Posted April 21, 2006 – With thousands of displaced residents of still hurricane-ravaged New Orleans poised to participate in the city’s most controversial mayoral race in memorable history, the question on many minds is, “Who is best able to lead?”
In all, there are 23 candidates, and three are leading the pack: Incumbent Mayor C. Ray Nagin, an African American, and his two major challengers, Ron Forman, chief of the New Orleans Audubon Nature Institute and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who are both White.
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Rebuilding From Scratch
There are a lot of candidates and a lot of issues at stake.
The city's next mayor will face a host of unprecedented problems that emanate from the monumental task of rebuilding a city from scratch.
This leader must figure out how to bring its scattered thousands back home. (At last check, fewer than half of the 465,000 residents were still seeking refuge in other cities.) He/she must be able to patch the ever-widening rift between races, encourage the federal government to reinvigorate stalled recovery efforts and help the grieving masses move beyond death and devastation.
But to accomplish any of these things, that leader must also be able to convince residents to believe in government again – the very institutions that have failed them at virtually every turn: in preparing for the disaster, evacuating the city, rescuing ones who were stranded, providing for those who lost everything and helping residents recover their lives.
On Saturday, voters, hoping to bring the battered and beleaguered Big Easy back to life, will take their place at the polls.
So far, more than 16,000 people have requested absentee ballots for this election, and about 6,000 mail-in votes have been certified, The Associated Press reported.
"Vote Under Protest"
With much of the city still in shambles from Hurricane Katrina’s wrath on Aug. 29, polling stations have been restricted to 76 locations, instead of the 262 used in the last mayoral election four years ago. Ten satellite voting centers were also set up around the state for early voting by people who couldn't make it to New Orleans.
"We must tell those who can vote, to vote under protest this Saturday, the Rev. Al Sharpton told BET.com users in a chat Thursday. "We must begin marching and raising the issues of the contracts and land-grabbing to protect our people's right to return.
"It is our custom to talk about 'back in the day,' but New Orleans reminds us we're still in the day. I was too young for Selma or Birmingham in the '60s, but history won't record that I didn't stand up for New Orleans when I was old enough to stand up. I hope others will say the same."
The state has posted signs around town advertising its toll free number, 1 (800) 883-2805, which officials say is the best way for voters to find out their correct polling location.
Before Katrina struck, more than two in three New Orleans residents were Black. For many returning to the city – either to vote or to live – another key question (aside from the one about leadership) is whether African Americans will have lost their political power by Sunday morning.
According to the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office, about 63 percent of the city’s 298,000 registered voters are Black.
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The Role of Race
But the parts of the city rocked hardest by Katrina’s floods are largely Black areas like New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward, where only a handful of residents have been able to return. The opposite is true in mostly White, more affluent areas, like the French Quarter and Uptown, where residents returned shortly after the hurricane.
The racial breakdown of absentee ballots and early voters parallels the breakdown for registered voters as a whole, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. This suggests that there is no appreciable demographic shift in who’ll be picking the next mayor.
Susan Howell, professor at the University of New Orleans and pollster, told The Washington Post that race definitely will play a role in the election.
"Black voters are coming back to Nagin, not necessarily as a person but as a symbol of a racial regime," Howell said. "And in blunt terms, some White voters see this as an opportunity to take back power."
Nagin told reporters that people had written him off because of Katrina and remarks he made, "but now the poll numbers are waking people up, and here I am standing and getting stronger as times goes on," he said. The latest polls show Nagin in the lead, according to published reports. (Click "Play" to the left to watch the video.)
But for some New Orleans residents – even Black residents – race is merely a smoke screen blocking the larger issue of what is needed to get the Crescent City back on solid footing. Some even point to the Black mayor as one of the reasons that New Orleans is in such dire circumstances.
Sterling Adams, 34, a former caterer, has been renting a house in Diluth, Ga. since the hurricane.
"I have to make sure I vote against (New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin),” Adams told BET.com recently. “He could have did a much better job of getting people out of there. All those school buses. How you gonna let those buses go under water, and now you say you're for the people? You want to point your finger at this, that, and the other. No, it's you. And I don't want you anymore."
If none of the 23 candidates receives a majority of the vote, the top two finishers will face each other in a runoff scheduled for May 20.