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press clipping
April 24, 2006
Vote for Mayor Points to Change in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS, April 23 — Mayor C. Ray Nagin may have led Saturday's mayoral election, but he now faces a popular and better-financed opponent on a political landscape utterly changed by Hurricane Katrina, one in which the long-running dominance of the city's black vote has been significantly reduced.

Black residents, whose neighborhoods were the most devastated by the storm, voted in much smaller numbers than whites did on Saturday, even more so than usual. White turnout is usually higher than black turnout, but the gap was about double what it is normally, analysts said Sunday.

As a result, most of the votes here were cast against Mr. Nagin, who is black, even though he came out on top in a crowded field, with 38 percent of the vote. If that trend holds, New Orleans will elect its first white mayor in nearly 30 years on May 20, when Mr. Nagin will face Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who got 29 percent, in a runoff.

If Mr. Landrieu receives two-thirds of the 30 percent received by the white candidates who finished behind him, Mr. Nagin's days as mayor will be over. Adding to his difficulties, Mr. Nagin must mobilize the citizens who were displaced from the city by Hurricane Katrina and who failed to turn out for Saturday's voting.

Against a backdrop of perennial declines in black voter participation here, that could turn out to be a challenge too great for the mayor's not inconsiderable political skills.

"He has to expand the electorate, and that's a big hurdle," said Susan Howell, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans. "Blacks displaced by Katrina, these people are going to be horribly difficult to reach."

Over all, the turnout was surprisingly good given the difficult circumstances; about 80 percent of voters who took part in the 2002 election cast ballots. But the gap was largely, though not exclusively, made up of blacks displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The turnout of registered voters — though not necessarily habitual voters — in black neighborhoods was about half that in white neighborhoods.

Relying on black voters who are already back here, or who managed to participate in the early-voting system set up for evacuees, may not be enough for Mr. Nagin. In some black precincts, particularly in the Lower Ninth Ward, turnout was down by a quarter or more from the previous election. Areas that did not flood, where the turnout was highest, were precisely the ones where Mr. Nagin fared the worst.

Another hurdle for Mr. Nagin is Mr. Landrieu's strength among blacks, over 20 percent of whom voted for the lieutenant governor, analysts said. He and Mr. Nagin won similar amounts of the 21,351 absentee votes. But Mr. Nagin got less than 10 percent of the overall white vote, a huge drop from the previous election, when he carried all the majority-white precincts. He has also lost much of the white financial support that helped propel him.

For months, civil rights leaders have vigorously fought holding an election here at all this spring, with as many as two-thirds of the citizens displaced. At the least, they argued in court and elsewhere, satellite voting centers should have been set up in neighboring states in addition to the ones set up around Louisiana.

But though logistical hurdles played a role in preventing some evacuees from voting, even Mr. Nagin's strategists said that a larger trend might be at work.

Jim Carvin, the mayor's veteran campaign consultant and the engineer of every successful mayoral campaign here since 1970, predicted that in the end blacks would rally to Mr. Nagin, while white voters who supported him in 2002 would come back to him. But Mr. Carvin said that much of the New Orleans diaspora, predominantly black, might be lost to the city for good.

"The challenge is to get more voters out of New Orleans," he said, arguing that looking elsewhere could be futile. "We have a good shot at that, as African-Americans tend to vote for African-Americans."

Mr. Carvin said he was surprised at the low turnout among blacks displaced by the storm. "I think it was a serious underparticipation, which would seem to indicate that a lot of these people are not coming back, so therefore why vote," he said. "They have jobs and residences. We may have lost them as a population."

He said Mr. Nagin might partly make up for that loss by attracting the white conservatives who supported two losing candidates Saturday. Yet that may be difficult.

Even before Mr. Nagin angered many whites with a speech in January predicting that the city would be "chocolate" once again, his previous base of support in the largely white Uptown neighborhoods here had begun to wither — a fact the now-infamous declaration may merely have recognized, since it appeared to be a bid for black support.

Whites here have tended to focus their disenchantment at the slow recovery more on Mr. Nagin than have blacks. And there is a widespread perception that Mr. Nagin's unguarded language — his tirade immediately after the storm, for instance — has cost him credibility in Washington. He has repeatedly shifted position on important issues, like the location of trailer parks. And he ignored the central recommendation of his own recovery commission, to hold off rebuilding in the most severely damaged areas.

White business leaders who supported him enthusiastically four years ago deserted him entirely in this election, throwing their support mostly to an Uptown business executive, Ron Forman, who won 17 percent of the vote. Now, some Uptowners who contributed to Mr. Forman say they will support Mr. Landrieu, albeit with some reluctance. In the State Legislature, where he served for 16 years, this scion of the state's leading political family did not earn high marks from the business lobby.

"I will probably support Landrieu, because he does after all represent some change," said Richard Currence, a Forman contributor, retired executive with an offshore oil services company and Uptown resident. "His record in the Legislature, for the business community, left a lot to be desired. People like me are going to have to swallow pretty hard. I've got to overcome that and say he's the guy of the two that can do a better job in leading the city out of the mess we're in."

In his speech after the voting Saturday, Mr. Nagin referred to two wealthy businessmen here who have previously backed him, Joseph C. Canizaro and Donald T. Bollinger, apparently in a renewed bid for the support of the business community.

True to his relaxed style, Mr. Nagin scheduled no campaign events Sunday, in contrast to Mr. Landrieu, who held a news conference at which he again emphasized what he considered the importance of the biracial coalition that supported him.

His campaign had sought to "not polarize or divide anyone," he said, and indeed, he largely avoided the central question of whether some neighborhoods should not be rebuilt. He had tried to represent "all segments of the population," he said. "African-Americans and whites have supported this candidacy."

At a time when citizens here are angry at elected officials at all levels, Mr. Landrieu said he hoped to win back the full city's confidence. "My job is to earn the trust of all New Orleans voters," he said.

That festering anger will not help Mr. Nagin, among whites or blacks. "The incumbent right now, he looks like he's lost the grasp to get this city moving," said Walter Ennis, a black insurance adjuster who said he voted for Mr. Landrieu on Saturday.