Big Easy backs Nagin, ready to rebuild

New Orleans reelects its mayor. But with 48 percent favoring his opponent, doubts linger over his leadership.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Residents of New Orleans eschewed political dynasty in favor of consistency in crisis when they reelected Mayor C. Ray Nagin in a close runoff Saturday.

The struggling city will now be able to focus on the recovery plans already laid out by Mayor Nagin - and forge ahead with them.

Rebuilding New Orleans, one of the largest reconstruction projects in United States history, cannot be accomplished in a four-year term, but Nagin now has the confidence to continue on course.

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"This election is over and it's time for this community to start the healing process," the former cable executive said in his acceptance speech Saturday night.

Nagin won with 52 percent of the vote to Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu's 48 percent.

During the election, there was a lot of focus on the candidates' rebuilding proposals, the upcoming hurricane season, and the campaign's racial undercurrents, but ultimately the election was decided on very New Orleans-centric reasons, says Brian Brox, an assistant political science professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Mr. Landrieu comes from an old Louisiana political family and last-minute television ads by Nagin expressed the concern of returning to "the old machine, the old political family," he says, "and that Nagin was actually a vote for change."

Voters also wanted experience, says Professor Brox - and no one has more experience post-hurricane Katrina than Nagin.

Gwendolyn Pettis, who is back in her Uptown home, is one of those who voted for the mayor for just that reason. "He knows the system and can do things real fast," she said.

A key to his win was the number of white voters Nagin was able to attract since the primary, says Susan Howell, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans.

"He has always been the more conservative, business-oriented candidate," she says, "and there obviously was a good number of white voters who viewed Landrieu as the traditional liberal candidate that he is and went with Nagin."

In addition, displaced voters were a great help in reelecting the mayor.

At a rally on Saturday in front of City Hall, a group of about 350 displaced voters who had been bused in from Houston broke into loud applause when Nagin arrived to address the crowd. Landrieu, however, was barely acknowledged upon his arrival.

The Industrial Areas Foundation Katrina Survivors Network - one of the rally's sponsors - delivered more than 10,000 voters to the polls, through absentee balloting, bus trips, and block walking.

"We proved that face-to-face conversations with people make a difference - and have the ability to change an election profoundly," says Broderick Bagert, with the Industrial Areas Foundation.

More than 25,000 ballots were cast early by mail or fax or at satellite polling places set up around Louisiana - 5,000 more than were cast early in the primary. Almost 115,000 total votes were cast, behind the 130,000 ballots collected when Nagin first became mayor in 2002.

Many of those who voted for Landrieu acknowledged that they didn't think the lieutenant governor would have done any better post-Katrina.

Ronnie Brenner, a social worker who voted at a fire station on Magazine Street, is one of those. While she appreciates how hard it was for Nagin given the circumstances, she doesn't think he understands that New Orleans is a national problem that needs a national leader.

She wanted the city's mayor to have more political clout and more of a national presence, and Nagin's Martin Luther King Day comments about how God wants New Orleans to be a "chocolate city" proved to her that he has not fully grasped that.

He is too easygoing and not tactful enough - especially given the severity of the situation, says Ms. Brenner. "We need someone who speaks more articulately, and I don't think Nagin represents himself in a way that best serves the people."

Because Nagin came out of the primary as the underdog, Dr. Howell believes Saturday's win is a testament to his "personal appeal and unscripted, spontaneous style."

For Gene Luke, a designer, the issue was more about the pace of progress than politics or personal style. He voted for Landrieu because "I don't think the city has progressed enough in eight months, and there are people who are still waiting to come home. Things in New Orleans are moving slower than in parts of Mississippi that were damaged worse."

But Felicia Carter-Simmons, who bought a home in Slidell, La., after her home in east New Orleans was destroyed, thinks Nagin is headed in the right direction and she doesn't see a need for change.

"He was here during the storm and did the best he could," she said. "Everybody's blaming him for what went wrong, but he should be given a chance to finish what he started."

Though his "Mitch for Mayor" T-shirt was turned inside out because of state law, it was clear who Troy Gant voted for as he walked out of the same polling site.

Mr. Gant says he was leaning toward voting for Nagin after his "chocolate city" comments because he believes an African-American in office would help raise the profile of African-Americans in need.

"But he began backpeddling right away when he should have stood up and said, 'You heard me right.' That right there showed me he has no strength, no backbone," says Gant.

While many African-Americans deny that their votes were cast along racial lines, jazz trumpeter Porgy Jones says, "you can't get around that. We have a racial problem that was brought to the surface because of Katrina, and we need to sit down and talk about it. And whoever is mayor has to deal with us as a unit, not split us up and divide us. New Orleans cannot exist as a divided city."

So Mr. Jones, whose waterlogged home in Gentilly is partially livable, voted for Landrieu in hopes that he would do better re-creating the "gumbo culture" that makes New Orleans so unique.

"But one thing's for certain, it ain't gonna be fun for whoever wins."

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