New Orleans to choose mayor

Winner of tomorrow's election will face daunting challenges in the battered city

May 19, 2006|By HOWARD WITT | HOWARD WITT,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW ORLEANS -- The yard signs pretty much tell the story of the contest to select the next mayor of New Orleans.

Placards supporting the challenger, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, sprout from weedy yards in front of many damaged homes in the city's wealthier white neighborhoods. Signs backing the incumbent, Mayor Ray Nagin, are less prevalent and mostly concentrated in front of ruined houses in poorer black neighborhoods.

But other, more ominous signs far outnumber those supporting either of the two mayoral candidates. "For sale" signs are planted in the yards of every third or fourth abandoned home. And that points to the biggest challenge facing whoever wins tomorrow's mayoral runoff election.

Nearly nine months after Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and drove more than half its 485,000 inhabitants into exile, the city is still reeling. Crime is on the rise, the economy is sputtering, few schools have reopened, and debris and flooded cars litter most neighborhoods.

This year's hurricane season begins in less than two weeks, and the Army Corps of Engineers has said that the fractured levee system won't be completed in time to protect the city against a major early storm.

Weary voters, more than 20,000 of whom have voted early at satellite polling stations throughout the state or via absentee ballot, will select the man they hope can lead the city out of its crises.

Nagin and Landrieu have waged a subdued campaign in which they have agreed on nearly every issue.

"You know, I'm kind of forum-ed and debated out," Nagin said Monday at the opening of a debate on criminal justice.

"One of the most difficult things I've had to do over the last several months is stand up and say, `Choose me over Ray Nagin,' who I like very much and get along with," Landrieu told a gathering of New Orleans ministers last week.

Pollsters have not predicted a winner in an election that could depend as much on race as on competence. Nagin, who is black, drew more than 80 percent of the black vote in winning last month's primary. That was a reversal of the results in 2002, when he was elected with mostly white support. Landrieu, who is white, finished second in the primary, drawing much of his support from whites.

But even race is not nearly the certainty it once was in New Orleans.

Before Katrina, the city was two-thirds black and had not had a white mayor since Landrieu's popular father, Moon, left office in 1978. Now the city's estimated population of 200,000 is thought to be evenly split between whites and blacks - no one knows for sure - and each candidate is promoting his appeal across racial lines.

"All we really know about the city's demographics now is that it's less black and more white than it was," said Susan Howell, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans. "There may be a feeling among some African-Americans that `we don't want to go back, to lose what we have.' There's a powerful symbol in having an African-American mayor."

That is how Beverly McKenna, publisher of the New Orleans Tribune, the city's principal black newspaper, sees it. Like many black residents, she perceives an effort by the city's powerbrokers to discourage displaced blacks from returning to their neighborhoods.

"I'm not giving up on black elected officials," McKenna wrote in an editorial endorsing Nagin. "Certainly not now, not in these precarious times when it appears that every effort is being made to depopulate New Orleans of its African-American citizens and reclaim what few power bases our people control."

Some black supporters of Landrieu strongly disagree.

"We cannot afford to be divided along racial lines right now," said Cassandra Wall, an art dealer whose home in the upscale New Orleans East neighborhood was destroyed in the flooding. "We have to look at the issues and who can address those issues. Mayor Nagin has had eight or nine months, and the area where I live is still loaded with debris. I just don't feel comfortable that he's doing everything he can."

Nagin bristles at the criticism that he could have done more.

"You have a city that has been totally devastated, 80 percent of it underwater, no revenue stream. So to suggest that I could go out there and wave a magic wand is just not authentic," he said during a televised debate this week. "It's going to be incremental improvements."

By far the strongest criticism of the mayor has come from historian Douglas Brinkley, a Tulane University professor whose new book, The Great Deluge, portrays Nagin as erratic, indecisive and cowering inside a hotel room during the first week of the Katrina crisis while tens of thousands of stranded residents were suffering inside the Louisiana Superdome and the Convention Center a few blocks away.

Nagin has dismissed the book as a "total distortion," and his supporters are not inclined to blame him for failing to completely evacuate the city before the storm or the chaos that ensued afterward.

Neither is Landrieu.

"We all know what happened" because of the hurricane, Landrieu said during a debate last week. "It really is not the mayor's fault."

Landrieu, whose sister Mary is one of the state's senators in Washington, won the endorsement of the city's influential newspaper The Times-Picayune.

The University of New Orleans' Howell said the city will be well-served regardless of who wins.

"We are in a win-win situation with both of them," she said. "Nobody questions their integrity or motives. Both of these candidates are totally capable of being as good a mayor as possible under the circumstances."

Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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