By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006
NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 22 -- Mayor C. Ray Nagin walked up to a table full of disgruntled subcontractors at the famous Cafe du Monde here a few days ago. When they asked the mayor what he could do to streamline debris removal in New Orleans and help smaller companies get more of the work, Nagin smiled, threw up his hands and gave them the political version of the golden rule: "He who has the gold makes the rules."
And Nagin no longer has the gold. The money for rebuilding is being controlled by the federal government and state officials in Baton Rouge. And that means that many decisions, rulemaking capabilities and opportunities to enact change no longer belong to the mayor of post-Katrina New Orleans.
These days, the mayor has to beg for every single thing. The city is in dire financial straits, and Nagin has to petition the state for financial assistance just to maintain limited services. The mayor is waiting for the federal government to essentially tell him what his city is going to look like, as well as to answer crucial questions such as who will need flood insurance and what sort of temporary housing will be available.
It's a wonder anybody would want the mayor's job. But a host of people do. Nagin will be running for reelection against at least 10 challengers.
One of Nagin's most formidable opponents, Lt. Gov. Mitchell J. Landrieu, announced his candidacy Wednesday, and to many political observers here that means the race is on. It is a sprint, not a marathon. The nonpartisan primary election will be held April 22, with the top two vote-getters facing a runoff in May, if necessary.
"You have to be a thrill seeker, enjoy the ultimate challenge," Nagin said when asked why he still wants to be mayor of the city. "I've been looking for that all my life. Now I found it."
Nagin said he is not surprised that a number of people are running against him, but he noted that he thinks he has a good record, that his city is on the mend and that an increasing number of people are coming back and starting to rebuild. New Orleans, he said, has entered its rebuilding phase. "You shouldn't be changing leaders in the middle of this crisis," Nagin said.
In an interview, Landrieu said the diminished powers of the post-Katrina mayor had given him pause before he decided to run. But he said that, as lieutenant governor, he has learned that holding a political office is not always "about power and control, it's about accountability and responsibility."
He said he has lobbied Congress many times and has a good relationship with Donald Powell, President Bush's coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding.
Landrieu joins an eclectic field. L. Ronald Forman, chief executive officer of the Audubon Nature Institute, has a lot of citywide support. Other hopefuls include the Rev. Tom Watson, the only African American in the race besides Nagin; former City Council member Peggy Wilson; lawyers Virginia Boulet and Bill Wessel; public radio announcer James Arey; and former state representative Leo Watermeier.
Everyone expected Nagin to face strong opposition, said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit public interest group. "But I don't think anybody was banking on the whole cast of 'Gone With the Wind' being in the race."
Like Nagin, Landrieu has marquee value. He is a younger brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and a son of Moon Landrieu, who was mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s and secretary of housing and urban development under President Jimmy Carter.
Mitchell Landrieu has had many political dealings with state and federal authorities, Erwin said. So has Nagin, of course. "Nagin has experience that nobody else has," Erwin said. And Nagin has dealt with every level of decision maker, including Bush.
But there are so many unknowns facing the next mayor. And, as with everything in New Orleans these days, so many complications. On the face of it, Forman would appear to have the support of the business community, but there are some who believe he did harm to the city's Chamber of Commerce when he was its president by not expanding its membership. And he has taken heat for running Mayor Marc Morial's controversial quest for a third term in 2001. Some local political analysts believe Landrieu could be hurt because of voter unrest over his senator sister, who some here feel has not been a strong leader since Hurricane Katrina.
Nagin has been reaching out to African American voters since his first election, in which he was supported by the white business establishment. But his efforts may have backfired when he declared weeks ago that blacks would come back to New Orleans, making it a "chocolate city."
He has since apologized. But, said Jeff Crouere, host of a local political talk show on radio: "He has endangered his base by that 'chocolate city' comment."
Race might be a deciding factor in the contest. But no one knows because no one is sure about the racial makeup of residents at the moment. The population of the city is less than half of what it was before Katrina, and residents are scattered throughout the country. It is unclear who is eligible to vote and how to get ballots to those who are out of town.
"Who is going to vote?" Erwin said.
The city faces monumental problems in the coming years -- in housing, employment, medical care, insurance and a public school system that was in decline even before the flooding.
Boulet said she got into the race because she believes that New Orleans's problems must be solved by New Orleanians. She said the city has to lure corporations to invest in the city's future. "I don't think the money is going to come from Washington," she said. But she added that outside investment is contingent on federal solutions to the city's disastrously unreliable levee system.
Steve Sabludowsky, of the local online political newsletter and Web site BayouBuzz, said that the campaign "is going to be inevitably dirty."
He said race will be the volatile issue. "People with race agendas are going to come out of the woodwork," he said.
The new mayor will be someone "who is given a lot of publicity," Crouere said, "but doesn't have much power. As a symbol and a leader, though, the mayor can be extremely powerful."