New Orleans May Elect First White Mayor In Decades

The crowded field to replace New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin grew smaller this month when the leading African-American candidate withdrew from the race. His departure took the city by surprise, and raised the prospect that the city's next mayor will be white.

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Voters in New Orleans go to the polls next month to choose a successor to Mayor Ray Nagin. The crowded field of candidates thinned out recently when a top African-American candidate dropped out of the race. His departure raised the prospect that this mostly-black city could get its first white mayor in 32 years.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The latest twist in the New Orleans mayor's race came when State Senate Ed Murray suddenly ended his campaign earlier this month without even consulting his advisors. Murray said he was dropping out to avoid the prospect of a racially divisive runoff with Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, who is white.

The news was hard for the African-American political establishment here, which had lined up behind the mild-mannered Murray in the hope he would force a runoff with the better funded and more widely known Landrieu.

Mr. LAMBERT BOISSIERE (Constable, New Orleans): We teased about whether or not a quarter horse could win a thoroughbred race. And I said sure he can if he keeps the thoroughbreds out. And we had done so up until post time.

ELLIOTT: New Orleans Constable Lambert Boissiere is a former state senator and city councilman. He says Mitch Landrieu's last minute entry into the race made it nearly impossible for Murray to raise enough money to compete.

Mr. BOISSIERE: The economy's bad since Katrina. Money's not flowing like it used to. In many cases the white businesses are holding up the money, more recently because of so-called white hope.

ELLIOTT: Boissiere is a leader of one of the city's oldest African-American political groups - a group that started in the 1970s to support Mitch Landrieu's father, Moon, the last white mayor of New Orleans. Ever since, African-Americans have held the mayor's office, known as the franchise because of the mayor's ability to help other black candidates and steer city contracts and services to the community.

Now three black candidates remain - former Judge Nadine Ramsey, fair housing advocate James Perry and businessman Troy Henry. Henry lashed out at the local media last week for prematurely crowning a white mayor after Murray dropped out.

Mr. TROY HENRY (Mayoral Candidate, New Orleans): It's a collection of reports that in essence is beginning to create an undertone that marginalizes African-American candidates in this race.

ELLIOTT: Polls show two white candidates in the lead - Landrieu and wealthy businessman John Georges. But Lambert Boissiere thinks Troy Henry has a shot at making it into a runoff with Landrieu, even though, like Ray Nagin, Henry is a businessman who has never held elected office. Boissiere says African-American political leaders have a dilemma.

Mr. BOISSIERE: We're debating - can we salvage him, can we pull him up? You know, do we have to go with Mitch? I mean, it's a decision we're trying to make. Mitch's family has been known to be liberal, but again, who best represents you - one of your own or someone else?

ELLIOTT: Mitch Landrieu addressed that question at a recent Dillard University forum.

Mr. MITCH LANDRIEU (Mayoral Candidate, New Orleans): And for anybody who thinks that race is not an issue, I want to tell you what my mama said: you can't go around it, you can't go over it, you can't ignore it, you got to go through it.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ELLIOTT: After the forum, Landrieu said it's a question of inclusion.

Mr. LANDRIEU: You know, the issue in the race really centers around do people feel disenfranchised, do they think they're going to have an opportunity, do they think they have access. And so I wanted to send a message clearly tonight, as leader of the city of New Orleans, we have to get beyond race.

ELLIOTT: Troy Henry acknowledges that race is a factor but says it's not the critical question.

Mr. HENRY: What's more important is that our city come back and be transformed, which is what I'm all about.

ELLIOTT: Indeed, most of the questions of the forum were about fighting blight and crime and restoring the city's neighborhoods.

Ms. ROXY WILSON: The race of the mayor is not important to me.

ELLIOTT: Twenty-two-year-old Roxy Wilson(ph) is a senior at Dillard.

Ms. WILSON: Everybody's like I want a black mayor, I want a white mayor. It is of no concern to me. I want what's best for the city, because the city has gone down. It has never recovered from Katrina. And all I want to see is my city be something like it was before I left. 'Cause it still doesn't feel like home.

ELLIOTT: After the event, organizers planned to have the audience write the candidates. But the person in charge had to leave early - his house had been broken into. It was a fitting reminder of the serious problems that await the new mayor - black or white.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.

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