford. In his role, he has visited hundreds of towns and cities throughout the U.S., working with local state and local officials to implement one of the largest federal investments in infrastructure in American history: the $1.2 trillion bi-partisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021.
Landrieu took time to engage with students from Sanford’s Policy in Living Color student organization before the lecture.
"Having Mitch Landrieu share his insights, experiences, and priorities with us in a small, closed-door setting was an immense honor and privilege. His willingness to express humility through his responses while being receptive to the needs and concerns of Policy in Living Color members is not something you see every day in political figures. The event was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that all of us will remember." - Jordan M. Wilson, MPP’24, Student President of Policy in Living Color.
“I got a chance to meet with some of Sanford’s graduate students earlier today, and the future is bright,” said Landrieu.
Additionally, he met additional students after his lecture over a dinner, sharing his insights with the next generation of policymakers and community leaders.
“To have the chance to hear Mitch speak was an absolute pleasure. He provided amazing insight into the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and showcased how it benefits the country. One example that stuck with me was how this bill invested money into high-speed rails and allocated funding to repairing and upgrading our infrastructure. He also did an amazing job talking about other issues, such as AI, [the CHIPS and Science Act], and highlighted the great work Duke alums have done either with him or in the federal government.” - RJ Lehal, MPP’25.
Landrieu encouraged students to be proactive in pursuing their aspirations and emphasized young leaders' critical role in shaping the future of their communities and the nation.
“Each of us comes to the table of democracy as equals. That is not easy. It's not going to happen by accident. I would say to the students here who have the ambition to go into public life: we need you. Service is the rent that you pay for the right to freedom because freedom is not free; it never is. Never has been for any generation; every generation has to earn it. The burden is more heavily on your shoulders than it has been on many other generations, but I think that you’re up to the fight,” Landrieu said.
He reflected on his career and the lessons learned from rebuilding New Orleans as mayor of the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But Landrieu's talk wasn't just about the past; it was also about the future. He discussed how he was now applying those invaluable insights in his current role as Senior Advisor to President Biden.
One of the highlights of his talk was his inclusive approach to implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest $1.2 trillion in critical infrastructure. Landrieu's expertise and passion for the subject shone through as he detailed the administration's vision for a cleaner, more sustainable, and equitable future.
Landrieu mentioned important allies in these projects from Duke. In particular, two Sanford connections were instrumental in the President’s work. Caitlin Durkovich (PPS’94, Special Assistant to President Biden and Senior Director for Resilience and Response for the National Security Council) and Aaron Chatterji (Sanford faculty member and White House coordinator at the National Economic Council) each worked to enhance resiliency and economic growth in states across the country.
Following his prepared remarks, Landrieu participated in an insightful and thought-provoking interview with David Rubenstein during which one of the dominant topics was climate change, relevant to the work through Duke’s Climate Commitment.
Landrieu expanded on his vision for rebuilding America and the crucial role of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in achieving that goal. He offered additional insights into the lessons he had learned from leading the post-Katrina recovery efforts in New Orleans, shedding light on the principles and strategies of resilience.
“Something I learned when I was rebuilding New Orleans: Don’t build it back like it was; build it back like it should have been if you had gotten it right the first time,” said Landrieu.