Nagin faces New Orleans battle

Mayor's foe in runoff is popular, better-financed


NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor C. Ray Nagin might have led Saturday's mayoral primary, but he now faces a popular and better-financed opponent on a political landscape utterly changed by Hurricane Katrina, one in which the long-running dominance of the city's black vote has been significantly reduced.

Black residents, whose neighborhoods were the most devastated by the storm, voted in significantly smaller numbers than whites did Saturday, even more so than usual. White turnout is usually higher than black turnout; but the gap in the primary was about double what it is normally, analysts said yesterday.

As a result, most of the votes here were cast against Nagin, who is black, even though he came out on top in a crowded field with 38 percent of the vote. If that trend holds, New Orleans will elect its first white mayor in nearly 30 years May 20, when Nagin will face Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who got 29 percent, in a runoff.

If Landrieu receives two-thirds of the 30 percent received by the white candidates who finished behind him, Nagin's sometimes erratic days as mayor will be over. Adding to his difficulties, Nagin must mobilize the citizens who were displaced from the city by Hurricane Katrina and who failed to turn out for Saturday's primary.

Against a backdrop of perennial declines in black voter participation here, that could turn out to be a challenge too great for the mayor's not inconsiderable political skills.

"He has to expand the electorate, and that's a big hurdle," said Susan Howell, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans. "Blacks displaced by Katrina, these people are going to be horribly difficult to reach."

Overall, the turnout was surprisingly good given the difficult circumstances; about 80 percent of voters who took part in the 2002 election cast ballots. But the gap was largely, though not exclusively, made up of blacks displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The turnout of registered voters - though not necessarily habitual voters - in black neighborhoods was about half that in white neighborhoods.

Relying on black voters who are back here, or who managed to participate in the early-voting system set up for evacuees, may not be enough for Nagin. In some black precincts, particularly in the Lower Ninth Ward, turnout was down by a quarter or more from the previous election. Areas that did not flood, where the turnout was highest, were precisely the ones where Nagin fared the worst.

Another hurdle for Nagin is Landrieu's strength among blacks, more than 20 percent of whom voted for the lieutenant governor, analysts said. He and Nagin essentially won similar shares of the 21,351 absentee votes. But Nagin got less than 10 percent of the overall white vote, a huge drop from the previous election, when white support gave him the mayor's office. He has also lost much of the white financial support that helped propel him.

Even before Nagin angered many whites with a speech in January predicting that the city would be "chocolate" once again, his previous base of support in the largely white uptown neighborhoods had begun to wither.

Whites here have tended to focus their disenchantment at the slow recovery more on Nagin than have blacks. And there is a widespread perception that Nagin's unguarded language - his tirade immediately after the storm, for instance - has cost him credibility in Washington. He has repeatedly shifted position on important issues, such as the location of trailer parks for residents displaced by the hurricane. And he ignored the central recommendation of his recovery commission, to hold off rebuilding in the most severely damaged areas.

White business leaders who supported him enthusiastically four years ago deserted him entirely in this election, throwing their support mostly to an uptown business executive, Ron Forman, who won 17 percent of the vote. Now, some who contributed to Forman say they will support Landrieu, albeit with some reluctance. In the state Legislature, where he served for 16 years, Landrieu, a scion of the state's leading political family, did not earn high marks from the business lobby.

"I will probably support Landrieu, because he does after all represent some change," said Richard Currence, a Forman contributor, retired executive with an offshore oil services company. "His record in the Legislature, for the business community, left a lot to be desired. People like me are going to have to swallow pretty hard. I've got to overcome that and say he's the guy of the two that can do a better job in leading the city out of the mess we're in."

True to his relaxed style, Nagin scheduled no campaign events yesterday, in contrast to Landrieu, who held a news conference at which he again emphasized what he considers the importance of the biracial coalition that supported him.

His campaign had sought to "not polarize or divide anyone," Landrieu said, and indeed, he largely avoided the central question of whether some neighborhoods should not be rebuilt. He had tried to represent "all segments of the population," he said. "African-Americans and whites have supported this candidacy."

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