February 3, 2006
New Orleans Facing Election and New Order
By ADAM NOSSITER
NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 2 — In great confusion and peculiar circumstances, this city has suddenly found itself in the midst of an unexpected mayoral election campaign. The result may once again upend this city's old order: a white man might be elected mayor in a city that was, until a few months ago, mostly black.
That outcome would have been undreamed of before the hurricane, but the high probability of one of Louisiana's most potent political families entering a race that almost didn't happen could further transform a political calculus that has prevailed here for nearly three decades.
Mitch Landrieu, the state's lieutenant governor and son of the city's last white mayor — Moon Landrieu, who left office in 1978 — is expected to announce any day his entry into a race that will help define a radically reshaped city.
Among other opponents, he will face Mayor C. Ray Nagin, whose popularity here and elsewhere has withered under criticism of his performance during Hurricane Katrina and his recent remarks about the future racial makeup of the city.
Business leaders and ordinary citizens here are already following this nascent contest with unusual intensity, but no potential candidacy has generated more conversation than Mr. Landrieu's. His family has long been popular among both the city's black voters and the Uptown white liberals.
Moon Landrieu brought blacks into city politics for the first time since Reconstruction. His daughter Mary, the United States senator, a rare white Southern Democrat, was narrowly re-elected in 2002 thanks to support from black voters. Mitch Landrieu himself, in years representing an Uptown New Orleans district in the State Legislature, was an unusual Louisiana politician who straddled the racial divide.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Landrieu was one of a handful of white state legislators who distanced themselves from the ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, when Mr. Duke was elected to the state House from Metairie. Mr. Landrieu denounced Mr. Duke while other white lawmakers, particularly Republicans, embraced him. That stance solidified his support among blacks.
But if Mr. Landrieu, 45, becomes mayor, he will be elected by a very different coalition than the one that put his relatives in office: whites, not blacks, would likely give him his key boost. The storm shattered the city's old demographics, sending tens of thousands of black residents into exile and leaving a mostly white city.
Though scattered residents would be encouraged to vote by absentee ballot, the process will almost certainly be chaotic, particularly since many voters will be hard to find. There would be a strong temptation to read his presence in the race, and any popularity he achieves, as a symbol of the changed electorate.
And yet in one of the paradoxes that help define this city's unusual political complexion, Mr. Landrieu is viewed by some influential black leaders as a less racially divisive figure than Mr. Nagin, a black man who owed his victory four years ago to prosperous white voters. The candidate Mr. Nagin defeated in 2002 drew far more support from working-class blacks than the mayor; these same voters are now among the most uneasy about the way New Orleans is reconfiguring itself.
Mr. Nagin has always been regarded with suspicion by much of the black community, and that has never been truer than now. The mayor's recovery commission, comprised largely of white businessmen, has been criticized for proposals that could have the effect of shrinking the city, to the disadvantage of blacks.
At the same time, the white reaction to Mr. Nagin's Martin Luther King Day speech, in which he called for the return of New Orleans as a "chocolate city," was intensely disapproving, with editorialists and business figures thundering against it. The mayor may have done himself little good with black voters, either.
"Blacks didn't rally around the speech because they didn't think it was genuine," said Cedric Richmond, a state representative from New Orleans who is the head of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Mr. Richmond predicted that in a runoff between Mr. Landrieu and Mr. Nagin, Mr. Landrieu would win handily, with significant black support.
Another leading black politician here, Oliver Thomas, the City Council president, expressed similar sentiments: "Given the relationship the current mayor has had for the last four years with everybody," he said, "I think every vote is up for grabs."
Some political experts believe the power of Mr. Landrieu's name will be enough to draw a biracial coalition similar to the ones the Landrieus have been assembling for years. His record in 16 years in the legislature is regarded as modest, with his most notable accomplishment a drive to reform the scandal-ridden juvenile justice system. Yet the family's commitment to civil rights, going back to a lonely stand by his father against segregationist bills in the 1960 legislature, is seen as trumping all.
"The Landrieu factor is huge," said Wayne Parent, a Louisiana State University political scientist. "Mitch Landrieu, because of his name recognition and previous support, will be a favorite, a clear favorite." The job itself would probably make any candidate hesitate. With New Orleans broke, still half-ruined from Hurricane Katrina and desperate for more federal help, race may matter less than a candidate's willingness to take on the federal government in speeding aid to the area.
At the same time, questions about the legitimacy of holding an election at a time when so many residents are out of town have hovered for months. At first, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco indefinitely postponed the vote, originally scheduled for this month.
That unpopular decision spawned a flurry of lawsuits, and last month the state, under pressure from a federal judge, agreed to a primary election on April 22, with a possible runoff May 20. The state has promised a campaign to publicize it in cities around the country, along with a mass mailing of absentee ballots. But that has not quelled some doubts.
"I'm all for having elections, but I want to make sure that they're fair elections," the mayor said on Wednesday. "And the fact that, as mayor of the city of New Orleans, I still do not have the FEMA list that will allow me to communicate with my citizens who are spread out over 44 different states to at least let them know that they can come back causes me to pause as far as whether we can have fair elections or not."
Mr. Richmond, the legislator, acknowledged the concerns, but said redefining the city's leadership was paramount. "I think we need to have an election," he said, "because we need to have leadership we don't have now. The city is racially divided. We need to bring the races together."