New Orleans Mayoral Runoff Too Close to Call

New Orleans voters will choose their next leader Saturday in a hotly contested runoff election between incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. David Meeks, city desk editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, sets the scene for Linda Wertheimer.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Today, the people of New Orleans, wherever they may be, are choosing the next mayor of that city. A field of 24 candidates was narrowed down to two, the incumbent mayor, Ray Nagin, versus Mitch Landrieu, who's the current lieutenant governor of Louisiana, and of course the runoff is today.

David Meeks is city editor of the Times-Picayune newspaper and he joins us on the line from New Orleans. David Meeks, welcome.

Mr. DAVID MEEKS (City Desk Editor, Times-Picayune): How are you doing today?

WERTHEIMER: Pretty good. This has felt like a national election, it seems to me. The debates have aired on TV and radio nationwide. The candidates have campaigned in a range of cities besides the one they hope to be the mayor of. Is there are a sense that the future of New Orleans, the city, will hinge on who is the next mayor?

Mr. DAVID MEEKS (City Desk Editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune): I think very much so. These candidates have been going at it hard. Turnout is especially to be higher today than it was in the primary that's just the opposite of how it usually goes. So when you see turnout rising in a runoff, it tells us that the voters here are energized and they know that there's a lot at stake.

WERTHEIMER: Other than race - Mr. Nagin is black, Mr. Landrieu is white - what are the biggest differences between these two men?

Mr. MEEKS: Well, they don't have a lot of differences between what they say needs to be done. It's pretty obvious that we need to do something to restore the city's core services, straighten out the finances, keep pressure on the federal government about the levee system and deal with the schools. So this is more a question of a debate over who's going to be best suited to do that. Nagin as the political outsider has been portrayed as a guy who's so outside the political that he's been unable to get things done, whereas Landrieu is saying that he is part of a political family with a lot of expertise in that area and he will be able to get things done. They've been debating along those lines for about three weeks.

WERTHEIMER: Who is the fixer and who's not?

Mr. MEEKS: Pardon me?

WERTHEIMER: Who is the fixer and who isn't, I guess.

Mr. MEEKS: Exactly. That's exactly how they're saying it, and the mayor is saying, you know, I was here during the storm. This is a long, hard, difficult recovery process. People don't understand how difficult it is. And there's a lot of sympathy for that. I think he will get a lot of vote for these sort of stand by your man. Whereas Landrieu is saying, you know, we can get garbage pickup corrected, we can get people's lights turned on and we can get the planning process that was discussed four months ago launched as well. And those things have really been areas that I think have hurt the incumbent.

WERTHEIMER: There have been a lot of endorsements, people who didn't make it to the runoff have thrown their weight behind various, behind one of the two candidates, mayors from other cities. The Times-Picayune I understand endorsed Mitch Landrieu this week. What's been the response to that?

Mr. MEEKS: It's been, I think it's been, it was a pretty interesting endorsement, if you read it, because usually the paper, once it endorses a candidate, it pretty much discusses that candidate only. But in this endorsement it was very obvious that the editorial board had wrestled with this issue mightily. There was a lot of discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of Mitch Landrieu as well as of Ray Nagin, and it came down to the consensus view of the editorial board was that Landrieu came out ahead as the better choice, basically on the very practical skills, to use the process, to use people around him that delegate authority to get things accomplished.

WERTHEIMER: You didn't like him enough to endorse him the first time.

Mr. MEEKS: That's correct. They didn't endorse him the first time. They endorsed Ron Foreman, so I guess it is somewhat consistent with that, and when you pass the incumbent in the primary, you're probably not going to go back to the incumbent in the runoff.

WERTHEIMER: Very quickly, when do you think you're going to know who the mayor is?

Mr. MEEKS: It'll be probably after midnight central time. It's usually a slow process here in Orleans Parish. There's a lot of attention here. There's a lot of early and absentee voting, votes that have to be counted and some of those can be faxed in even today. It may not be counted until later this evening, so it's going to be a while.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much. David Meeks is City Editor of the Times-Picayune. Voters outside of New Orleans can still make today's 8:00 p.m. Central Time deadline to get their absentee ballots and displaced voter affidavits to the New Orleans Parish Register's Office. For more information, come to our Web site at NPR.org.

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