New Orleans picks Nagin

Still-recovering city casts fortunes with incumbent mayor

May 21, 2006|By COX NEWS SERVICE

NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Ray Nagin -- the shoot-from-the-hip maverick believed buried in the political rubble of Hurricane Katrina and by his declaration that New Orleans was ordained to be a "chocolate city" -- won another term yesterday to lead the historic recovery of his storm-ravaged hometown.

In a close election where race played a bigger role than rebuilding plans, Nagin defeated Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, the son of the Crescent City's last white mayor. The mayor won overwhelmingly in the predominantly African-American precincts and ran strongly enough in the white neighborhoods to patch together a majority.

With 96 percent of the precincts reporting, Nagin got 52 percent (57,310) of the vote, while Landrieu captured 48 percent (51,854).

"This great city of New Orleans is ready to take off," said Nagin, calling for unity throughout the community. "It's time for one New Orleans," he said.

"I'm not going to get in trouble tonight, trust me," he said, laughing at his penchant for controversial comments.

He thanked President Bush for what he has done for New Orleans and thanked Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco for "what she is going to do." As for his former supporters who campaigned for Landrieu, he said, "I forgive you."

Landrieu congratulated Nagin and urged his supporters to join with the mayor to "bring this great city back again."

"Come hell or high water, and we've had both, we're going to find common ground," said Landrieu in his concession speech.

Beginning his second term the day before the June 1 start of hurricane season, Nagin faces a staggering task of just removing rotting debris still on the streets eight months after Katrina and enticing residents back to ghost neighborhoods of devastated houses.

The candidates agreed on the same broad reconstruction plan -- rebuilding the city and its economy behind the protection of upgraded and federally funded levees and giving at least almost all residents the option of rebuilding in their old neighborhoods.

The sun was shining brightly on Election Day, and voting was brisk. Indeed, even before the New Orleans polling places opened at 6 a.m., more than 24,000 people had cast early ballots by mail or in the city or at satellite polling places set up around the state. This surpassed the 22,000 early and absentee ballots cast in the April 22 primary.

In the primary, Nagin received 38 percent of the 108,000 votes, and Landrieu got 29 percent and earned spots in the run-off.

When elected to his first term in 2002, Nagin won 84 percent of the white vote. But he lost favor with these supporters as trash stayed on the streets and recovery sputtered in the hurricane aftermath and after he said that God intended for New Orleans to remain a "chocolate city" despite an exodus of black residents leaving flooded neighborhoods.

Meeting at City Hall for a rally for displaced voters, the candidates hugged yesterday.

Both Nagin and Landrieu are Democrats, and their plans for recovery were similar. The main difference, candidates and voters agreed, is which could get the job done faster and better.

"I don't think we'll lose either way," said Desmond Ables, who lost his house after it was flooded by 12 feet of water and lost his job when Katrina closed the school where he taught art.

Ables lives in Atlanta now. More than half of the city's pre-Katrina population of 470,000 is still scattered around America, and more buses brought voters in from Texas and other states where many residents settled uneasily after the storm.

The schoolteacher liked Nagin better, even though he is acquainted with both U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, the defeated candidate's sister, and former New Orleans Mayor Maurice "Moon" Landrieu.

"The one who has weathered it may be the best," explained Ables, who may stay in Atlanta permanently. "I know the Landrieu family. I know Mary. I know Moon. But the mayor is my sentimental favorite."

Ables said he faces an even harder choice in deciding whether to move back.

"I may have to give up on it. It's kind like what you have to do with an old car. You love it but when it starts giving you too much trouble, you have to trade it in," he said.

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