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Racial Current Runs Through This Campaign

In New Orleans, many see the mayoral election through a prism of color and class. `More is at stake for us now,' one evacuee insists.

April 17, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Most of this city is still a river of rubble, with basic services barely functioning and its population slashed in half. But when voters go to the polls Saturday to cast their ballots for mayor, an underlying factor influencing their choice for the person who will help them retreat or return, rebuild or raze, is another R-word.

"It's about race," said Elliott Stonecipher, an independent pollster based in Shreveport, La.

Which neighborhoods will be allowed to rebuild, who is able to return to the city, even the logistics of voting in the elections for mayor and other municipal offices are being viewed through a prism of color and class, Stonecipher and other analysts agree.

Incumbent Mayor C. Ray Nagin faces an unprecedented 22 challengers. Local polls show Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Audubon Nature Institute Chief Executive Ron Forman as Nagin's strongest contenders.

If no one gets more than half the votes, a runoff will be held May 20 for the top two vote-getters.

"It's who [voters] trust the most, racial identification and who they think is the strongest leader," said Susan E. Howell, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans.

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' population was approximately 450,000, about 70% of them black. For almost three decades, the city's mayors have been black. But of the nearly 200,000 residents who have returned since the storm, most are white.

Many African Americans have decided to stay in other parts of Louisiana and in different states. Others want to return but lack the resources -- and have nothing to return to.

Many of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina were mostly black. Revisions that Nagin made to the recommendations of his Bring Back New Orleans Commission -- the group framing the debate over reconstruction -- allowed rebuilding in all parts of the city.

But many devastated neighborhoods lie in areas vulnerable to future flooding.

And many residents are fretting over the prospective cost of raising the first floors of their homes 1 to 3 feet before rebuilding, as being advised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Some candidates have talked about shrinking the city's footprint, or reducing the areas within the city where homes can be built. They argue that the city can neither justify nor afford to operate as though it still had its pre-Katrina population. That suggestion also has taken on racial overtones.

" 'Smaller footprint' is code for race," Stonecipher said. It "means evacuees don't get to come back and rebuild and live here anymore."

Race has also been at the center of complaints over election logistics. Some civil rights groups and community groups tried to get this week's vote blocked, arguing that numerous black residents would not have a fair chance to participate.

Concerns included the complications of absentee voting: New Orleans' still-unreliable mail service; the relocation and reduction of polling stations; and the absence of satellite voting locations outside Louisiana, which would have made it easier for evacuees to cast ballots.

More than 10,500 voters cast ballots at satellite polling stations in Louisiana during five days of early voting that ended Saturday.

Many of the displaced residents came in from other states on buses sponsored by grass-roots groups such as the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. Some had returned to the city for the first time since Katrina; some were first-time voters.

Mary Richardson made the 10-hour trip from San Antonio because she hadn't missed an election in 37 years.

"This is the most important election in New Orleans since the Duke-Edwards election," said Richardson, whose home in New Orleans East was damaged beyond repair. She was referring to the 1991 Louisiana governor's race between former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and Edwin W. Edwards. "More is at stake for us now than in that election. We're trying to get back home."

Political pundits think Nagin is certain to be in the mayoral runoff, with Landrieu and Forman battling for the other spot.

A poll of 400 voters in New Orleans, conducted last month by Loyola University New Orleans political science professor Edward F. Renwick, put Landrieu in the lead with 27%, followed by Nagin with 26% and Forman with 16%. (About 60% of respondents were white, 40% black; Renwick weighted his results on the assumption that actual voter turnout would be evenly split.)

In recent days, Landrieu and Forman have launched attack ads against each other, largely ignoring Nagin.

"They know they're running against each other," said Howell, the University of New Orleans political scientist. "They're competing for white votes."

Nagin, who was elected in 2002 by a majority of white voters, now appears to be modeling himself as the "black candidate," analysts said.

He scrapped a proposed moratorium on building permits that some feared would have prevented many poor blacks from returning home.

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