New Orleans Race and a New White House Voice

Juan Williams and his panel of experts discuss the New Orleans mayoral race and recent remarks made by U.S Housing Secretary Alfonzo Jackson. Guests: Ron Walters, professor of political science at University of Maryland, and Republican strategist Robert Traynham.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is News and Notes.

Every Thursday, we turn to senior correspondent Juan Williams and his Washington insiders for a recap of the latest political news. This week, Juan and his guests discuss the primary results and the upcoming runoff for the mayoral election in New Orleans. They also respond to recent comments by U.S. Housing Secretary, Alfonso Jackson, about the rebuilding effort in the Gulf Coast. Juan, it's all yours.

JUAN WILLIAMS (Senior Washington Correspondent, NPR):

Thanks, Ed. We're joined now, by Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. The Professor's latest book is called, Freedom Is Not Enough. Also with us today, Robert Traynham. He's a Republican political strategist here in Washington. Both of these men are in our NPR D.C. studios.

Gentleman, welcome to Political Corner.

Professor RON WALTERS (Political Science, University of Maryland)

Good to be with you.

Mr. ROBERT TRAYNHAM (Republican Political Strategist): Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Ron Walters, let's start with the New Orleans mayoral race. What we saw last week was that Ray Nagin, the incumbent, won 38 percent incumbent won 38 percent of the vote, while his number one challenger, Mitch Landrieu, who is the lieutenant governor, the son of the former--the last white mayor of New Orleans, Moon Landrieu, and the brother of the Senator from Louisiana, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. He got 29 percent. A runoff is now set for May 20. What do you anticipate happening?

Prof. WALTERS: Well, this is going to be very interesting, Juan, because race and turnout really are going to determine this race. I think--the problem, of course, is that the precincts are kind of structured in a way that whites in the less damaged part of the city voted places where they felt comfortable. Blacks are mostly displaced, had a tough time getting to the polls.

Critics of this race say that it proves that the barriers that they tried to raise in the beginning were there and kept blacks from voting. If that is also the case by May 20, the day of the runoff, then, again, blacks are going to have a very difficult time voting. I think that Ray Nagin is going to get, again, most of the black vote. And this is going to be very even because I think in the final analysis it'll depend also on the programs for rebuilding New Orleans that they prefer...

WILLIAMS: Well, let's hold off on that for just a second, Ron. Let me come back to you on the idea of who votes for Ray Nagin, who has made himself--I mean, it's very interesting: Ray Nagin was not initially viewed as a black candidate per se. He wasn't running as the black candidate, he was the corporate candidate and the candidate of the white business community in New Orleans first time around. This time around, he has recast himself as the black candidate, but Mitch Landrieu was able to get 20 percent of the black vote. So what does that mean?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: I think that Mitch Landrieu brings a fresh face, fresh ideas, and bold new leadership to this race. Also, keeping in mind, too, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Nagin was seen with President Bush often. Not only in New Orleans, but also here, in Washington D.C. And there were a lot of raised eyebrows out of New Orleans that said, well, wait a minute here.

You know, a lot of people think that this is President Bush's fault, in terms of the lack of a federal response. But also, more importantly, what is a, "black mayor" of New Orleans, a Democrat, being seen hugging and kissing Mrs. Bush off--when they landed at the airport off of Air Force One and pledging to work with President Bush on these things. Now, one could make the argument that Mayor Nagin was just doing smart politics and obviously kissing the ring that was put before him.

Prof. WALTERS: I like that, kissing ring...

WILLIAMS: Kissing the ring that was holding the dollars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Okay, and others would say that it was Mayor Nagin just trying to reach across party lines and trying to unify the city. The fact of the matter is that the name Landrieu means a lot in Louisiana. But the bottom line is this: This is going to be a very, very close race. If I had to put some money on this horse, I would say that probably Landrieu will pull it off.

WILLIAMS: I want to read you a quote from U.S. Housing Secretary Alfonzo Jackson. He's talking about whether or not the government should invest money in rebuilding a River Gardens development in the uptown area of New Orleans. Here's what Secretary Jackson has to say: "Some of the people shouldn't return. The public housing developments were gang-ridden by some of the most notorious gangs in this country. People hid and took care of those persons because they take care of them. Only the best residents should return: those who paid rent on time, those who held a job, and those who worked."

And, of course, you know, virtually all of the former residents were black and here's what Lucia Blacksher, general counsel for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center had to say in response. She said that she found Secretary Jackson's comments very disappointing. "When people say things like we only want the best people who don't do drugs or commit crimes, there's an implication that many of the people in public housing are, in fact, criminals who don't work. This is simply not true. It's an unnecessary stereotype, an alarming stereotype to be voiced by the secretary of HUD." Robert Traynham?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: The only thing that I can say is that I would hope as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development he would do everything he possibly can to promote healthy housing, if that's a terminology, in New Orleans; that he will do everything that he possibly can to make sure that those victims return and have safe housing. Look, the bottom line is this. We all know that there's a lot of drugs and there's a lot of illegal activity that goes on, unfortunately, in public housing, but that happens everywhere. What troubles me is the terminology of the best people, because again, you're stereotyping. It's class warfare, it's a lot of unnecessary rhetoric, frankly, that I don't think is necessary.

WILLIAMS: Ron Walters?

Prof. WALTERS: I just think that--I agree. This is an unfortunate use of terms, it is--goes right along though, with an ideology in this administration that you really ought to sort of punish and exclude people.

WILLIAMS: Now, on this very point, The New York Times ran a story last Sunday from Houston, Texas, indicating that Texas officials were fed up--what they said--is an increase in crime created by people who've left New Orleans. Is that also a racial caricature, a stereotype?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: The way I understand The New York Times story, and I read it, is that there an increasing crime in Houston. That's just a fact. And if, in fact, they happen to be black, okay. It is what it is. But the fact of the matter is, is that these folks, whomever they are, that are displaced, that live in the state of Texas, if they're stealing, they should go to jail.

Prof. WALTERS: But that's not what's being said by the city officials in Houston. What they're saying is that these black people are coming over the border and causing us a lot of trouble and creating a lot of crime. That's sort of the subtext. And so, at one level, I agree with you. Anybody who commits a crime ought to be put in jail, but that's really not what's being said her. It is, these black people are causing us a lot of trouble and we ought to try to figure out how to get rid of them.

WILLIAMS: So, in all these things, all these various permutations of this same subject we're talking about, New Orleans recovery and politics. It comes back to race.

Prof. WALTERS: A lot of it does, yes.

WILLIAMS: All right. Ron Walters is a professor of Political Science at the University of Maryland. His latest book is Freedom is not Enough. And Robert Traynham, he's a Republican political strategist here in Washington D.C. Gentlemen, thanks for joining us on Political Corner.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Thank you.

Prof. WALTERS: Good to be with you.

WILLIAMS: Back to you, Ed.

GORDON: Thanks, Juan. Join us every Thursday for Juan Williams and his Washington insiders right here on political corner.

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