Big Easy heads into a runoff race

Mayor Ray Nagin faces Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu on May 20. Will the focus be on issues or race?

New Orleanians sent a clear message Saturday that they want experienced leadership in their time of crisis when they sent both incumbent Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu to a runoff on May 20.

"Voters are saying that they want someone capable of operating a government, someone who is steady at the helm," says Brian Brox, an assistant professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans. "And considering the challenge to the city right now, I don't think that's a fact that should surprise anyone."

There's a lot of work yet to be done in the next month, political analysts agree. But the dynamics of the mayoral race will change dramatically.

"It will be a whole new campaign for the runoff," says Silas Lee, a New Orleans-based pollster who has worked for Nagin in prior elections.

Voting-rights advocates, for instance, will have another month to organize those who are still displaced - many of whom are African-American. One group, the Industrial Areas Foundation, is working on its goal of signing up 35,000 voters by May 20.

The primary election was the result of an unprecedented effort by the secretary of State to reach voters, half of whom have not yet returned to the city. Of the city's almost 300,000 registered voters, more than 20,000 cast ballots early by mail, fax, or at satellite voting stations around the state - 10 times a normal election turnout.

With all the precincts reporting, Mayor Nagin took 38 percent of the vote, short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. His closest rival, Lt. Governor Landrieu, took 29 percent.

The two businessmen in the race, Ron Forman or Rob Couhig, both political newcomers, were the next largest vote getters, with 17 percent and 10 percent respectively.

Now, Landrieu, who is white, and Nagin, who is black, will need to sway residents who voted for Forman or one of the other 20 candidates. And it's unclear whether they will focus on the issues or on race, says Brox.

"Nagin's support has come overwhelmingly from the African-American community. It will be interesting to see to what degree he will try to reach out to white voters, particularly those who didn't vote for Landrieu," he says.

Katherine Penberthy, a second-year law student at Tulane University, is one of those. She was first in line at 6 a.m. at her polling place in the Lower Garden District. She says it was a tough decision, but she voted for Forman in the primary because "he's a new voice and, based on experience, he gets things done."

Though she likes Nagin, and thinks he's done a good job, "he turned off a lot of people in Washington. The money is just not moving down here as swiftly as it should."

After attending a candidate debate at Tulane, she says she ruled out Landrieu because "he's too deep into the politics of Louisiana, too smooth an operator."

Isaiah Webster III, however, says he voted for Landrieu for just that reason. "I want someone with an inside track to Washington. Landrieu has years of political connections, he's a former state legislator, and his sister is a [US senator]."

Walking away from the elementary school in the Lower Garden District where he cast his ballot, Mr. Webster adds, "In any other year, you'd consider a Ron Forman or a Ray Nagin, but not this year."

Most of the homes in this area had little water damage, and the majority of its residents are back. Across the city in Gentilly, close to Lake Pontchartrain, most of the homes were destroyed, and many residents are still displaced.

That did not stop voters from coming. The University of New Orleans was among the busiest polling sites on Saturday, and most who arrived were African-Americans.

Many wondered about the African-American voter turnout this year - especially because most who have returned to the city are white. But it seems clear that many did not want to be left out of the electoral process.

"African-American voters had solid turnout," says Brox.

For instance, Leslie Taylor Sr. and his family, displaced in a suburb of Houston, drove 5-1/2 hours to vote at the University of New Orleans. Mr. Taylor says they want to come home, and thinks Nagin can get them here the fastest.

He's adamant that now is not the time for a leadership change in New Orleans. "Nagin made the right decisions, and he's still making the right decisions. He stood up to who he needed to stand up to - even the president. So what's the problem? Don't fix what ain't broke."

Taylor says that Nagin got a "bad rap" for his comments in January about how God wanted New Orleans to be "a chocolate city."

"But he was just expressing the desires of the majority of the residents," says Taylor.

Jarrod Carter, who also voted for Nagin, feels the same way. "His comments may have been a mistake, but he was expressing the concerns of a lot of black people. They think, if we don't put an African-American back in office, we're going to be forgotten."

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