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Mayor of New Orleans --tireless, feisty, determined

A short, squarely built man in a dark-blue suit and tinted glasses dashes into position near the head of the parade -- only a few minutes late. The mounted police and high school band members straighten ranks, the jazz ensemble blasts out some Dixieland, and the French Quarter Festival is under way. It's all in a day's work for Mayor Ernest N. (Dutch) Morial, who has done a good deal of charging around during his 71/2 years in office, spurred by a determination to move New Orleans out of its economic doldrums.

``We have to put down the economic base for a broader middle class,'' says the first black mayor of this city, whose population of 557,515 is 55 percent black. Critics and backers alike agree he's been tireless in pursuing that goal.

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Like many of the nation's black mayors, Mr. Morial entered a City Hall just coming under siege by a host of economic troubles -- among them a decline of older industries, including the Port of New Orleans, and ebbing economic aid from Washington.

But he says his city's problems are not so different from those facing most mayors today.

``Traditionally, it's been how well you picked up the garbage, provided some police and fire protection, maybe some recreation. Now mayors have the added burden of having to deal with economic development,'' he says.

New Orleans, however, has some hurdles peculiar to itself.

For instance, this city spurns the property tax -- a mainstay of municipal finance in other parts of the country. Under the city's ``homestead exemption,'' 85 percent of local homeowners pay no taxes on their holdings.

In the recent past, the city's share of state income, generated primarily by oil and gas severance taxes, together with substantial federal aid, tended to hide New Orleans's built-in revenue deficiencies. But no more.

Asked if there's hope of changing a tax structure that offers little alternative to regular hikes in the sales tax, the mayor says with a shrug, ``We've tried and have been unsuccessful. We put forth every effort we could conceive of -- used the best minds in and out of government.''

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And try he has, pushing a ``real-property service charge,'' which would have required a minimum $100 assessment against all homeowners -- a measure the City Council repealed in favor of adding a penny to the sales levy.

Morial also backed an ``earnings tax'' that would have generated revenue from people who commute to work in the city -- a fairly radical idea in a state that prohibits an income tax. Voters defeated it, but by a surprisingly narrow 55-to-45-percent margin.

Even the recent French Quarter Festival, a rather small affair in a city best known for its Mardi Gras extravaganza, sprang from a Morial economic thrust.

Officially, it's a gift from the mayor to the city's most famous neighborhood, making up for the disruption caused by last year's pre-World's Fair street and sidewalk repair.

Most criticism of Morial, universally known here as ``Dutch,'' is aimed at his political style.

His relations with the City Council, which has often had a vocal anti-Morial majority, have been ``thorny,'' as one mayoral aide puts it. His relations with the local press have sometimes been even less cordial.

But the ``abrasiveness'' or ``arrogance'' issue is, to the mayor's mind, no issue at all -- ``just a media label.''

``Somebody should say, `What about performance,' '' says the mayor, ticking off bond issues he has pushed through, sidewalk and street improvements, the city's new industrial park, and its success in attracting such big-time developers as the Rouse Corporation.

On the other hand, the mayor has had relatively little success so far in luring new ``light'' industries to the city, according to Timothy Ryan, a University of New Orleans economist.

A deep-set problem here, says Professor Ryan, is New Orleans's underfunded and nearly 90 percent black public school system. Companies weighing a move to the city often shy away because of the school situation.

Morial's career was forged in the civil rights struggle of 25 years ago. As a young lawyer, he argued key cases challenging segregation.

He became Louisiana's first black US attorney, its first black state legislator since Reconstruction, the first black elected to the state's Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and now New Orleans's first black mayor.

``For me,'' says Morial, ``public office is an extension of my civil rights days.'' When it comes to struggles like local tax reform, ``creative lawyering'' is still what's called for, he says.

As a close observer of the national political scene, Mayor Morial has some strong views on the future of the Democratic Party.

``The genius and magic of the Democratic Party,'' says Mayor Morial, ``is that it's not resistant to change. It has changed and will continue to change. And the party can change without abandoning its principles.''

Coalition politics, argues Morial -- the reconciling of ``a variety of interests'' including blacks and labor, poor and middle-class Americans, of different sections of the country -- constitutes the party's strength, not weakness.

``I think the Democratic Party represents the mosaic that is America.''

Fourth in a series of occasional interviews with black mayors. The first three interviews ran April 3, 10, and 29.

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