- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2006

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — High heels echoing, Ruby Ducre-Gethers crosses the floor of her airy but unlivable home — ear on her cell phone, eyes on the workers replacing her flooded-out walls, and mind on payback at the ballot box.

Across town, Irma Williams says the election for mayor Saturday isn’t truly an election without her neighbors to vote, but it is past time for street lamps to work outside her temporary trailer.

Alex Beard wakes up 1,000 miles away and reads the New Orleans newspaper online, following each day’s campaign news convinced that the storm brought a chance to rescue the city he adopted and then reluctantly fled.

Some people in New Orleans are angry about the government response to Hurricane Katrina and want to render judgment as the city casts ballots for mayor, City Council and most every other elected official, from sheriff to assessor. Many want to look ahead.

But trumping all that as the election approaches, race — and all the history that comes with it here — has become the defining line for this election, dividing the city by neighborhood and color.

Any verdict on Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s leadership, or any of the proposals to move forward, has been swallowed up by recriminations, paranoia and anger. There is fear, and hope, that the city may elect its first white mayor in three decades.

The election is vehemently challenged by those who say it should be postponed until more of those who left in the city’s diaspora — more likely black and more likely poor — can find their way back. But early voting, so far, mostly reflects the racial demographics of pre-Katrina New Orleans.

The logistics alone present an unprecedented challenge, like everything else that Katrina left behind — 100,000 voters or more scattered across the country, the mystery of how many actually will vote, and potential crowds and confusion if voters flock back to the city for the election.

Mr. Nagin won in 2002 as a black candidate supported by the white business community. His toughest opponent was the black police chief.

Now, his most serious challengers are two white men. Before the storm, blacks, with 70 percent of the population, were the decisive vote. The last white mayor, Moon Landrieu, stepped down in 1978.

Everyone uses the city’s geography to talk about race: Uptown and the French Quarter are the mostly white neighborhoods that survived with less damage; the 9th Ward, Central City and New Orleans East are the majority black neighborhoods that suffered the storm’s brunt.

Mr. Nagin’s white challengers say race doesn’t matter. They are:

• Mitch Landrieu, the son of the last white mayor, brother to a U.S. senator and himself the lieutenant governor. He has reached out to those burned by Mr. Nagin’s rebuilding commission, which proposed not rebuilding some low-lying neighborhoods. His family has traditionally reached across racial lines.

• Ron Forman, who built a can-do reputation with his oversight of the city’s Audubon Zoo and construction of a downtown aquarium. In the public arena for decades, he has made powerful alliances without ever going before the public for a vote. The city’s newspaper, the Times-Picayune, endorsed him.

The city has revamped its voting system, reducing about 300 polling sites to 93 “mega” sites, to try to make the process more efficient. Absentee ballots are going to Baton Rouge.

Advocates are busing out-of-state evacuees to polling centers set up across Louisiana, and the state has expanded deadlines for absentee ballots. Still, many worry that the city’s mail problems will lead to lost votes and complain that the state should have set up voting centers in places such as Houston and Atlanta.

Early voting, which ended a week before election day, drew 9,213 ballots by midday Thursday. The racial breakdown is roughly the same as New Orleans before Katrina: One-third white, two-thirds black and 2 percent declaring themselves “other.” So far, 14,760 voters had requested mail-in ballots.

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