- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Mayor C. Ray Nagin says a victory in tomorrow’s election will send a message on race that “will echo throughout America.”

“This election will say in spite of American prejudice, I was able to attract votes from all races and classes and move forward with the process of healing,” said Mr. Nagin, who has hinted that whites locally and nationally are working to unseat him from the post, which blacks have held for nearly 30 years.

Mr. Nagin questions the source of “$6 million” that opponent Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu has raised, hinting at an effort to return the city to the “good-old-boy system,” and says Hurricane Katrina exposed the soft underbelly of race and class in America.

“I have said this before publicly that if this had been South Beach Miami or Orange County, I’ll bet you a dollar that the response would have been different,” said Mr. Nagin, who was elected in 2002 with 85 percent of the white vote.

Mr. Landrieu, whose father was the city’s last white mayor, says this election provides an opportunity to deal with race and class in a unique way nationally.

He said the tightly contested runoff election will turn on whether “African-Americans [will] vote for white politicians and will whites vote for black ones.”

“You can’t win anymore with an all-black vote or an all-white vote,” Mr. Landrieu said.

Voters here, regardless of whom they support, agree that there are a lot of lessons to be learned about race, class and politics from the aftermath of Katrina.

Morris Reid, Democratic political analyst and former adviser to the Clinton administration, said the real story is whether black New Orleanians will stand up and take advantage of the voting rights that their parents and grandparents fought and, in some cases, died to get.

“These [black] folks were relying on a government and a democracy that they didn’t participate in, and when they went to cash the check at the political bank, it was bankrupt because they never deposited any money there,” Mr. Reid said, referring to the slow hurricane response by local, state and federal officials.

For Robert Richardson, 52, a construction maintenance worker and resident of the Ninth Ward, a largely black neighborhood crushed by the flooding, Mr. Nagin has become part of the problem and is in bed with the developers.

“There is no national conspiracy; it’s a land grab, not a white power grab. It’s a shame when things like this come down to race, and I hate to say it, but it looks like Landrieu might be the one who will work with us,” Mr. Richardson said.

Jimmie Perry, 57, a former utility systems operator-turned-real estate investor, said he owes his newfound wealth and entrepreneurial spirit to Mr. Nagin.

“He made it possible for us to get loans working with the banks and opening the doors, cleaning up the permits process; you know it used to be that only whites and friends of the mayor knew about the property-tax sales; now we know, and we can go and buy the homes,” Mr. Perry said.

“Mitch is a nice guy and I’ve always supported him, but I think they want Mitch because he will be more accommodating.”

Mr. Reid, who said he expects a Landrieu victory, said Mr. Nagin and Mr. Landrieu are exploiting the issue to their political advantage but missing the point.

“All things being the same, if Katrina had never happened, Ray Nagin would not be campaigning for the Ninth Ward, he would be campaigning for the people who voted him in the last time,” he said.

Mr. Nagin in 2002 campaigned as a reformer who would clean up the city hall left behind by outgoing Mayor Marc Morial. Mr. Morial, whose father was mayor in the 1980s, was popular with blacks and now heads the National Urban League.

Mr. Landrieu, who is brother to a sitting senator and a state district court judge, is the son of former Mayor Moon Landrieu, who opened the doors of politics to blacks for the first time in 1970.

A Tulane University and WGNO-ABC poll released Tuesday showed Mr. Landrieu with the edge, getting 48 percent, and Mr. Nagin with 38 percent. But the poll has a 4.7 percentage point margin of error because 14 percent of respondents were undecided and it does not include displaced voters.

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