- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 13, 2010

NEW ORLEANS | The city’s black political base is one more victim of Hurricane Katrina. The storm decimated once-thriving black middle-class neighborhoods, undercutting efforts by black candidates to raise money and build voter support.

All of this is coming into play as the city readies to elect a successor to outgoing Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin. There’s a good chance his successor will be city’s first white mayor in three decades.

State Sen. Ed Murray, the most prominent black candidate in the race, has pulled out, acknowledging that it would have been difficult to beat Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, the scion of a prominent white state political family who have been popular among black voters.

While blacks still make up about 62 percent of the voter rolls, white candidates have gained traction since Katrina hit in 2005. Whites gained a 4-3 majority on the City Council in 2007, and a white district attorney was elected in 2008.

In the mayoral election, political analysts say race may be less of a factor as voters consider who can accelerate the city’s recovery from the storm and fight high local crime rates.

“I think African-Americans would prefer voting for an African-American, but one that they feel comfortable would do what has to be done,” said City Constable Lambert Boissiere Jr., a former City Council member who was among a generation of city black leaders who rose to power in the 1970s.

But for a candidate to convince voters he’ll get the job done, he has to know where to find them and what issues matter to them. Mr. Boissiere said that can be a challenge in some black middle-class enclaves and poor neighborhoods like the Lower 9th Ward, still struggling from the storm and only partially resettled.

“You don’t know how to reach them,” Mr. Boissiere said.

Many residents who scattered, disrupting neighborhood political networks, haven’t come back. The city’s overall population, about 450,000 before the storm, remains down by at least 100,000.

Those who have returned to their homes often have less money to contribute to black candidates, said Silas Lee, a professor of public policy at Xavier University who conducted polls for Mr. Murray. Mr. Lee said the storm exacerbated economic problems for many working- and middle-class blacks.

Local leaders often tout New Orleans’ racial harmony, but it has had its share of turmoil, noted Peter Burns, a professor of political science at Loyola University. Desegregation was followed by white flight to the suburbs in the 1960s, and blacks and whites have tended to favor different political candidates, he said.

Racial tensions were evident after Katrina struck, he added, as black residents feared that devastated low-income neighborhoods would not be redeveloped.

Mr. Nagin, who won with heavy white support in 2002, noted those fears as he courted black voters in the 2006 campaign. In January of that year, Mr. Nagin notoriously pledged that New Orleans would be a “chocolate city” again, offending many whites.

Mr. Murray’s departure leaves three lesser-known blacks to face Mr. Landrieu and millionaire white businessman John Georges. Mr. Nagin, who narrowly defeated Mr. Landrieu four years ago, is barred from seeking a third term.

The field for the Feb. 6 Democratic primary includes black businessman Troy Henry, who blasted reporters at a news conference this week for focusing on race.

“We have a long way to go, and I, for one, will not let this campaign be decided without a fight,” he said.

Mr. Murray said he foresaw an expensive, bruising runoff in March between himself and Mr. Landrieu.

“A heated run-off election between Mitch and I would probably become extremely racially divisive whether either of us intended it or not,” said a statement from Mr. Murray, who declined an interview request.

Other candidates include former state Judge Nadine Ramsey and fair housing advocate James Perry, both black, and white businessman Rob Couhig, the only major Republican candidate in the race.

The 49-year-old Mr. Landrieu is the son of the city’s last white mayor, Moon Landrieu, and the brother of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.

For James St. John, a 46-year-old white construction worker who moved to New Orleans from Georgia for Hurricane Katrina rebuilding, the mayor’s race is his second as a resident.

“Race is always going to be a factor in this city. It was last time. Nagin didn’t help the situation with his ‘chocolate city’ remark,” he said.

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