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Race could define mayor election
Nagin already facing roster of white rivals
Sunday, February 12, 2006
By Gordon Russell and Frank Donze Staff writers

The first New Orleans mayor's race after the horrors of Hurricane Katrina has an intriguing racial undercurrent: How will a black mayor elected with strong white support fare against numerous white challengers while much of the city's black electorate is displaced? Advertisement

And in a city that has historically voted along racial lines -- but whose very future now hangs in the balance -- will candidates be able to persuade voters to look beyond race in casting their ballots?

The script that is ultimately written will hinge on how the electorate -- the segment living in New Orleans as well as the tens of thousands scattered across the nation -- judges Mayor Ray Nagin, the embattled incumbent who in many ways still sits in the eye of the storm.

Everything in New Orleans changed Aug. 29, not the least of which was Nagin's sunny prospects for re-election in a primary originally scheduled for Feb. 4. Instead, the election is now set for April 22, and instead of picking out a suit for his inaugural, Nagin is facing a fight for his political life.

In perhaps the most mind-boggling development of all, Nagin, who is black, must reckon with not one but two formidable white challengers: Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Audubon Nature Institute Chief Executive Officer Ron Forman. Such a scenario would have been hard to imagine last summer in a city that, until Katrina displaced two-thirds of its population, was nearly 70 percent black.

With Forman set to formally announce Tuesday and Landrieu about a week later, a half-dozen other contenders are already on the stump. The lineup is mainly composed of political newcomers, save for former at-large City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson. Other announced challengers are radio personality James Arey, lawyer Virginia Boulet, investment banker Mike Hammer, community activist and former state Rep. Leo Watermeier and lawyer Bill Wessel.

The wide-open field may test a couple of the bedrock rules of New Orleans politics. One is that incumbent mayors, no matter how unpopular, usually are re-elected. The second is that New Orleans mayoral elections are inevitably racially polarizing.

The radical makeover of the mayor's election owes to two main factors. One is that Katrina and its aftermath raised questions about Nagin's leadership among voters of all classes and races. More importantly, perhaps, the storm disrupted the city's traditional electoral balance, in which black candidates held a virtual monopoly on major offices, with white elected officials relegated to swing-vote status.

Though exact numbers are impossible to come by, demographers and political analysts agree the Katrina diaspora is disproportionately black, loosening the firm grip that black voters had on city politics before the hurricane. As evidence of that shift, Nagin's eight announced challengers are white.

In some ways, it could be argued that the city's electorate resembles the New Orleans of 1978, when there were nearly equal numbers of white and black voters. Facing a better-known white opponent, Dutch Morial became the city's first black mayor that year by sweeping the black vote and running surprisingly well in the white community with a crossover total of nearly 20 percent.

After his historic victory, Morial said the results were "indicative of the kind of city New Orleans is: a city where leadership and ability count for more than race."

Four years later, the optimism of that sentiment washed away, as many of the white voters who once supported Morial defected to his lesser-known white opponent, leaving Morial embittered during his second term about white New Orleanians' ability to ignore race.

More crossover voting?

No one thinks race will cease to be a factor influencing voting decisions in New Orleans this year. But it could well be that the racial calculus goes deeper than skin color in a way that hasn't been seen since the 1978 election. In other words, white voters may not all flock to white candidates, and black voters may not rally behind black entrants.

"Among the opportunities the city has to experience here is what happens when people pull away from that dynamic," said Keith Woods, dean of the nonprofit Poynter Institute and a former city editor at The Times-Picayune. "The racial politics have been this way since toward the end of white dominance (of office-holding) and through the last few decades of black dominance. The opportunity here is to see a different side of politics than the city has seen in recent years."

At a minimum, a higher level of crossover voting than usual is expected: Nagin is likely to hang on to at least part of his once-formidable white support, analysts said. Conversely, they expect Landrieu to continue his family's tradition of drawing substantial support from black voters, who as a group already were lukewarm on Nagin. And Forman, though drafted by the city's white Uptown establishment, said he plans to make a concerted effort to appeal to black voters by putting together a diverse team, including some who would commit to serving in his administration.

The flip side: With analysts guessing that the numbers of black and white voters will be about equal -- and with some displaced African-Americans in particular thinking there's a move afoot to keep them out of town -- the contest could take on a bluntly racial tone. It will depend on whether candidates genuinely try to forge coalitions, or whether they pander to their respective bases.

The bonds shared by some of the key contenders could help keep things civil -- or, as occurs sometimes when friendships go south, make them nastier.

Forman, for instance, calls both Landrieu and Nagin close friends. He has called former Mayor Moon Landrieu, Mitch Landrieu's father, his political mentor, recalling a speech the elder Landrieu gave at Tulane University's A.B. Freeman School of Business in which he challenged young candidates for master's degrees to consider public service.

Thickening the plot, Forman said he and Mitch Landrieu met numerous times in recent months to encourage one another to run for mayor. The operating assumption in most of these conversations was that one or the other might, not both. But when Landrieu recently announced his intention to run, Forman said he couldn't let go of the idea.

Meanwhile, Sally Forman, Ron Forman's wife, served as Nagin's communications director until this week, when she resigned after her husband declared his intention to run. Ron Forman served on Nagin's transition team four years ago.

Black vote to lift Nagin?

The key to the election riddle hangs on a host of questions that are far from being answered.

For example: Will the white voters who once cheered on Nagin cast him aside?

Or, will black voters, many of whom never warmed to the mayor, gravitate to him now that there's a real possibility the top city job could go to a white candidate for the first time since Moon Landrieu left City Hall 28 years ago?

Though no polling data are available, speculation is widespread that Nagin will be hard-pressed to surpass the estimated 35 percent to 40 percent of the black vote he got in 2002.

Like many political insiders, veteran consultant Ron Nabonne agrees that Nagin must have a strong showing among black voters to have a chance to win re-election.

But Nabonne said Nagin could benefit from a growing perception among some segments of the black community that New Orleans' white establishment is trying to use Katrina to roll back decades of progress by African-Americans.

"There is a sentiment out there that there is a power grab going on to disenfranchise blacks, that this is the second (post) Reconstruction period," Nabonne said, referring to post-Civil War developments that saw freed slaves acquire the right to vote and to own property, only to see those historic advances obliterated by state laws and policies implementing poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and other discriminatory practices.

"All these things are reverberating throughout the community," he said. "And people who read history see a lot of similarities in all of this."

The fundamental question is: Can a black mayor who is not widely popular among black voters get the bulk of the black vote?

"The answer is yes," Nabonne said, "if blacks feel there are issues in play that are bigger than the mayor who happens to be in office. They could say, 'It's not about Ray.' "

Woods sees that possibility too, although he warns against reading pure racial loyalty into anyone's vote.

"There will be black people who will vote for Nagin who didn't vote for him before and who wouldn't be voting for him this time if it were not for the feeling that their city is being taken away," Woods said.

Constable Lambert Boissiere Jr., a former city councilman and state senator who ran for mayor in 1994, said there also is a degree of anxiety among black voters that putting a white mayor in office could thwart efforts to elect black candidates to other local posts.

"It's not often that you see an elected official win without the help of the mayor," Boissiere said. "We want to see continued support for some of the gains we've made.

"No one is saying that the mayor's office has to be held by an African-American. But you want to have some assurance that the mayor will have an open mind to supporting African-American candidates because that's the seat that controls so much financial support in this city."

The absentee factor

Even if black voters warm up to Nagin, questions remain about how many will vote, particularly among the tens of thousands spread across the country.

Though there's broad agreement among analysts that turnout among voters back in the city will be high, perhaps record-setting, there's less consensus about how many of the displaced will vote.

One school of thought holds that absentee voting will be kept relatively low by a couple of factors: Some evacuees have settled in other cities and have little intention, and in some cases little ability, to return to New Orleans and thus scant interest in the election. Meanwhile, those inclined to come back may be discouraged by the two-step process the law now prescribes: Absentee voters must first receive a request for a ballot, mail that in, wait for the ballot and then remember to send it in.

"With these obstacles to voting, if you're away, you have to be very motivated," said Susan Howell, a University of New Orleans political science professor. "The more barriers you put up, the more absentee voting is going to be limited to higher socioeconomic groups. For poorer people, it will be more difficult for them to surmount the obstacles."

But there's another line of thinking too: Many displaced New Orleanians will find other ways to vote. As usual, the election will be on a Saturday, and untold hundreds -- or perhaps thousands -- of the displaced already make regular trips to the city on weekends. Those people, whatever their numbers, are likely voters.

The exact manner in which the displaced will vote is still something of a moving target, but one that will have a huge effect on the election.

There is talk of mass efforts to mobilize and bus voters from major evacuee hubs -- Houston, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Dallas -- to New Orleans. The Legislature, meanwhile, is considering plans to set up New Orleans polling places in various locations around the state and possibly in cities outside Louisiana.

How those efforts will play out is unclear, but observers generally agree that costs may be prohibitive for candidates to reach far-flung voters because the media markets in Texas and Atlanta are some of the nation's most expensive. Those efforts will carry the risk of a low return on the dollar as well.

"I don't see a huge turnout of people who aren't here," said Ed Renwick, director of Loyola University's Institute of Politics. "Maybe 25 percent, or a third."

Well-financed incumbent

In part because of the wide dispersal of voters, money will be perhaps more important than ever in the effort to round up votes.

Though Nagin appears to have fallen out of favor with many of the city's big-money players, he already has $1.3 million in his war chest -- much of it from those same people -- and plans to conduct another fund-raiser soon. With the picture still fuzzy, some contractors who rely on City Hall for business may be forced to cover their bets and re-up for Nagin.

Also working in Nagin's favor is his universal name recognition, a celebrity that has only increased in Katrina's aftermath.

When it comes to fund raising, thus far only Landrieu and Forman appear capable of playing in Nagin's league.

Forman, who has long-standing ties with well-heeled patrons of the Audubon Institute, claims to have lined up commitments for $1.6 million with little effort. Landrieu, a former state legislator, has statewide contacts as a result of his run for lieutenant governor and, with his sister's help, is expected to tap into the national Democratic Party fund-raising apparatus.

Black challenger likely

Some theorize that the necessity of money -- and the difficulty of raising it in a field dotted with proven fund-raisers -- explains the lack thus far of a black challenger to Nagin.

That could well change. It's possible -- and some observers say likely -- that another credible black candidate will get into the race by the time qualifying closes on March 3, or much sooner.

The Rev. Tom Watson, a powerful black pastor who has been critical of Nagin, said Friday that he is "90 percent" sure he will run and will probably decide by Monday. Watson said much of his campaigning, should he run, will be done in cities with high numbers of evacuees. Others could follow.

Given Nagin's difficulties in wooing black voters in the past -- about 60 percent of the black vote either backed his runoff opponent, Richard Pennington, or stayed home four years ago -- even a cash-poor but well-known black candidate could well siphon a chunk of the black vote from him.

That would be particularly true if that candidate made a blunt appeal to black voters by questioning Nagin's Democratic Party loyalty, reminding voters, for instance, of his endorsement of Republican Bobby Jindal in the 2003 governor's race.

But should the current crop hold, and should the old patterns assert themselves, Nagin, as the only black candidate, would seem assured of a large slice of the black vote. That would make him a near-lock to make the May 20 runoff and a strong contender for re-election.

In what would be a first in New Orleans politics, Nagin also could lose an appreciable chunk of the black vote to white candidates. According to some analysts, there is a sizable element of the African-American electorate whose first priority is to vote against Nagin, whether or not the ultimate recipient of the vote is white or black.

Among white candidates, the likeliest magnet for black votes would be Landrieu. His father was the first New Orleans mayor to involve black people in city government in a substantive way, and both he and his sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, have shown an ability to attract widespread black support.

"The Landrieus have never done particularly well with white voters," Renwick said. "It's been largely support from the black community that has allowed them to win."

Meanwhile, Forman said he will make a serious play for black votes, though he'll probably have to work harder to persuade black voters that he's their candidate than will Landrieu.

"I would characterize (Forman's) base as fairly small and something of a silk-stocking base," Howell said. "He's clearly the superior fund-raiser, and he would be favored by many elements of the business community. But he also has sort of an aristocratic air that would not serve him well."

Howell said Forman's pledge to introduce prominent African-Americans as members of his proposed management team may help him beat back that image, one that Forman himself recognizes he must overcome.

Rebuilding plan an issue

A corollary to the fascinating racial ballet that is likely to imbue the campaign will be the rebuilding plan crafted by Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission: a plan whose reception also has tended to cleave along racial lines.

The plan, which has been controversial largely because of its call to reduce the city's footprint, seems likely to serve as the centerpiece issue around which the campaign will revolve. The plan drew rebukes from many black leaders and residents, in part because black sections of town were more apt to flood than white ones.

Nagin has scheduled several meetings to receive more feedback on certain aspects of the plan, and he already has killed its most controversial element: to enact a moratorium on building permits in flooded areas.

In the next two weeks, Nagin has said he will tweak the plan and forward it to the City Council, the City Planning Commission and the state for approval. This week Nagin said he supports most of its major elements, although he disagrees with its proposed use of eminent domain to buy out homeowners in the most shattered areas.

Meanwhile, Mitch Landrieu has said little publicly about the plan, while other candidates, including Peggy Wilson, have advanced their own rebuilding plans that do not use the Nagin plan as a touchstone.

Forman said this week that he will essentially adopt the plan, subject to minor revisions, as his blueprint for rebuilding. He'll attempt to distance himself from Nagin by positioning himself as the candidate best-suited to implement the plan.

Nagin: a new coalition

Nagin's response to the shifting sands of New Orleans' fractured political landscape may well dictate the course the election takes, but it's unclear how the mayor will adjust.

It seems likely that, to win, he'll have to assemble a different coalition than the one that carried him to victory four years ago.

That's OK with him, Nagin said, adding he has learned that political constituencies are "fluid." "There are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies," he said.

He has mused aloud about the racial implications of the suddenly crowded field of white candidates, saying he may try to tap into the fear and anger some black New Orleanians are expressing.

"It blows my mind that I would be sitting here as an African-American mayor facing, what is it, eight white candidates, at a time when we're in crisis, we're trying to recover and a significant portion of the African-American voting base is spread out all over the country," he said. "I think it's a power play of sorts. I think it's coordinated, and I think it's not what the city needs right now."

At the same time, Nagin said he has no plans to rewrite his message to target a different audience than the one that elected him last time. He prefers to view his constituency in economic rather than racial terms, saying he won the 2002 election because he had broad support from middle- and upper-income New Orleanians of all races. Even if the big-money crowd has abandoned him, most of the rest are still there, he said.

"I won the election based upon economics," he said. "We had an economic coalition. Anyone who earned $35,000 or $40,000 or above, we dominated: black, white, Asian, Hispanic. I think that coalition is still out there and available, and we're going to dominate it again."

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Gordon Russell can be reached at or (504) 826-3347. Frank Donze can be reached at or (504) 826-3328.