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Nagin Among Front-Runners in New Orleans
Mayor's Popularity Grows Despite Missteps in Handling of Hurricane Katrina

By Peter Whoriskey Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, April 20, 2006; A09

NEW ORLEANS -- The barbs and accusations aimed at Mayor C. Ray Nagin these days reflect the political damage of one of the worst catastrophes in U.S. history.

"You drowned 1,200 people!" a challenger declared during a locally televised campaign debate. Others openly question whether the relentlessly glib mayor has the gravitas to lead the city through the post-Hurricane Katrina crisis. And on the streets, in reference to his now-famous speech suggesting that God wanted the city to remain "chocolate," popular T-shirts depict him as the fictional sweets inventor Willy Wonka.

Yet to the astonishment of some who had assumed that his missteps and post-Katrina despair would doom his reelection bid, Nagin the laughingstock is also counted as a front-runner as voters head to the polls on Saturday.

Nagin and others credit his post-storm performance for his standing, and many still fondly recall him telling federal authorities to "get off their asses" as the city slipped into chaos. But one of the reasons for his recent appeal, and by some estimates the most powerful force in this historic election, is race.

"People had written me off -- because of Katrina, because of some remarks I'd made," an upbeat Nagin said after a recent campaign event in the city's Algiers section. "But now the poll numbers are waking people up, and here I am standing and getting stronger as time goes on."

The city's next mayor will face the monumental challenges of a half-wrecked metropolis, broken finances and a stalled recovery. And that, at least theoretically, might drive a campaign of issues, not skin color.

But with the post-storm diaspora tilting voter demographics somewhat toward whites and raising racial sensitivities on both sides, polls indicate and political analysts say that volatile racial allegiances have become pronounced. Nagin's shifting political base and his standing in the polls is a case in point.

"Black voters are coming back to Nagin, not necessarily as a person but as a symbol of a racial regime," said Susan Howell, a pollster and professor at the University of New Orleans. "And in blunt terms, some white voters see this as an opportunity to take back power."

While black and white voter turnout on Saturday is difficult to predict, many here are assuming that the number of black and white voters will be about equal. Before Katrina, about two-thirds of the city's voters were black.

When he was elected in 2002, Nagin won large majorities in the city's white neighborhoods, but lost in majority black precincts. But then he was running against another black man, Police Superintendent Richard Pennington.

Now that Nagin's two chief foes are white, including Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu, his racial appeal has shifted. Even as his white support drifts to his challengers, some of those black voters who spurned Nagin four years ago are embracing him, political analysts said.

"First, he was 'too white,' " mused City Council President Oliver Thomas. "Now he's 'too black.' Maybe he'll turn out caramel."

"The black voters seem to be coalescing around me more quickly than the white voters," said Nagin, a former cable television executive who before the storm was viewed as a savvy City Hall reformer by many here. "It had to happen. I was the only guy who stood up during the crisis when people were suffering at the Superdome and the Convention Center. Afterward, I was the only one who basically spoke to their hopelessness about being spread out across the country. So there's a connection there I just have to build upon."

Nagin said some of his prominent white supporters who now appear to be backing other candidates had been "a little opportunistic. They assumed, like everyone else, that I was going to go into the toilet."

His two leading challengers, according to polls, are Ron Forman, chief of the Audubon Nature Institute here, and Landrieu. If none of the 23 candidates receives a majority of the vote, the top two finishers will face each other in a runoff scheduled for May 20.

Each of the three front-runners cuts a distinct racial slice of the electorate, according to a telephone poll of 400 voters conducted by Loyola University professor Ed Renwick.

Forman, who has won the endorsement of some business leaders and the Times-Picayune, may be best known for reviving the local zoo and building support for the city aquarium. In the poll, Forman won among white voters, capturing 30 percent of their support.

Landrieu, scored similarly among white and black voters, getting 26 percent of white voters and 28 percent of black voters. He is white, and his father, Moon Landrieu, the city's last white mayor, was noted for drawing blacks into his administration. Overall, he polled best.

Nagin sits at the other end of the spectrum, scoring best among black voters, with 41 percent.

Predicting turnout is difficult, with voters scattered across the country. But if forecasts are correct and half the electorate is black, many believe that Nagin is assured a spot in the runoff, and that the suspense in Saturday's contest revolves around who will face him.

"Nagin was dead," said City Council President Thomas, who has frequently sparred with Nagin. "Now he's got a heartbeat, and it seems the longer the campaign, the stronger his heartbeat."

Forman, despite his lopsided support among whites, said race is not a critical factor in the election.

Contrary to what some of his competitors have suggested, "I'm not a white elitist," he said. "Eighty percent of people in the city want the same things: to rebuild. What I want to do for us is to dream a big dream about the future -- and move us there."

Landrieu, who as a state legislator and lieutenant governor drew significant support from African Americans and whites, said he expects that race will play a key role in the election -- as it does, he noted, in many U.S. cities.

"When people say 'race,' they assume that people think you can be only black or you can only be white," he said in an interview at his campaign headquarters here. "There are those of us who are aggressively both."

But the very idea of race has been complicated in New Orleans, and makes it less of an issue than it might be elsewhere.

"We have never been an all-black or all-white city," he said, noting the Spanish and French control over the city that predated its American era. "We are an aggressive melting pot."

With many in the city suffering the loss of their life's savings and the trauma of seeing their neighborhoods abandoned, the electorate is marked by a level of anxiety rare in municipal elections. As a result, many people will be looking for a champion who can lift their spirits.

But who that is may very well depend on skin color.

"I don't think there has been an electorate here that has been as anxious and worried since the Great Depression," Howell said. "Everyone here wants to see a recovery. That's not the question. The question is 'Who do you trust?' and that's where race enters into it."