In Big Easy, a race for mayoral competence

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In the New Orleans mayoral runoff, it's black vs. white: sitting Mayor Ray Nagin (infamous for his God-wants-a-chocolate-city remark) vs. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, son of the last white mayor. Given the Big Easy's struggle with racial tension, it makes a person want to close their eyes and plead: Please, don't make this race be about race.

Last time around, in 2002, no whites bothered to run. African-Americans have held the mayorship since 1978. It's not surprising then, that the local press reports that some whites feel their time has come - especially since hurricane Katrina has radically changed the demographics of the city, with many African-Americans landing in far-off places (in some cases in a better life) and not returning.

Saturday's primary vote broke strongly along racial lines for Mr. Nagin, with his support coming almost exclusively from blacks. An unhealthy concern has surfaced among some voters that they won't be heard unless they're represented by a person of their race. As a Nagin voter told Monitor reporter Kris Axtman: A lot of black people think, "If we don't put an African-American back in office, we're going to be forgotten."

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Race is vitally important to the May 20 runoff if it means dealing with issues of concern to African- Americans, whites, and other racial groups. Katrina rained down misery on all races, but it disproportionately affected blacks. In a city where blacks made up two-thirds of the population, 75 percent of people living in the flood-damaged areas were African-Americans. In undamaged areas, the majority of residents was white. The damaged areas had mostly renters and about a third of the residents were poor.

Blacks, then, are most worried about post-Katrina affordable housing and basic public services such as schools and healthcare. The current lack of these, plus blacks' distant locations and tight finances, work against their reentry - and threaten the city's rich cultural heritage.

"Blacks are feeling different pressures than whites," explains Tulane University political scientist Brian Brox. "More of them were evacuated, and more of them are worried about getting back and salvaging. Many whites have already returned and are rebuilding." In less damaged areas, immediate concerns focus on contractors, congestion, garbage pickup.

Meeting these varied concerns is a matter of competence, not race. Judging the candidates that way, Nagin, a Democrat, cut his chops on Katrina, and says he's in the better position to handle the next big one. But while he won the most votes Saturday, 62 percent rejected him. Mr. Landrieu, also a Democrat, is known for political connections to the state capital and Washington, where his sister is a senator for Louisiana. Those political ties could be key to securing rebuilding funds.

A main Landrieu message is that the city's diversity is its strength. That helped him gain nearly a quarter of the black vote. If Nagin hopes to win, he'll have to do a better job at wooing whites, who backed him and his pro-business agenda last time.

Crossover voting such as Landrieu got, and such potential voting for Nagin, could help unite New Orleans, no matter who wins. It would indicate that capability, not skin color, was the driving factor with voters - a welcome scenario.

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