Nagin Faces New Orleans Mayoral Runoff

After the trauma of Hurricane Katrina and the forced evacuation of most of its black residents, New Orleans holds municipal elections. Mayor Ray Nagin will face a May runoff vote against Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

In New Orleans voters went to the polls yesterday to elect a mayor. But they'll have to go through the process all over again a month from now.

Incumbent Mayor Nagin received the most votes in the first municipal election since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. But Nagin's total fell short of the majority needed to avoid facing a run-off with Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

Before Hurricane Katrina ripped along the Gulf Coast, Mayor Ray Nagin was considered a shoe-in for reelection. But with the storm came political change, after flooding devastated mostly black neighborhoods of New Orleans. A city which was overwhelmingly African-American became majority white. And Mayor Nagin, who is black, faced 21 challengers. By night's end he had won about 38 percent of the vote.

Surrounded by family and friends, he claimed a victory of sorts.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): I offer myself up for service for four more years. I really do.

(Soundbite of applause)

CORLEY: As his supporters called for Nagin to serve another term, the Mayor said it was time for the city to come together, and it was best to keep him as its leader.

Mayor NAGIN: I am a doer. I am a pusher. I am a maverick. I cross the line periodically. But I am you. And I love this city.

CORLEY: Whether New Orleans accepts the Mayor's offer of four more years depends on the outcome of a run-off election, since he did not receive more than 50 percent of the vote. The Mayor will face second-place finisher Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who's trying to follow in his father's footsteps. Moon Landrieu was the city's last white mayor three decades ago.

Mitch Landrieu says he is better equipped to lead a city trying to recover and rebuild while preparing for a new hurricane season.

Mr. MITCH LANDRIEU (Mayoral Candidate): One of the things that has to happen in order for this city to rebuild is for everybody to come together. And I think our campaign represents the idea that we can all find higher common ground. That's a really critical idea to making this happen, because a recovery has to be sustainable. It can't be sustainable if people are not working together.

CORLEY: During this election, fewer than 40 percent of the city's 300,000 registered voters cast a ballot, perhaps because many of them are still scattered around the country. About 21,000 either mailed in absentee ballots or voted early, some at satellite polling places in other Louisiana cities.

For people like Leroy White, it was a trip back home. White is a truck driver whose house in the Lower Ninth Ward is still uninhabitable. He came by bus with a number of other evacuees who live now in Houston.

Mr. LEROY WHITE (Displaced New Orleans Resident): My home is here, my family is here, my business is here, my life is here. I'm so much involved in this community it's unbelievable.

CORLEY: Although White says he's ready to return next month to vote in the runoff election, he and other critics say many African-American voters were disenfranchised since they live elsewhere. White says it would be simpler if there were satellite polling places set up in cities where a large number of New Orleans evacuees live. Places like Houston, Atlanta, and Mississippi.

Secretary of State Al Ater says that's not likely.

Mr. AL ATER (Louisiana Secretary of State): The Louisiana legislature makes laws and gives us the rules in which to conduct an election by. Assuming no law changes, then the exact same process will take place again on May 20th.

CORLEY: And this time, New Orleanians will have just two choices as they decide who will lead their city during its difficult rebuilding process.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans.

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