African-American precincts lift Nagin to top spot
By John Pope and Matt Scallan Staff writers
Mayor Ray Nagin carried a swath of precincts across the city Saturday to finish first in the mayoral primary, doing especially well in precincts that Hurricane Katrina pummeled.
Nagin is black, as are most of the New Orleanians whom the storm hit hardest. The other three top vote-getters — Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, Ron Forman and Rob Couhig — are white.
The only Katrina-ravaged part of New Orleans where Nagin did not do well was Lakeview, which is heavily white. Forman was the victor there.
Nagin carried 281 of the city’s 300 precincts where black voters are in the majority. He also led the field in a massive absentee vote, in which more than 21,000 New Orleanians cast ballots: nearly 10 times the number of absentee ballots cast in the 2002 mayoral primary, which Nagin also led.
Among absentee voters, Secretary of State Al Ater said the racial breakdown — 65 percent black, 32 percent white — was consistent with New Orleans’s pre-Katrina population.
Nagin dominated Central City precincts and was strong in Broadmoor, Gentilly and eastern New Orleans. Landrieu ran strongest in Carrollton; patches of Uptown, a sector he shared with Forman; and a stretch along the Mississippi River from the French Quarter through Faubourg Marigny and Bywater.
In addition to Lakeview, Forman carried the English Turn section of Algiers and the sparsely populated Venetian Isles section of eastern New Orleans. Couhig’s only victories came in precincts in Lakeview, Lake Terrace and the Lower Coast of Algiers.
Turnout varied widely from precinct to precinct. However, Landrieu and Forman benefited from higher turnouts in majority-white precincts, where, on average, 44 percent of the voters went to the polls. In black-majority precincts, the average voter turnout was 24 percent. In 105 of the city’s 442 precincts — about 24 percent — the rate was below 20 percent.
Part of the reason for such low participation is that so much of the city’s population has been displaced by Katrina, political consultant Silas Lee said.
“Another factor is that people are distracted,” he said. “They’re trying to rebuild their homes and their lives. This is still a community that has been shocked. Our sense of stability has been significantly altered.”
This feeling will last “until people get their homes back and get some sense of normalcy,” said Lee, a Xavier University sociologist. “Nothing’s normal right now.”
In Saturday’s primary Nagin led the 22-candidate field with 38 percent of the vote, 9 percentage points ahead of Landrieu.
Considering that Nagin presided over New Orleans when Katrina hit, “that’s good,” University of New Orleans political scientist Susan Howell said. “For the incumbent to finish first, and first by a significant amount, is good news for Nagin.”
But, she said, “the bad news for Nagin is that everybody who voted for somebody else in the primary probably will not vote for him in the runoff.”
Nagin carried 66 percent of the black vote, and Landrieu won 24 percent, according to an analysis by political consultant Greg Rigamer. Four years ago Nagin won the mayoralty with strong support from the city’s white voters, while Richard Pennington, his runoff opponent, had a lock on the black vote.
But in the Saturday primary Nagin’s strength came from majority-black precincts. He carried 213 of the precincts that he lost to Pennington in the 2002 primary.
For Nagin to win in the May 20 runoff, he will have to capture the votes of more black voters, Howell and Lee said.
This will be difficult, Howell said, not only because Landrieu and his politically active family traditionally have run strongly among black voters, but also because Katrina scuttled so many of the time-honored methods to get black people to the polls.
“Churches are destroyed, black organizations are not as active as they used to be, and the people are gone,” she said. “They are dispersed, and all the neighborhood networks and social structures are gone. You’re left with an individual’s motivation to vote, and that’s highly related to status and education.”
Although Nagin may not choose to promote himself as a black symbol, “the strategy of this election pressures him to do that,” Howell said. “It doesn’t have to be the mayor playing the race card. This is not him, but there’ll be other people who’ll do it for him, even if he doesn’t want them to do it.”
Nagin also needs to expand his white support, Lee said, adding that much will depend on where Forman’s and Couhig’s backers go.
John Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3317. Matt Scallan can be reached at email@example.com or (985) 652-0953