- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, matched in the May 20 runoff for mayor of New Orleans, each claimed the advantage yesterday in Saturday’s vote, with both men entering the final campaign scrambling for endorsements of the other top-five finishers.

Mr. Nagin finished first and claimed the momentum of the front-runner, and Mr. Landrieu trumpeted the fact that more than 60 percent of the voters voted against the incumbent.

“The people, the people have said they like the direction we’re going in, and we have run No. 1,” Mr. Nagin said late Saturday night at his election party.

Mr. Landrieu argued that only he can unite the racially polarized city because he’s the only one “left standing” of the 21 candidates who challenged Mr. Nagin.

“We have said loudly and clearly that we will push off the forces of division and that we will find higher, common ground than we tried to find on that fateful day, Aug. 29 … . We were in the same boat then, and we are in the same boat now,” Mr. Landrieu said Saturday. Yesterday, he added a footnote: “This great American city cries out for change.”

The mayor ran first with 41,489 votes, or 38 percent, and Mr. Landrieu was second with 31,499 votes, or 29 percent.

More than 36 percent of the 297,112 registered voters participated in Saturday’s election, with 108,177 ballots cast. Those numbers are down from the election four years ago, in which 131,477 New Orleanians, or about 45 percent of the 296,629 registered voters, cast ballots.

Political pollster Ed Renwick says he expects a close result on May 20 and suggests that both men will claim the votes that went to other candidates with difficulty, particularly those of third-place finisher Ron Forman, who drew 18,734 votes, or 18 percent, and Robert Couhig, who garnered 10,287, or 10 percent. Only one other candidate got more than 1 percent of the vote.

“Forman’s vote is virtually all white, and those voters are angry and will want to see immediate changes, as I suspect was Couhig’s,” Mr. Renwick said. “Nagin has to convince those voters he can do that. And Landrieu has to convince blacks that he can represent them, so it’s not going to be some snap operation.”

Mr. Nagin has one edge in the endorsement game. Mr. Forman’s wife, Sally, was the mayor’s communications director before resigning to help her husband, and she indicated Saturday night that she is still a strong supporter of the current mayor.

“Ray has done a wonderful job. And as far as the ‘chocolate city’ remarks, you know I took it as him being in the heat of the moment with all that was going on, and I know he is not a racist. He just made a mistake, and we should all be allowed to make mistakes, and I forgave him,” Mrs. Forman said after her husband conceded that he would not make the runoff.

Nevertheless, tradition and arithmetic suggest that Mr. Nagin will be bucking the odds. Runoffs, particularly in the South, are usually lethal for incumbents. If an incumbent can’t win a majority in the first round, history suggests that he can’t win a runoff. Turnout is usually lower in the runoff, further diluting the incumbent’s appeal, though New Orleans, with chaos and uncertainty the only certainty, may present a special case.

In the two debates here, Mr. Forman readily attacked Mr. Landrieu, but rarely directed any questions or criticism at Mr. Nagin.

Mr. Nagin was particularly hurt among white voters, who gave him 85 percent of their vote in 2002, by his remark in a speech before displaced residents in Houston, that God wants New Orleans, whose population of 479,000 was about 70 percent black before Hurricane Katrina, to be a “chocolate city” again. He retracted the remark as being “off the cuff” and retracted it again at a debate before the election, saying he had been trying to inspire a largely black crowd.

A GCR & Associates analysis of demographic data in the Saturday election for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority suggests that Mr. Nagin won less than 10 percent of the vote in predominantly white precincts.

The election, which included races for seven City Council and tax assessors seats, as well as positions for civil and criminal court clerk and sheriff, originally was scheduled for Feb. 4, but was postponed because of the damage and dislocation caused by Katrina.

Civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, have called the election unfair and said it should have been postponed again, but a black federal judge upheld the Saturday date. At a press conference yesterday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said he would challenge the election in court regardless of who wins. None of the candidates had indicated in the last two days that they would.

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