A Mayoral Free-for-All In Changed New Orleans
Monday, March 6, 2006
NEW ORLEANS -- The mayoral race here, which got its official start last week, is presenting candidates with a daunting question of post-flood strategy: Who and where are the voters?
Although about half of New Orleans's residents have returned since Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of evacuees are still scattered across the country and eligible to cast ballots in the April 22 election, either by mail or at satellite polling places around the state.
But even more challenging in a city where racial allegiances -- real or imagined -- can determine political fates, is the question of who those voters will be.
Once dominated by a significant black majority, the city's demographics have taken a numerical shift toward whites, and the new, uncertain racial balance has given the contest a particularly unpredictable feel.
With credible white challengers to incumbent C. Ray Nagin (D) among a field of 24 candidates, and the looming possibility that the election will yield the first white mayor since 1978, even basic logistical questions regarding election dates and how to notify displaced voters have become bogged down with lawsuits and racial overtones.
"There is a strong sense in the black community that some in the white community are trying to pile it on," City Council President Oliver M. Thomas Jr. said last week. He predicted that anger will motivate many displaced voters to cast ballots, even if it means taking long bus trips back.
Meanwhile, the electorate's new geography is transforming the mayor's contest into a far-flung affair. Candidates are planning campaign stops and possibly even advertising in places as far away as Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Memphis and Jackson, Miss.
Nagin campaigned in Houston over the weekend, and supporters in Memphis were already arranging buses to send voters to New Orleans for the election next month, he said.
Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Ron Forman, chief executive of the Audubon Nature Institute, considered the two leading challengers to Nagin in a field of more than a dozen so far, likewise say they will divide their time between New Orleans and other cities where New Orleanians can be found. Nagin's leadership in the months after the hurricane is expected to be a key issue in the campaign.
Some analysts expect the best-funded campaigns will even run television ads in markets such as Houston, Atlanta and Baton Rouge, La.
Mail campaigns will be, at best, limited. Some candidates had hoped to use an address list of displaced people, maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for mass mailings of campaign literature. But a court ruling blocked its release to candidates, citing privacy reasons.
"It's peculiar," Landrieu said of the diaspora of New Orleanians. "It's twisted a lot of people's heads. We're just going to have to figure out where we think we know the voters are."