ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, became nationally famous at the time of Hurricane Katrina. Now there's a free-for-all to replace him. By law, Nagin can't run again. But that doesn't mean he's not a factor in this race.
As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, the many candidates are promising big changes in the Big Easy.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The crowded field for New Orleans mayor has candidates looking for ways to stand out, like this provocative ad from housing advocate James Perry.
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U: Political insiders and career politicians.
U: What? Are you (beep) with me?
U: Lining up to be our next mayor.
U: Are you (beep) kidding me?
U: What the (beep)?
U: They won't change anything.
ELLIOTT: The ad is a swipe at his competition and at a city hall that has been plagued with controversy since Hurricane Katrina. Taking on city government is a theme in this race.
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BLOCK: It's inexcusable New Orleans is the murder capital of America. I'm Leslie Jacobs and as mayor, I'll have a laser-like focus on stopping crime and making government honest and accountable.
ELLIOTT: Ray Nagin's second term as mayor has been dominated by escalating crime, a federal probe of the police department, corruption scandals at city hall and general dissatisfaction with a slow and uneven recovery.
P: It's not a legacy that any urban mayor would want.
ELLIOTT: Xavier University sociologist Silas Lee says Nagin faced high expectations post-Katrina, and hasn't delivered. Now, he says, the pressure will be on the next mayor to finish the job.
P: It's a thankless job. People want a superman or a superwoman and a Houdini, and that person doesn't exist.
ELLIOTT: But plenty of people think they can bring New Orleans back. In all, 13 candidates qualified last week for the February 6th primary, an open contest where Independents, Republicans and Democrats all face off on the same ballot. One just dropped out, but the biggest surprise came last week when Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu announced he would run for a third time.
SIEGEL: I will do everything I can to make sure that I bring the people of this city together to heal the racial divide that has kept us apart for so long.
ELLIOTT: Landrieu is Senator Mary Landrieu's brother, and their father was mayor here in the 1970s. Mitch Landrieu lost to Nagin in the last election and for months had indicated he was not going to run again. He makes no apologies for his late entry.
SIEGEL: This is a competition. It's not Burger King. It's not first come, first served.
ELLIOTT: The voters packed an auditorium at Xavier University Tuesday night to get their first look at the candidates.
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U: Anybody want to ask a question?
ELLIOTT: Attorney Joseph Bruno and the Reverend Aubrey Wallace had front row seats for what they called the most important election of their lives.
BLOCK: It's nothing more than the survival of our city. I mean, this place is not what it used to be. We really desperately need some kind of new thinking, probably a genius mayor who can come up with a way to revitalize this place because it's sinking fast.
SIEGEL: And I'm of the belief that it doesn't make a difference if it was a Republican or a Democrat or if it's a black or white. If you're drowning and someone throws a life rope out to you, you don't look up and see who it is pulling you out of a hole.
ELLIOTT: But historically, this city has voted along racial lines.
SIEGEL: Race is always an issue.
ELLIOTT: State Senator Ed Murray is running for mayor.
SIEGEL: Quite frankly, in New Orleans now, it's become even more of an issue because after Katrina people felt like they were being told, you can't go back to your homes, you can't go back to your neighborhood, it doesn't need to exist. And people really had to fight to get their homes and neighborhoods back. So, people have a real spirit now about making sure that nobody turns the clock back on them.
ELLIOTT: Fighting crime and blight were the main topics at the debate. Former civil district judge Nadine Ramsey said citizens deserved better.
BLOCK: For so long we have listened to politicians telling us about what they have done for our city. Our question must be quite simple: If so much has been done, why is our city in the condition that it is in?
ELLIOTT: The candidates are also touting their government experience after eight years of political novice Ray Nagin, a former businessman. Attorney Rob Couhig.
BLOCK: Nobody wants to be the next Ray Nagin.
ELLIOTT: Candidate John Georges, a wealthy businessman, says it comes down to leadership, just like the undefeated New Orleans Saints and their head coach.
BLOCK: When you bring in a leader like Sean Payton, who's an optimist winner with a plan, he can hire the right team of experts, like Drew Brees when it comes to throwing a football. It's that simple in business. It's that simple in football. I've been a winner my whole life. I know how to pick the winners, I know how to put a plan together.
ELLIOTT: And some fans here will tell you, with the Saints 13-0 and aiming for the Super Bowl, anything is possible - even restoring faith in city hall.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.
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