Hot Air in the Big Easy
The mayor's racial comments mar his re-election bid.
By Arian Campo-Flores
Jan. 30, 2006 issue - Peggy Wilson couldn't believe what she was hearing on the radio. Addressing a crowd on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mayor Ray Nagin was claiming that God wanted New Orleans to remain majority black. "This city will be chocolate at the end of the day," he said. "I don't care what people are saying Uptown," referring to a mostly white area of New Orleans. Nagin also suggested that God unleashed last year's hurricanes because he was "mad at America"—and particularly at the black community, for failing to take better care of itself. "I was shocked," recalls Wilson. A Republican who once headed the city council, she was already planning to challenge Nagin's re-election in the balloting tentatively scheduled for April 22. But Nagin's comments may have boosted her chances. As a friend later told her, "The mayor just sent you a box of chocolates."
Though New Orleanians have grown accustomed to Nagin's verbal gaffes, his latest may have gone too far. In a matter of minutes, the 49-year-old former cable-TV executive alienated the white voters who helped pave his path to power in 2002. He insulted his fellow African-Americans with his perceived pandering. And he invited national ridicule. Nagin apologized the following day, but the damage was done. Voters are now asking: "Does he have the capacity to lead?" says political analyst Silas Lee. The blood in the water has attracted a growing list of potential challengers. Two weeks ago, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti—a white Democrat—was reluctant to run, says his former campaign manager, Roy Fletcher. But after Nagin's speech, Foti told him, "Don't count me out of this mayor's race yet."
What prompted Nagin's bizarre remarks? The consensus in New Orleans is that he became ensnared by the city's thorny racial politics. Earlier this month, Nagin's rebuilding commission unveiled a proposal that would bar residents of low-lying areas—who are disproportionately poor and black—from moving back home for four months. During that time, they would have to draft a plan to revive their neighborhoods or risk having their communities bulldozed. The proposal angered black leaders—never all that keen on Nagin in the first place—who see the plan as a ploy to keep their constituents from coming home. Yet if he was seeking to rally African-Americans with his remarks last week, he failed—and worse still, angered whites. (Nagin declined to comment.)
That leaves the mayor as a man uncomfortably in the middle. "The real danger [for Nagin] is if he has a strong white candidate on one side and a strong black candidate on the other," says Ed Renwick of Loyola University. That could well happen: among the strongest pols eying the race are Oliver Thomas, the charismatic black city-council president, and Mitch Landrieu, the state's white lieutenant governor and brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu. Those two could do to Nagin's political future what Katrina did to his city.
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