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The Nation

A Jambalaya of Mayoral Candidates

In New Orleans, Katrina has stirred up the political status quo. Nearly two dozen people want C. Ray Nagin's job.

April 13, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The frustration, disillusionment and anger of life after Hurricane Katrina have compelled 22 people to declare that they can do a better job of running the city than Mayor C. Ray Nagin.

The largest field of challengers in a modern New Orleans mayoral race includes marquee names such as Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and familiar names and faces such as radio host James Arey, city Clerk of Court Kimberly Williamson Butler and a comedian who ran in 2002 on the slogan "A Troubled Man for Troubled Times." (His slogan this year? "More Troubled Now Than Ever.")

But most are relative unknowns: a paralegal running his campaign from his car, two ministers, a former minor league baseball team owner and a woman whose trademark is her extravagant hats.

Many have never held public office, have no name recognition and lack the money to launch a website, much less a full-fledged campaign. At least one is, like many New Orleanians, unemployed.

A political analyst said the number of challengers reflected the widespread frustration with the political status quo, delays in getting New Orleans up and running and the city's vastly altered demographics.

"The crisis situation, the novelty of the situation, brings that out in a lot of people," said Wayne Parent, associate dean and political science professor at Louisiana State University. "Lots of people think this is the time to change everything ... the time to think outside the box. And they think they're the one who can think outside the box."

Many of the candidates, Parent said, "know full well that they'll never be elected. But if ever there was a time for an unknown to slip into the runoff, this is the time."

To win the April 22 election, a candidate must get a majority of the votes; otherwise, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff scheduled for May 20.

Two candidates are widely seen as Nagin's chief challengers, primarily because of name recognition and financing: Landrieu, son of the city's last white mayor, Maurice Edwin "Moon" Landrieu, and brother of Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.); and Ron Forman, president and chief executive of the Audubon Nature Institute.

Four other candidates have made the cut to regularly participate in televised forums and debates: lawyer Virginia Boulet, entrepreneur Robert Couhig, former Councilwoman Peggy Wilson and the Rev. Tom Watson.

The field is divided almost equally among black and white candidates. For almost 30 years, this city with a two-thirds majority of black residents has had only African American mayors. Today, it is widely believed that most residents forced to live outside the city are black.

"Some people entered the race in order to take advantage of the different demographics in the city, and some African American candidates got into the race in order to ensure representation of the electorate that is displaced," said Brian Brox, a political scientist at Tulane University.

On Monday, hundreds of Katrina evacuees living in Texas and other states traveled to Louisiana to cast early ballots at satellite voting centers.

Nagin told reporters earlier in the race that it "blows my mind" that so many white candidates were competing for his job when such a significant portion of the black electorate was spread across the country; he called the move a coordinated "power play of sorts."

Nagin, who has been in office since 2002, plays up his experience as mayor and the city's need for qualified leadership in a crisis.

"I don't know about you all, but I wouldn't want a rookie dealing with the next hurricane season," he recently told a group of homeowners in the city's devastated Lower 9th Ward.

But candidate John Nicholas "Johnny" Adriani Jr., a criminal defense paralegal, said he had not been impressed with what "experience" had done for the city.

"It's obvious that the connections that these people have, and all these years of experience, it's not making any difference," said Adriani, whose car is his primary campaign headquarters.

"When you see no direction, you've almost got to take it upon yourself," said Adriani, 34.

When Manny Chevrolet Bruno, a former stand-up comedian and member of a punk rock/Las Vegas lounge act, ran for mayor four years ago, he finished 13th in a field of 15 candidates. His penchant for tomfoolery has caused some observers to dub him a class clown.

A recovering cocaine and heroin addict, Bruno, 42, said even "little guys like me have something to say." He proposes making New Orleans the new Amsterdam, with state-of-the-art levee systems that would be funded through legalized prostitution, hash bars and flower gardens.

Other candidates believe their relative anonymity gives them an edge -- as it did Nagin, a former cable company executive who was a political unknown when he ran for mayor.

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