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.

Patrik Jonsson
‘Hands down, this is the most important election in the history of New Orleans.’– Robert LaGrange, shipping agent
Patrik Jonsson
‘Black, red, yellow, green, or white – at this point I don’t care.’– Joseph ‘Smokey’ Johnson, Upper Ninth Ward resident
Judi Bottoni/AP
Gabriel Harvey (l.), co-owner of The Storyville Shop, listens to customer Stephanie Schneller prior to purchasing 'Brad Pitt for Mayor' T-shirts at the store in New Orleans on August 13.

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.

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.

Mr. Nagin arguably made his Sisyphean task harder when he declared that post-Katrina New Orleans would remain a "chocolate city." The comment was, at least in part, a simple acknowledgment of reality that African-Americans still cast 60 percent of votes in New Orleans. But it stoked old racial divisions.

"I'm white and you're telling me I'm nothing," French Quarter resident Paul Bordelon remembers thinking.

Since 1978, every mayor has been black – or, in New Orleans parlance, mixed-race Creoles. But there is a sense that politics might be changing here.

Some 64 percent of New Orleanians say they want a mayor with "political connections." This might sound like a step backward – toward backroom politics. But to political consultant Greg Rigamer, who advises nearly all New Orleans candidates, it suggests a post-Katrina desire to find someone who can navigate the federal bureaucracy, the prickly relationship with Baton Rouge (the city's main patron), and New Orleans' own political spiderwebs.

Perhaps most significant, Mr. Rigamer says, it also suggests an apparent willingness to look beyond race.

He points to the fact that the city council is now majority-white, and last year's district attorney race ended in a runoff between two white candidates. An all-white runoff "seemed most impossible," Rigamer says.

But the mayor's office is still the most symbolic office in a city where tradition and patronage reign. At stake are thousands of city jobs held mostly by blacks.

"I'm still skeptical that someone who is white can win," says Peter Burns, a political science professor at Loyola University. "It's a [tough] sell in a city with such a history of exclusion of blacks by whites [before the 1970s]."

Businessman and former gubernatorial candidate John Georges is undaunted. "I know we can elect a white mayor," he says. "When you talk about the African-American community, it's an issue of trust. For the white community, it's honesty and integrity."

Saying all those values are in short supply at City Hall, Upper Ninth Ward resident Joseph "Smokey" Johnson, Fats Domino's old drummer, agrees with Mr. Georges: "Black, red, yellow, green, or white – at this point I don't care."

Georges has not yet formally announced, but he confirmed to the Monitor that he will join the race this fall. Mr. Fielkow, the city council president, who is also white and says he'll announce his intentions by Labor Day, believes the opportunity to play a historic role in New Orleans' future will ultimately outweigh the risks for many potential candidates.

"It should excite anybody who wants to put their hat into the ring," he says. "You'll truly have an opportunity to make a difference in people's lives."

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