Candidates Square Off in New Orleans Debate

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Seven prominent candidates remaining in the New Orleans mayoral race squared off in a debate Monday night. Madeleine Brand talks to Susan Howell, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans, about the debate and the race to lead the beleaguered city.


First, though, mayoral elections are usually local affairs involving local issues and local personalities, but not in New Orleans and not this year.

After Hurricane Katrina, the city's voting population is scattered nationwide. The primary is Saturday. Last night, MSNBC and local WDSU TV aired a debate among seven of the 23 candidates.

The first question was, of course, about the weather.

Mr. NORMAN ROBINSON (WDSU TV News Channel Host): The question: A Category 4 hurricane is barreling down on the city of New Orleans. What would you do first?

BRAND: That was WDSU Host Norman Robinson. Susan Howell is a political scientist at the University of New Orleans, and she joins us now. Welcome to the show.

Professor SUSAN HOWELL (Political Scientist, University of New Orleans): Thank you.

BRAND: So, how did the candidates answer that first question?

Prof. HOWELL: Well, I think most of them answered in terms of preparedness; that you don't start preparing when a Category 4 is barreling down, you need to prepare in advance. And, of course, they all said they would get everybody out. And since they only had maybe 30, 45 seconds to respond, that's about all they could say.

I mean, the problem in preparing for Katrina was the money to get everybody out and the availability of bus drivers. All of those details were things that the candidates really couldn't deal with in their short answers.

BRAND: Well, did one candidate answer better than the others? How did the incumbent, Ray Nagin, do?

Prof. HOWELL: Actually, I thought in the debate, generally, Nagin did very well because he showed the level of knowledge of an incumbent. And he was able to cite dollar figures and specific things that were being done at city hall and things that were done poorly, things that he would do differently. And he was very informed on the details as opposed to some of the other candidates.

BRAND: Let's go to another piece of tape. MSNBC Host Chris Matthews said the future of New Orleans would be defined by, basically, the will of the nation to rebuild it. And he asked this question of Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu.

Mr. CHRIS MATTHEWS (MSNBC Host): Why should a guy driving a cab up in Detroit pay for somebody down here in New Orleans to rebuild a house below sea level?

Lt. Governor MITCH LANDRIEU (Lieutenant Governor, Louisiana): Well, first of all, this is an American tragedy; it requires an American response. We're not the only vulnerable city in America. San Francisco, as you know, got rocked by the earthquakes, there have been fires, there have been tornadoes. There are certain things that happen in America that America needs to respond to.

BRAND: Susan Howell, how much can a mayor of New Orleans affect the future of this city when, indeed, it is a national problem?

Prof. HOWELL: This is one of the major policy decisions that has to be made in the recovery of New Orleans: How much development are we going to support, by levees, by subsidized federal flood insurance for people to live in harm's way?

Most of the candidates are being fairly politically correct in saying we want everybody to come back. But actually, there are areas of the city that are still very exposed, and will be for years, to this sort of destruction happening again.

So, it's very hard for the candidates. I mean, running for re-election, they're going to be--the electorate is scattered all over America. Most of it is not back, and many people want to come back, but they want to come back to their old neighborhoods. And many of these people live in neighborhoods that, probably, if you were a purely rational urban planner, you would not build there.

BRAND: There's also been some concern that many of the black residents won't be able to come back and that they might be disenfranchised from this election; did that come up during the debate?

Prof. HOWELL: It didn't come up during the debate; it comes up more in terms of coming back. Now, disenfranchised in the election, I think that's probably true in the sense that it's harder for them to vote if you live in Houston or Atlanta; I mean, you have to vote absentee and you have to go through a paperwork process.

There's no question that the election has some unfairness to it for people who live far away.

BRAND: After Hurricane Katrina struck, President Bush was criticized heavily. Let's hear this piece of tape from Chris Matthews about that.

(Soundbite of Mayoral Debate)

Mr. MATTHEWS: (In television clip) Do you approve or disapprove of President' Bush's job performance?

Unidentified Candidate #1: (In television clip) Disapprove.

Unidentified Candidate #2: (In television clip) Overall, approve.

Unidentified Candidate #3: (In television clip) Approve.

Unidentified Candidate #4: (In television clip) Disapprove.

Unidentified Candidate #5: (In television clip) Disapprove.

Unidentified Candidate #6: (In television clip) Disapprove.

Unidentified Candidate #7: (In television clip) Approve.

Mr. MATTHEWS: So, we had three approves.

BRAND: Three approves, four disapproves. Does that reflect New Orleans' residents?

Prof. HOWELL: I would say we probably--most New Orleans residents disapprove of the performance of Bush; also, I would say, the performance of Congress. And one of the most constructive things being done is bringing Congressmen and Senators down here to see for themselves.

BRAND: You know, I have to say, being mayor of New Orleans seems to me as a fairly thankless job. Why would anyone want to be mayor?

Prof. HOWELL: Well, that's a good question. I think it's because this is such an opportunity to make history, that the person is going to be an international and national figure immediately and, let's face it, politicians have egos. The opportunity to be a historic figure is too great. Of course, there's always the possibility that you'd be in the trashcan of history, too, if the recovery is a failure.

BRAND: Susan Howell, thank you.

Prof. HOWELL: Thank you.

BRAND: Susan Howell teaches political science at the University of New Orleans.

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