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Enthusiasm Is Building for Mayoral Showdown

Activists in New Orleans are again making plans to get displaced residents to the polls. Both sides are working to increase the turnout.

April 26, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Mary Richardson has a plan. She will make the 10-hour road trip from her temporary home in San Antonio to New Orleans on May 18. On the 19th, she will rest. Then on Saturday, May 20, she intends to be one of the first in line to cast her ballot in the mayoral runoff between incumbent C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

Richardson's objective is simple: "to make sure my candidate gets in." That candidate is Nagin.

The retired nurse took advantage of early voting during the mayoral primary, traveling from San Antonio on a bus chartered by a community group. Since then, she has been lobbying friends and neighbors -- also displaced to Texas after Hurricane Katrina -- to register to vote, to send in their absentee ballots or to be at the polls on runoff day.

Less than a month before their showdown, Nagin and Landrieu need Robinson's kind of enthusiasm to help win the mayor's seat, political observers said.

"They both need to enhance the momentum to increase the turnout," said Silas Lee, a national pollster who teaches sociology at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Nagin won 38% of 108,000 ballots cast in Saturday's primary, and Landrieu captured 29%. A runoff is mandatory because neither candidate won more than 50% of the vote.

Officials from the Louisiana Department of State said statistics showing the racial breakdown of the vote won't be available for several days.

But independent analysis based on the racial composition of precincts has produced some projections.

According to research by the New Orleans planning and consulting firm GCR & Associates Inc., Nagin won 67% of African American votes, dominating the polls in majority-black precincts. Among white voters, he had about 8%.

Landrieu had a 30% showing among white voters and 23% among blacks, said Greg Rigamer, the firm's chief executive officer. Ron Forman, who received 17% of the vote, endorsed Landrieu on Monday.

Only 36% of the city's 298,000 registered voters cast ballots in the race. Some political observers said Nagin and Landrieu must rev up enthusiasm to ensure a greater turnout.

Residents, leaders of grass-roots groups and mayoral campaign organizers said they were gearing up for the duel.

Ginny Goldman, head organizer in Texas for the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, said the group would again bus displaced New Orleans residents to early voting stations, and possibly to the polls on election day.

"They're calling and saying, 'I missed the boat last time; I don't want to miss the boat this time,' " Goldman said. "People are fired up."

The group has recruited "captains" in apartment complexes where displaced residents live throughout the South to go door-to-door to help people register to vote or to sign up for bus trips to polling stations.

Broderick Bagert, an organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation, said the nonpartisan grass-roots umbrella group had helped more than 5,000 displaced residents cast absentee ballots or participate in early voting for the primary.

He said the goal for the runoff was to double the number of absentee voters and to focus on voters whose mailed ballots were never sent or never received.

Louisiana Department of State statistics show that more than 16,690 mail ballots were requested, but fewer than 10,000 were returned.

In New Orleans, chatter at bars, grocery stores and impromptu gatherings often turns to the mayor's race.

In the racially mixed Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, a group of seniors held court Tuesday outside an independent living center.

"None of them can do nothing for me," Marguerite Oliver, 69, said of the candidates. She didn't vote last weekend and doesn't intend to cast a ballot in the runoff. "I'm still gonna be poor and black."

James Vinson, 75, a soft-spoken man with legs amputated above the knees, said he would vote.

"I'm going to try and make sure the mayor gets back in," he said. "During the storm, he tried to get people here to help the people. He's begged and pleaded. My vote could make the difference."

A few blocks away, Mary Shelton was catching up with colleague Stephen LeBlanc on the sidewalk outside a photographic art studio.

"We need somebody in office who has contact with the U.S. government, someone who can make sure that people are taken care of," said Shelton, a film location manager who voted for Nagin four years ago but now backs Landrieu. "It's not that I dislike Nagin. In fact, I feel like I'm abandoning him. But I think Landrieu can more tactfully get us what we need. Nagin is a bit of a hothead."

Nagin's brash manner, along with some racially charged remarks by him, have persuaded some residents that his behavior is unbecoming and that he has made the city a laughingstock.

Landrieu campaign organizers have encouraged supporters to send postcards to friends outlining the "Landrieu plan," and have urged people to buy yard signs and wear "Mitch for Mayor" T-shirts during the city's Jazz and Heritage Festival this weekend.

Father Vien Nguyen, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in the predominantly Vietnamese neighborhood of Versailles in New Orleans East, said that although his community's church groups and business leaders endorsed Forman last time, no decision had been made about whom to support in the runoff.

The city's Vietnamese population numbered 20,000 before Katrina.

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