City Elections Held in Post-Katrina New Orleans

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New Orleans holds its first municipal election since Hurricane Katrina struck, despite the fact that tens of thousands of voters — many of them African Americans — remain displaced. Mayor Ray Nagin faces more than 20 challengers.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The people of New Orleans are voting today in the city's first municipal election since Hurricane Katrina.

Mayor Ray Nagin faces more than 20 challengers. The election is controversial because tens of thousands of mostly African-American voters displaced by the storm have not yet come home. There were no polling places outside of New Orleans today, so many people had to make the long journey back to vote.

Eve Troeh reports from New Orleans.

EVE TROEH reporting:

St. Paul's Lutheran Church is a polling place in the Upper Ninth Ward. It was packed this morning. Hundreds of other polling places were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, so it was serving 15 times more voters than usual.

Pamela Charles came to cast her ballot. She's been living in Appaloosas, Louisiana since the storm.

Ms. PAMELA CHARLES (New Orleans Voter): We drove in. It took us about two and a half, three hours. To me, this is not a fair election. I think it should have been called off until more people were more better informed over who's running and what they stand for. This is really just an injustice to the voters.

TROEH: Many agree. Civil rights leaders tried to postpone the election, but their appeal was denied earlier this month. Since then, many have encouraged displaced New Orleans voters to take part.

Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta hired three buses to bring more than 100 voters back for elections.

Mr. FRED ROPER (Volunteer): We left Atlanta about 10 o'clock coming to New Orleans. We got here about 6:30 this morning.

TROEH: Volunteer Fred Roper is helping voters find their polling places and dropping them off to vote. For some the elections were an excuse for a homecoming. Voters Marjorie Smith and Buellah Vernor(ph) were neighbors. They happened to meet at the polling place for the first time in months.

Ms. MARJORIE SMITH (Displaced Resident, New Orleans): Not since the storm. That's right.

Ms. BEULAH VARNER (Displaced Resident, New Orleans): (Unintelligible) since before the flood. It's a lot of fun because I have to keep up now with where everybody, where they are now.

Ms. SMITH: That's right. You know where they at.

TROEH: Some, like Rosalind Burton, came because they didn't trust voting early or absentee.

Ms. ROSALIND BURTON (Displaced Resident, New Orleans): I only really trusted coming here to do the actual voting myself. I felt better about doing it that way.

TROEH: Raquel Cyrus(ph), on the bus from Atlanta, was inspired by her church's most-famous preacher.

Ms. RAQUEL CYRUS (Displaced Resident, New Orleans): Martin Luther King fought so hard for us, for this, for number one, and I feel since I've lost so much, my home, my job, my community, at least I can come back and cast my vote, and make a statement.

TROEH: Polls stay open until 8 p.m. local time.

ELLIOTT: And we have Eve Troeh on the line now.

You know, there's been an ongoing debate in New Orleans, since the storm, about whether black voters will still be the majority there. Do you have any sense from today who was voting?

TROEH: And we don't know yet at this point, city-wide, what the numbers are racially. At the polling places where I went, I did see a majority of black voters. One of those polling places was in the Upper Ninth Ward, which is a pretty mixed neighborhood. The other was in Gentilly, which was a predominantly black neighborhood before the storm, and is largely deserted now because of flooding. So most of those voters were likely coming in from other cities to vote.

What we haven't seen in the city is a massive amount of caravans of voters coming in from other cities and other states. That's something that people had talked about. There were a few attempts made, but there aren't big buses driving all around this city dropping people off at polling places, just a few.

ELLIOTT: Most people now know the name of Mayor Ray Nagin. But can you tell us anything about some of the other prominent candidates in this race?

TROEH: I would say there are three frontrunners. Ray Nagin of course is the incumbent. And then we've got Mitch Landrieu, the lieutenant governor of Louisiana. And he comes from a real political dynasty here in the state. His sister is, of course, Senator Mary Landrieu. Mitch Landrieu does, in fact, poll much higher with black voters than the other leading candidate, who is Ron Foreman. He's a business executive here in New Orleans. He's best known for redeveloping our riverfront with the Aquarium of the Americas. And he heads the Audubon Institute, which is the major zoo that we have here in the city.

He's really banking on that business experience as the cornerstone of his campaign. But there are some concerns that he does not have as much interest in the black vote.

ELLIOTT: Eve Troeh in New Orleans. Thank you so much.

TROEH: Thanks, Debbie.

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