New Orleans Readies for Mayoral Election

The runoff election to decide the New Orleans mayor's race is scheduled for Saturday. Farai Chideya talks with Cheryl Corley about how residents of the city view the upcoming vote between incumbent Ray Nagin and his challenger, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. I'm sitting in for Ed Gordon.

Tomorrow, New Orleanians head to the polls for a runoff mayoral election. It's a tight race between very different politicians.

Incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin seems to say whatever's on his mind. In January, he urged residents to rebuild a chocolate New Orleans, then apologized for the statement. Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu speaks more cautiously. Perhaps he learned how bruising politics can be from watching his family. His father, Moon Landrieu, was mayor of the Big Easy for much of the 1970s, and he was the city's last white mayor. His sister, Mary, is a U.S. Senator.

Landrieu v. Nagin: it's every bit as much a bought as the heavyweight boxing championship. So who will the new New Orleans choose as its leader? To help us examine the issues, NPR Correspondent Cheryl Corley joins me now from New Orleans.

Cheryl, welcome.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

Thanks so much.

CHIDEYA: So what's the mood like in New Orleans, right now?

CORLEY: I think that people here know that this is a historic election. They hope it's going to make a difference in how this city actually looks and runs in the days to come.

That said, I think that there is some anger about the pace of recovery, depending on what section of the city you're in. And also just some uncertainty about what's really best for the city, as people prepare to go to the polls tomorrow.

CHIDEYA: When you talk to people on the street in different neighborhoods, what kind of feedback do you get?

CORLEY: Well, there's so much on people's minds here about how they're living, what they're doing with their own residence, that the mayoral race, for them, is pretty much a toss-up for many of them. They haven't made up their minds, and say it's really a difficult choice for them.

And for some, you know, they won't be making that decision until they head into the voting booth.

CHIDEYA: Let's take a look at who's actually voting. You have people who have lived in New Orleans who are still there; people who've lived in New Orleans who have come back; people who have lived in New Orleans who are still live somewhere else, but are going to try to vote. How does that complicate the situation?

CORLEY: You saw displaced residents coming back during the primary, and you expect many of them do it this time, as well. You've had community groups kind of gathering people up. ACORN, for instance, brought dozens of people back into the city to attend one of the many debates that the candidates have had and to allow those people to vote early. And they plan to bring in busloads tomorrow from Houston and Dallas and San Antonio - places where people have moved to.

They've sponsored, you know, for previous bus caravans, and things like that. And, of course, people are driving back on their own. But, as you say, there's just this mix of people from outside of Louisiana who are voting. You also had earlier voting at satellite locations around Louisiana, at ten other places, including New Orleans. So it's really a strange situation for a lot of people. And it's going to be really interesting to see how it all works.

It seemed to work rather well during the primary, and we'll see if it does this time, as well. Of course, you have people saying it's still a difficult process for the people who live outside of the city, so it's really an unprecedented situation.

CHIDEYA: We're going to provide, at the end of this conversation, some information for people who may be displaced. But let's turn to the history of race and corruption in Louisiana politics.

You've got Ray Nagin, who, at one point, was nicknamed Ray Reagan, because he was a Republican and who also called for a chocolate city. You have Landrieu, who is part of the Landrieus, a huge political dynasty in the state. Both of them are trying to play off of each other's worst characteristics.

Is this a nasty race, or is it just calmer, but with these allegations about what each man's past dealings have brought to the table?

CORLEY: Well, it's really been a very genteel kind of race, and very cordial, for the most part. And they haven't brought up race or slammed each other with that too much, although it's obviously a factor here. On many issues, these candidates agree; so if race is a factor, it's because that's the obvious thing that kind of separates them.

And it's interesting, too, you mentioned the fact that Ray Nagin was initially a Republican, and initially had the support of a number of the city's white leaders; and that's disappeared, for the most part, this time around. Much has been made of that, and I think it's interesting, because four years ago when he ran, he was obviously running against a black candidate and there wasn't a viable white candidate. So here, for the first time in nearly three decades, you have a situation where the city of New Orleans might have a white mayor.

And, you know, that has made people really think about that, because you have black voters here who don't want to necessarily lose a position that took them decades to get to, and white voters who think that, you know, here's an opportunity that we shouldn't miss out on.

CHIDEYA: Thanks Cheryl Corley.

CORLEY: You're quite welcome.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR Correspondent Cheryl Corley, in New Orleans.

And a quick note to our listeners: If you are a displaced New Orleans resident who wants to vote tomorrow, you must request an absentee ballot by 4:30PM Central Time today from the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office.

Send your affidavit and ballot by mail or fax to the Orleans Parish Registrar's Office before the polls close at 8:00 PM tomorrow. The fax number is 504-648-8315, and the State's Election Hotline number is 1-800-833-2805.

You can also go to our website, npr.org, for more information.

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How to Vote in the New Orleans Mayoral Run-Off

The race for New Orleans mayor will be decided Saturday. Voters displaced by Hurricane Katrina will be able to cast absentee ballots until the polls close.

Last-Minute Absentee Voting

You must have requested a ballot by 4:30 p.m. CT Friday, May 19, and obtained a displaced-voter affidavit from the Louisiana Secretary of State's Web site.

You can FAX the ballot to the Orleans Parish registrar's office at 1-504-658-8315. Deadline is 8 p.m. CT Saturday, May 20.

More than 22,000 people voted early or by absentee ballot for New Orleans mayor in April. Louisiana officials say they've already reached that level in this run-off race between incumbent Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

New Orleanians who evacuated to places like Texas and Mississippi and voted absentee during the first phase of the election last month automatically received a ballot for this round. Anyone else who still wants to vote absentee must request a ballot by 4:30 p.m. CT Friday and get a displaced-voter affidavit from the Louisiana Secretary of State's Web site.

The ballots are due back to the Orleans Parish registrar's office — by fax (1-504-658-8315) or mail (Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters, 1300 Perdido St., Room 1W23, New Orleans, LA 70112) — by the time the polls close at 8 p.m. CT Saturday. Additional information is available at the state's election hot line (1-800-883-2805).

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