New Orleans opts to forgive mayor

Despite Katrina gaffes, Nagin is re-elected

May 22, 2006|By HOWARD WITT | HOWARD WITT,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW ORLEANS -- In the end, New Orleans voters decided to forgive their erratic mayor rather than punish him. And there was a lot to forgive.

In the nearly nine months since Hurricane Katrina pummeled this city, Mayor Ray Nagin has committed enough strategic blunders, uttered enough verbal gaffes and hastened enough policy reversals to have sunk the career of any ordinary politician.

As the hurricane bore down on the city Aug. 29, Nagin failed to arrange for the evacuation of the city's poor, stranding thousands when the levees burst. After the storm hit, with thousands of victims clinging to rooftops awaiting rescue, he exaggerated the death toll by a factor of 10. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency wanted to set up temporary trailer parks in the city, first Nagin said yes, then no, then maybe.

Now crime is creeping up, the city's finances are teetering and storm debris litters many neighborhoods where rebuilding efforts have scarcely begun.

But voters decided Saturday that their mayor deserved a second term -- and that most of the troubles were not his fault.

"I voted for Nagin because, really, you can't blame him for what happened to us," said Kim Brown, 45, a bank employee who lost her home in the Lower Ninth Ward. "Also, I figured, `How could things get any worse?'"

Nagin, who is black, defeated his white challenger, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, 52.3 percent to 47.7 percent. He did it, analysts said, by capturing about 80 percent of the black vote, and 20 percent of white votes -- a complete turnabout from the tally when he was first elected in 2002.

The results were all the more remarkable considering that blacks have generally suffered more than whites from the effects of Katrina.

Low-lying black neighborhoods were decimated when the city's levees crumbled, and they were among the last areas where water and electricity were restored. And thousands of poorer African-Americans remain exiled in cities far from their ruined homes.

"If you don't live in New Orleans and you're not from New Orleans, you really look at Ray Nagin as a failure, as someone who didn't know what he was doing," said Peter Burns, a political science professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

"But when you come here and you listen to the discussion, you see that people really believe that the major problem was that the levees broke, and that was a failure by the federal government, which built them."

Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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