Mayoral hopefuls stop playing nice
Attack ads begin as primary nears
Sunday, April 16, 2006
By Frank Donze Staff writer
Put the gloves away. Get out the brass knuckles. Advertisement
A cordial -- some say lackluster -- New Orleans mayoral contest has erupted into a street brawl. And with just six days left to reach voters before Saturday's primary, the melee is likely to get only messier.
For weeks now, pundits have speculated that the post-Katrina depression still gripping much of the shattered city would temper the negative campaigning characteristic of Louisiana politics.
Whether or not voters like it, the race apparently reverted to form Wednesday with the debut of the first televised attack ad. It begat an immediate, and even edgier, response.
With four televised debates scheduled for this week -- beginning with an unprecedented nationwide broadcast Monday night on MSNBC as well as locally on WDSU -- the opportunity to deliver additional prime-time punches is there for the taking. Factor in the heavy dose of last-minute advertising planned by the top contenders, and voters here in the New Orleans area will be hard-pressed to escape the campaign between now and election day.
Thus far, one attack spot has attempted to tie two candidates to alleged corruption in the previous mayoral administration, while depicting them as hogs at the public trough. Another applies the tax-and-spend liberal label, while still another raises questions about scarce tax dollars being diverted to pay a candidate's six-figure salary.
Operatives in several camps said they expect a flurry of new attack ads to appear next week.
Many have already voted
A significant portion of the vote, however, is immune to the recent frenzy, having already been cast during an unprecedented effort to arrange absentee and pre-election balloting by New Orleanians still scattered across the nation.
Through Saturday, more than 10,500 voters had taken advantage of the weeklong early voting process established in 10 Louisiana communities and New Orleans that ended Saturday. Another group of about 15,000 voters here and outside the city have requested absentee ballots, of which about 3,000 were returned.
How those early voters make their decisions is just one of the many imponderables hanging over an election unlike any in the city's history.
Before Katrina, New Orleans had about 300,000 registered voters. Although a heavy turnout -- perhaps 70 percent or more -- is expected among the 200,000 or so voters living in or near the city, no one is certain how many voters living elsewhere will take part in the election.
And because African-Americans are believed to represent a disproportionate percentage of the Katrina evacuees, there was speculation early on that black voters, who comprised 63 percent of the city's electorate before the storm, could slip into minority status.
More recent projections anticipate black and white voter turnout to be more or less equal.
Landrieu, Forman at odds
When the starting gun sounded six weeks ago, two expectations seemed unshakable:
-- One of the two spots in an inevitable May 20 runoff would be filled by embattled incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin, the lone well-financed, well-known African-American candidate in the field.
-- The other would go to either Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu or Ron Forman, Audubon Nature Institute chief executive, Nagin's best-financed white challengers.
The premise still holds, polls suggest, although a Landrieu-Forman runoff remains a slim possibility.
And so it comes as no surprise that after a relatively peaceful first month on the campaign trail, Landrieu and Forman, each having raised more than $1.5 million, are now spending freely to trash -- not Nagin -- but one another.
In fact, Forman and Landrieu have hardly laid a hand on Nagin, though both insist he is unfit to lead the city's recovery. The strategy suggests that his opponents have all but conceded the mayor is headed for the runoff.
Meanwhile, a handful of upstarts, led by lawyers Virginia Boulet and Rob Couhig and former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson, have mounted spirited campaigns largely aimed at peeling support from Forman and Landrieu.
"You might say we have a mini white primary between Forman and Landrieu, with Couhig, Boulet and Wilson attempting to get in there," said University of New Orleans political scientist professor Susan Howell. The only other candidate widely regarded as a factor in the race is the Rev. Tom Watson, an African American.
"The conventional wisdom is that Nagin is a given for the runoff and everyone else is competing for the second spot," Howell said.
While Boulet, Couhig and Watson have been more subtle in their criticism, Wilson has been ferocious, pounding Forman and Landrieu during debates and airing a TV ad this week that labels them "corruption enablers" for their past political support of former Mayor Marc Morial, whose City Hall contracting practices are the subject of several federal investigations.
For his part, Nagin has focused on how he stood by his "post" during the tumultuous weeks after the storm. But now and then he takes a poke at his chief opponents. For instance, he has tried to foist blame for the state's failure to deliver federal recovery dollars on Landrieu, who as lieutenant governor has no control over the money.
So far Watson and the only other black candidate with name recognition, Kimberly Williamson Butler, seem to be having minimal impact on Nagin. But the second-tier white candidates appear to be eroding support for both Landrieu and, to a larger degree, Forman, who is drawing much of his backing from Republicans and white Democrats.
'Playing not to lose'
It remains to be seen whether the suddenly harsher tone of the front-runners' advertising will carry over into debates -- heretofore, studies either in chaos, given the enormous slate of candidates, or substanceless posturing.
"For the most part, they've been cautious and unimaginative," said veteran political consultant Ron Nabonne, who is not working for any mayoral hopeful. "In these uncertain times, many people have been looking for something different, and none of the big three has provided that so far.
"To use an old football cliché, they appear to be playing not to lose."
Not surprisingly, the boldest proposals have come from the second-tier candidates, ranging from Wilson's call for a tax-free city to Boulet's push to relocate UNO from its Lakefront campus to a downtown site to Couhig's pledge to use the power of the mayor's office to push owners of flood-ravaged properties to make timely decisions on whether to renovate or sell.
Howell said it has been difficult for the top-tier candidates to distinguish themselves because recovery issues are so complex and most key decisions, in the end, will rest with state and federal officials.
"Basically, it's been a race about personality, character and race," she said. "The way many voters are looking at it is: 'Who do I trust? Is it a white person or a black person?
"It's sad but true that this is ultimately going to turn into a racially polarized election," she said.
Another explanation for the play-it-safe approach is that the three front-runners are more wary of making a mistake that could erode what they view as their base of support than they are eager to play to a broader constituency.
A poll done last month by Ed Renwick, director of the Loyola University Institute of Politics, showed Landrieu leading the mayoral field with 27 percent of the vote, followed by Nagin with 26 percent and Forman with 16 percent. More than one in five voters surveyed were undecided, and no other candidate was in double digits.
Among white respondents, Forman captured the most support, with 30 percent. Among black respondents, Nagin led the pack with 41 percent. Landrieu was the only candidate to secure a true biracial coalition. He captured second place among both races, with 26 percent among white voters and 28 percent among black voters.
Pollster Ed Renwick surveyed 400 voters on land-based telephone lines in New Orleans. Respondents were about 60 percent white and 40 percent black, but Renwick weighted the numbers on the assumption that the electorate on Saturday will be evenly split along racial lines.
"In the beginning, each of the three probably felt there was no need to go negative because each felt they could be in the runoff," Renwick said."
Forman gives in
Forman was reluctant to throw the first punch, but he was the logical one to do so, given his third-place standing in most polls. After weeks of lobbying by his campaign staff, he agreed to air a TV spot Wednesday night that raised questions about Landrieu's support for taxes as a legislator and the low ratings he received from business groups.
Landrieu struck back immediately with an ad that painted Forman as a highly paid executive whose publicly financed projects have come in over budget and behind schedule.
The most recent campaign finance reports filed with the state show that the top three contenders have plenty of ammunition for the final week, whether it's for an attack ad or a rapid response that answers an opponent's broadside against them.
Through April 2, the documents showed Nagin led the pack with $885,000 on hand, followed by Landrieu with $814,000 and Forman with $747,000.
"History shows us that once the negative starts, it goes tit for tat," Renwick said.
"Some might say the tasteful thing would have been to wait until after Easter. But Louisiana politics is not known for its tastefulness."
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Frank Donze can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3328.