Nagin Among Front-Runners in New Orleans

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

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."

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