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Four years after Katrina, who will lead New Orleans?

Residents in the Big Easy turn their attention to a mayor's race that so far is short on candidates.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 28, 2009

‘Hands down, this is the most important election in the history of New Orleans.’– Robert LaGrange, shipping agent

Patrik Jonsson

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Just outside Lee Harvey Oswald's old New Orleans apartment, Harold Cavilliere pauses as he places an assortment of hats on a wrought-iron fence as part of his weekly Saturday yard sale along Magazine Street.

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With the qualifying date for the mayoral election only three months away, who is the right man or woman to free New Orleans from its history of racial politics and lead the city out of hurricane Katrina's shadow?

"To be honest, I have no idea," the World War II vet says, shaking his head.

This is a befuddling moment for the Crescent City. As of Saturday, the storm that New Orleanians simply call "The Thing" is exactly four years in the rearview mirror. This is a moment of opportunity, some say. The next mayor will "lay a foundation for ... the next 50 to 100 years," says city council president Arnie Fielkow. Yet so far, there are only four contenders – all relative unknowns.

For potential candidates, the challenges, it would seem, are outweighing the opportunities. Chronic City Hall infighting, high crime, an unfinished levee system, a dearth of private investment, potholed streets, and a tradition of racial distrust makes the mayor's office a daunting prospect. The situation has become so desperate that some citizens have tried to draft actor Brad Pitt – who runs a charity in New Orleans – as a candidate.

On the fourth anniversary of Katrina, the mayor's race that few appear willing to join has become inseparable with this grand old city's hopes to overcome the challenges of its recent and distant past.

"Hands down, this is the most important election in the history of New Orleans," says Robert LaGrange, a shipping agent sitting on his porch near the Mississippi River in the Bywater district.

But so far, there is no bustle to replace unpopular Mayor Ray Nagin. The lack of fundraising at this point in the race is "highly surprising," especially since candidates need at least $2 million and New Orleanians' purse strings are tight, says former mayoral candidate Jim Singleton.

To be sure, the Nagin years have given mayoral aspirants pause. His support has dipped to 24 percent amid a series of scandals and unrealized proposals. City Hall is fighting him at every turn. The stalemate is such that at least two of the candidates elected in 2006 on a platform of reforming New Orleans' dysfunctional politics have already announced they're leaving their seats out of frustration.

"If you listen to some people, they just feel like [the situation] is so screwed up and messed up they don't know if they want to come in and get involved," says Mr. Singleton.

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