Uncertainty Dogs New Orleans' Mayoral Race

A big unknown in the contest to be mayor of New Orleans is how the city's new racial makeup will affect the vote on April 22. Nearly two dozen candidates are vying for the post.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The last time there was an election for mayor of New Orleans, the city was overwhelmingly African-American. Now, another election is coming and after Hurricane Katrina, the population is much smaller and mostly white. Last night, six of the nearly two-dozen candidates for mayor, including the embattled incumbent, Ray Nagin, took part in a debate. All of New Orleans' blemishes took center stage.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY reporting: The next mayor of New Orleans will have to figure out how to encourage former residents to return to the city. Safety is a concern, so is planning for the next hurricane season. For those who want to return, the cost of housing can be a barrier. During a free for all in last night's debate, Mayor Nagin blamed the state for the problem.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (Incumbent Mayor, New Orleans): We are working hard to make sure that the money from the federal government, which is stuck at the state right now, gets to homeowners.

BRADY: Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu jumped to respond to Nagin's claim and turn the blame back on him.

Lieutenant Governor MITCH LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): The mayor has said that it's been stuck in the state. If you had the money right now, if you had the money right now, you wouldn't know what to do with it, because your planning process hasn't even started.

BRADY: Nagin and Landrieu are widely considered frontrunners in the race, along with Museum and Parks administrator Ron Forman. The slate of candidates looks different than previous years. Nagin was the only black candidate at the debate. University of New Orleans' Professor Susan Howell says with Katrina evacuations, the city is no longer majority African-American.

Professor SUSAN HOWELL (Political Science, University of New Orleans): There is a feeling among some white voters that this is their chance to, quote, “take the city back,” end quote. And then the reaction, naturally, among African-American voters is that we're not going back.

BRADY: Howell says blacks voters were not strongly behind Nagin in the last election. But this time around, the mayor says he has the black vote all but tied up. Ron Forman, like several of the other white candidates, downplays race.

Mr. RON FORMAN (Administrator, Museums and Parks): The race issue is being played a lot more by the national press. If you walked the streets of New Orleans, everyone hugs each other and says what can we do to help?

BRADY: But that was not the sentiment expressed at the Reverend Jessie Jackson's march last weekend, when protestors accused the state of trying to keep African-Americans from voting. Mitch Landrieu also downplays race. He has a history of winning elections in a State House district with a large black population.

Lt. Gov. LANDRIEU: I'm happy to say that I've always received equal support in the African-American community and the white community.

BRADY: Mayor Ray Nagin has been forced to address the race issue more directly since a January speech honoring Martin Luther King. During that speech, Nagin declared New Orleans would become chocolate again, because, quote, “It's the way God wants it to be.”

Mayor NAGIN: Chocolate city was a plea to talk to some people who felt as though it was hopeless and they weren't welcomed back. It created a firestorm around the country.

BRADY: But Nagin says he's not sorry he said it. Right now, it's difficult to say whether Nagin, Landrieu, or Forman is leading. That's because conducting accurate polls is almost impossible. Many people still don't have telephones. And there are thousands evacuated who've not returned. So, if it's difficult to say who's the frontrunner, it's even more daunting given the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to figure out who will show up to vote.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

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