Nagin speech piques hunger
Potential mayoral candidates awaken
Saturday, January 21, 2006
By Bruce Eggler and Frank Donze
Mayor Ray Nagin's now-infamous "chocolate city" address was barely over Monday when political consultants' and kingmakers' cell phones started ringing, igniting a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity in what had been a largely dormant mayor's race.
As potential challengers weighed how Nagin's words would affect his chances of winning re-election, the general conclusion was that he had shot himself in the foot, if not higher, and the ballot was about to get more crowded.
Combined with the news this week that the postponed mayoral primary is likely to be April 22, with qualifying taking place March 1-3, less than six weeks away, Nagin's remarks appeared to launch the 2006 campaign in earnest.
Among the names being unofficially bandied about this week as possible candidates, either again or for the first time, were Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, state Attorney General Charles Foti, City Council President Oliver Thomas, Councilman Eddie Sapir, Audubon Nature Institute Chief Executive Ron Forman, Constable and former state Sen. Lambert Boissiere Jr., the Rev. Tom Watson, Civil District Judge Michael Bagneris, state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Leslie Jacobs, former Saints executive Arnold Fielkow and Orleans Parish School Board members Jimmy Fahrenholtz and Una Anderson.
Few of them were prepared this week to say anything meaningful on the record about their intentions, although Sapir said he has authorized an exploratory committee. Boissiere said he is being approached by others about running and is considering it.
Sources said Foti would run only if Landrieu does not.
A few candidates had more or less announced their intention to run against Nagin earlier, such as former Councilwoman Peggy Wilson, lawyer and Harry Connick intimate William Wessel, and civic activist and former state Rep. Leo Watermeier. Wilson has been openly campaigning, Watermeier has signs up and has been sending out e-mails denouncing Nagin for a year, and Wessel continues to hold meetings with Connick and his cronies.
Although admitting in interview after interview this week that some of his remarks were ill-chosen and he wished he hadn't said them, Nagin remained outwardly upbeat, saying he is looking forward to the campaign. Asked about the suddenly sizable body of rumored challengers, Nagin noted that "talk is cheap" and that no one is an official candidate until qualification papers have been filed.
Indeed, it is likely that many, maybe most, of the potential candidates being talked about this week will end up not going to the post.
But the chance that Nagin will face major opposition, already strong before his Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech, is now overwhelming.
One of the prominently mentioned possible candidates, asked if he thinks Nagin is politically dead after the speech, said, "He was dead before."
That's probably too strong. Nagin has universal name recognition and a large campaign war chest. Many of his possible opponents have neither, and some have no proven record as vote-getters, at least in a high-profile race such as mayor.
What makes handicapping the field of possible candidates even more difficult is the fact no one knows what the electorate will look like come April.
With more than half the city's population scattered from California to the East Coast, the general assumption is that the portion of the electorate living in the city is likely to be majority-white and with significantly higher average income than before.
But this is likely to be a campaign that no one has ever seen before, with candidates probably running ads and making appearances in cities such as Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Memphis, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss.
There will be a significant effort by the state to notify displaced voters everywhere about how they can cast ballots, either by mail or in person, and on election day there could be epic traffic jams as tens of thousands come home to have their say on who will run the city for the next not-quite-four years.
Running meaningful polls of such a dispersed electorate could be difficult if not impossible.
Prominent business and civic leaders, some of whom backed Nagin four years ago, reportedly have been looking for a candidate ready to challenge the mayor on a platform that endorses the controversial rebuilding plans proposed by Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission.
The group reportedly approached Tulane University President Scott Cowen, a member of the commission, but he appears cool to the idea. If no one else appears ready to take on the task, the group could well turn to Forman.
Forman, who said two months ago he was not running, refused this week to rule it out. A tip-off to his plans -- and a testament to the tangled nature of New Orleans politics -- could be if his wife, Nagin communications director Sally Forman, announces her resignation.
The business group probably would be ready to endorse Landrieu, but only if he commits to enacting the commission's plans for shrinking the city's footprint, which have drawn strong criticism from many residents and political leaders. At least some members of the group fear Landrieu would be willing to defer to the views of council members and state legislators who have blasted the commission's work.
One person familiar with the group's efforts expects it to make up its mind in two weeks. In the meantime, the person said, the feeling in the business community and Uptown crowd is that while Nagin "isn't dead yet, he is on his death bed."
More than angry and dismayed at Nagin's comments this week, the person said, the business leaders are most upset that the message imbedded in the commission's plan has been drowned out by the noise emanating from the "chocolate city" speech. "No one's paying attention to the plan," the source said. "All the attention is focused on this nonsense."
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Bruce Eggler can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3320. Frank Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3328.