New Orleans Votes On New Mayor — And Race Remains An Issue

There were always two things about New Orleans that you could reliably count on.

One, that the Saints would never make it to the Super Bowl.

And two, that the city would always have an African-American mayor.

Both truisms are going down the drain.

The Saints — long known as the "Aints" for their ineptitude — are finally going to the Big Stage, for the first time in its history. The game is Sunday, against the Indianapolis Colts.

And on Saturday, voters will be choosing a new mayor. And, barring a major seismic eruption, the winner is going to be Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

Now and then, I'll get emails from people saying that I focus too much on race, that what a person stands for is much more important than the color of his skin. Of course, of course. But sometimes it does matter. Sometimes, when blacks, or women, or other groups, are historically shut out of office and then manage to make a breakthrough, it's big news. It's history. It doesn't necessarily mean that just because you're black, or female, or Asian, or Latino, you're going to do a great job. That's a different story completely. Larry Doby may not have been the greatest player in baseball history, but he still was the first African-American ever to play in the American League. That's not a minor thing.

Holding onto the mayor's office in New Orleans for blacks has not been insignficant, especially since the business establishment in the city has always been run by whites. Even after Hurricane Katrina hit, displacing hundreds of thousands of citizens — many of them black — voters nonetheless re-elected their mayor, Ray Nagin.

Like President Bush (R) and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D), Nagin took much of the blame for what happened, mostly for his hesitancy in ordering a mandatory evacuation. His indecision was widely blamed for contributing to the casualty totals; at a candidate debate in 2006, one black hopeful, the Rev. Tom Watson, stood up and, pointing at Nagin, said without blinking an eye that the mayor was responsible for the drowning of 1,200 people.

How Nagin was re-elected that year may be more about how many white voters felt about his major opponent, the same Mitch Landrieu, than anything else. In his first four years as mayor, Nagin, who is African-American, went from being the favorite of the white establishment to being its pariah. They gasped when he called for New Orleans to once again become a "chocolate" city. In fact, the only person they disliked more than Nagin was ... Mitch Landrieu.

Nagin survived, but barely.

Now he's term limited and Landrieu is back, for a third time (he also ran in '94). After months of denying he would run, he waited until the last minute before the filing deadline in December to announce his candidacy.

Things have gone Landrieu's way ever since. Whatever unhappiness voters may have had for him four years ago has mostly evaporated, especially since Nagin's second term was widely seen as a failure. Plus, state Sen. Edwin Murray, who is black and widely respected with many voters, decided to pull out of the race.

Landrieu, of course, is the brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu. But perhaps more important, he is the son of Moon Landrieu, the city's last white mayor, who though long gone from City Hall is widely remembered with great affection.

Moon Landrieu, who was first elected in 1969, was, like every mayor of New Orleans before him, white. African-Americans had been a growing presence in the city's population, but it took a while for political power to develop. Landrieu helped accelerate that. He did more than any previous mayor to open up the city government to blacks. When he was re-elected in 1973, in a landslide, it came with multi-racial support. And when he left in 1978 (because of term limits), he was quickly scooped up by President Jimmy Carter to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

But something else ended when Landrieu left City Hall: the era of white mayors in New Orleans. The change was immediate and, seemingly, permanent. In 1977, Ernest (Dutch) Morial was elected to the first of two terms. In 1986, it was Sidney Barthelemy for two more terms. In 1994, Morial's son Marc began his eight-year tenure, which ended in 2002. Four years ago, it was a first-time candidate, cable executive Ray Nagin, who won the first of his two terms.

Thirty-two years after Moon Landrieu left office, another white candidate — another Landrieu — is positioned to win the office.

And the Saints are in the Super Bowl.

NPR's Debbie Elliott is in New Orleans and will be reporting on Saturday's election for our weekend programs.

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