- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Twenty-two men and women are trying to be elected mayor of New Orleans on Saturday, but only two — Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu — are regarded as serious contenders in the city’s first post-Hurricane Katrina election.

The 20 other candidates are taking shots mostly at the mayor, but many New Orleanians think he will prevail, perhaps in a squeaker. The race has become mean and nasty; the moderator of a televised debate this week threatened to shut off the microphone of one candidate for intemperate remarks.

The Rev. Tom Watson, a black minister, told the mayor: “You drowned 1,200 people. I rebuke you.” He further rebuked the mayor for his apology after he promised that New Orleans would almost remain “a chocolate city.” Snapped the minister: “Don’t ever apologize for being a black man.”

Another candidate, Peggy Wilson, a member of the City Council, accused the mayor of denigrating the hundreds of Mexicans who have poured into New Orleans to assist in cleanup and reconstruction in the absence of those — unnamed — who she said “don’t want to come back to work.”

Replied the mayor: “I don’t even know how to answer that. Which category do they fall in to you? Pimps? Welfare queens?”

Most of the candidates agree on some of the most pressing issues — term limits, reducing the number of tax assessors, merging the criminal and civil sheriff’s offices, restricting the number of downtown gambling casinos, and permanently closing Charity Hospital, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

So, in the Louisiana tradition, it comes down to personalities: the mayor’s and Mr. Landrieu, the son of a prominent and popular Louisiana political family.

The Landrieus, says one voter, “are like the Kennedys down here. The Landrieus have done a lot for people down here.”

Despite the devastation of the storm and the mistakes made in the evacuation from Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Nagin’s appeal as a pro-business political reformer is largely intact. Mr. Landrieu is counting on his family legacy.

John Williams, 72, a retired oil rigger who is working with his son to dismantle the damaged interiors of houses, including his own, in the black neighborhoods of the 9th Ward, traces his loyalty to Moon Landrieu, the mayor he grew to love and respect when he was about “35 or 40” years younger. The lieutenant governor is the former mayor’s son, and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat, is the former mayor’s daughter. Mr. Williams talks about them as if they were family friends, not remote politicians.

The loyalties to the mayor and the lieutenant governor spell out an age divide that could tip the election, says Loyola University professor and political pollster Ed Renwick.

“When Moon became mayor in 1969, he sought black votes and vowed to put blacks in appointed positions as department heads,” said Mr. Renwick. “He got about 95 percent of the black vote, and he put more than one black person in Cabinet positions, opening the door of politics to blacks for the first time.”

This legacy has served the Landrieu family well in New Orleans and throughout the state.

“But if you are talking about those folks 30 and younger, they wouldn’t know the history of that, and it would play no role in their votes,” Mr. Renwick says.

Louisiana has an open primary system in which all candidates compete against one another; the top vote-getter must have more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. This year’s crowded field makes it likely no one will break the 50 percent barrier, ensuring a May 20 battle between the top two vote-getters.

Despite the displacement by Katrina, registration is up slightly from the 2002 election with 297,112 of the estimated 470,000 pre-Katrina population registered to vote, says Jennifer Murasak.

In the election four years ago, 131,477 New Orleanians, or about 45 percent of the 296,629 registered voters, cast ballots.

“I can live with Ray Nagin being re-elected because he was a reformer, and I am for good government,” says Eugene New, 47, a 22-year medical administrator forced into early retirement after his company left town after Hurricane Katrina hit.

“I think he could have done a better job during the hurricane, but I think there was incompetence across the board, and you can’t just blame him.”

Mr. Nagin is applauded for staying in the city throughout the devastation, consoling and comforting residents.

“When Ray Nagin sent his family out of town, he could have gone, too, but he was here stuck and stranded like the rest of us and he was among the first people we saw making sure people were OK,” says Sandra Ricard, a former housewife and mother of two daughters who now works in a French Quarter hotel.

Helen McMiller, 71, a retired teacher, considered voting for Mr. Landrieu: “I like Mitch.” But she sent back her absentee ballot checked for Mr. Nagin. “Mitch’s father was an excellent mayor and we love them, but Ray never experienced nothing like this before. He deserves another chance.”

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