THE hundreds of political signs dotting the lawns of the mostly working class and poor residences here confirm not only that New Orleans is one of the most intensely political cities in the country, but also that it is facing a mayor's race that nearly everyone agrees is of pivotal importance.
``People are looking at this election as a watershed event,'' said James Brandt, executive director of the Bureau of Governmental Research.
His private think tank studies how local government works in New Orleans. ``Not only will it bring us a new mayor, but we'll get a new city council, too, and together they'll face the problem of dealing with our first-ever casino and the growing problems of poverty and violence in New Orleans. This election is going to be for many a great divide,'' Mr. Brandt says.
Runoff seen necessary
Although the mayoral primary is set for this Saturday, Feb. 5, a large field of well-known and highly competitive contenders makes it virtually certain that the ultimate winner won't be known until a runoff election that would be held on March 5.
``The prevailing feeling right now is that most people are thoroughly confused,'' says Susan Howell, a political pollster with the University of New Orleans. ``You have seven viable candidates and four of them have strong, positive public images. So the decisionmaking process is going to be pretty tough for a lot of people.''
Despite that confusion, however, a poll released by Ms. Howell last week showed two candidates in the all-Democratic field out front: state Senator Marc Morial, son of New Orleans's first black mayor, Ernest ``Dutch'' Morial, with 24 percent; and businessman and lawyer Donald Mintz, who was a top contender in the last mayor's race in 1990, just marginally behind at 22 percent.
Two other polls reported quite similar findings, and also showed the five other candidates in single digits.
Central to all of the candidates' strategies during these final days before the election is the subject of race, or more directly, the question of how many people in this city of nearly 500,000 will ``cross over'' and vote for a candidate whose skin color is different from their own?
``The candidate with the most significant crossover vote wins the election, it's that simple,'' said John Grimm, president of Multi-Quest International, a local marketing survey firm.
``And so far, none of the candidates have really strong racial crossover numbers,'' he adds.
With voter-registration numbers showing blacks at almost 60 percent and whites at about 40 percent, New Orleans has elected black mayors over white competitors in four consecutive elections, going back to 1978 when the elder Morial won an upset victory.
But because of the severe challenges facing New Orleans - including its weak manufacturing base, high levels of poverty, and a population that is increasingly departing for the suburbs, leaving behind more than 30,000 abandoned houses - many analysts believe voters this year are more interested in finding the best candidate for the job, regardless of skin color.
``We are seeing that the top two candidates might get some crossover support if they face each other in the runoff election,'' said Howell.
Indeed, her most recent survey shows that if Mr. Mintz, who is white, ends up facing Mr. Morial in the runoff, he could get up to 23 percent of the black vote, while Morial would snare 1 percent of the ballots cast by whites. Another survey, this one by Loyola University's Institute of Politics, showed that Mintz had three times as much support among black voters as Morial did among whites.
But in a campaign that is seeing the seven candidates combined spending more than $2 million, mostly to pay for increasingly sharp TV ads criticizing their opponents for various alleged misdeeds, the remaining contenders believe they might still score a major upset victory this time around, with or without crossover voters.
``The race isn't over, anything can still happen,'' said Mitch Landrieu, also a state senator, whose father, Maurice ``Moon'' Landrieu, a white liberal revered by many here for appointing blacks to top city jobs when he was mayor in the 1970s. In most polls, Mr. Landrieu places a distant third.
Officials with the still-powerful neighborhood political organizations here, however, believe state representative Sherman Copelin, one of the first black political leaders of the 1970s and a product of one of the city's most powerful neighborhood organizations, may pull off the surprise of the year by winning a spot in the runoff.
Although Mr. Copelin has won high marks for waging a tough anti-crime campaign, echoing the ``Three strikes and you're out'' rallying cry against convicted felons favored by politicos across the country recently, he is viewed suspiciously by many because of charges of bribe-taking and influence-peddling going back to the early 1980s. ``He's the only candidate in the race with significantly high negatives,'' said UNO's Howell.
Copelin's hopes for winning rest partly on the ability of his own organization, the Southern Organization for the Unified Leadership (SOUL), which in past elections has marshalled up to 2,000 workers to get out the vote in some of New Orleans' toughest precincts.
Copelin believes that his support is greater than generally believed, because he says many people, taking note of his controversial past, won't admit to pollsters they want to vote for him. According to the polls, he is running third in the race, just behind Mintz and Morial, and is just points away from making the runoff.
The three remaining contenders are given little chance of winning. Lambert Boissiere, a 12-year veteran of the city council, is identified with the unpopular current mayor, Sidney Barthelemy (D).
Both men have been allies for years, but because Barthelemy has a dismal approval rating - under 25 percent - that friendship is seen by some as a liability. Assessor Ken Carter and businessman Roy Raspanti have both issued detailed position papers on the major issues of the day, but have still yet to score more than 5 percent in recent polls.
Power of the mayor
Despite the many problems facing New Orleans, contenders for the top spot say they are attracted to the job because the mayor here has more power than in most other major cities.
``The mayor of New Orleans is able to issue contracts, make all of the appointments, have veto power, and the authority to submit a budget, while the city council has limited authority to amend it,'' says Brandt of the Bureau of Governmental Research.
The mayor of New Orleans is also paid $85,000 a year, gets a chauffered car, bodyguards, and a staff of at least 250 under his direct control.
``It's a powerful job and that power can be put to good use by a person who knows what to do with it,'' says Mintz, who frequently reminds listeners of his 1960s civil-rights activism in his attempts to win what for him will be crucial black support.
``That's why everyone in this city is so interested in this race,'' he adds.