A 20-Ring Political Circus
Strange Crew Populates New Orleans Mayoral Race

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- It's hard to pinpoint the zaniest moment so far in this city's super-surreal mayoral election. More than 20 candidates -- including an out-of-work actor and a jailbird -- are scrambling for votes, not knowing exactly who their constituents are or what kind of city they will be running if they win.

The first round of the election is Saturday. If no candidate receives a clear majority, the top two vote-getters will clash in a runoff May 20. The top seven or so have been engaged in numerous debates this week. They travel through the city almost en masse, like a circus parade.

That wackiest moment may have come just before Monday night's nationally televised debate among the Select Seven, chosen somewhat subjectively by the local NBC affiliate as the top tier. The lineup included Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Ron Forman, chairman of the Audubon Nature Institute, which oversees the city's zoo. As still photographers snapped their last shots before being kicked out of the television studio, someone yelled, "Everybody say 'chocolate!,' " a raucous reference to Nagin's promise to make New Orleans a "chocolate city" once again. Some candidates laughed; Nagin closed his eyes.

Or: Just about any time satiric candidate Manny "Chevrolet" Bruno, an unemployed actor and textbook clerk, opens his mouth. "If we want to be like Amsterdam with a state-of-the-art levee system," Bruno said, "we should legalize hashish bars and a red-light district to pay for it." He also suggested repopulating the city through polygamy and perhaps trying communism in city government.

Or: During another debate at Tulane University earlier this month, Landrieu left prematurely to attend a party of supporters. When time came for closing statements, Nagin slipped into Landrieu's empty chair, took his microphone and said, "Hi. I am Mitch Landrieu. And I really wanted to be governor."

Or: When candidate Kimberly Williamson Butler -- Nagin's first chief administrative officer in 2002 and then clerk of court in 2003 -- was cited for contempt of court because she refused to cooperate with an investigation. She went to jail for three days. Just before her incarceration, she announced that she was running for mayor.

The election "is pure chaos," says Steve Sabludowsky, founder of BayouBuzz.com, a popular online newsletter about state and local politics. New Orleans voters, he says, "are not getting straight answers from anybody." The city is operating in an "uncontrolled non-equilibrium. We don't know where we are going today. We are walking around like zombies when we ought to be fixing this place up."

Broken-down communications, vulnerable levees, widespread poverty, a history of racism and corruption, insurance woes, vanishing wetlands, shuttered schools, abandoned hospitals, demolished neighborhoods, a floundering economy based on tourism: Any one of these issues would be enough to overwhelm any mayoral candidate. But in right-now New Orleans, each one is "the" issue, deserving just as much attention as the next.

On top of that, tourists and conventions are not returning to the city in large enough numbers to save many businesses, and perhaps the city itself, from bankruptcy.

Oh, yeah, and the next hurricane season is right around the corner.

A Man With a Philosophy

Manny Bruno, 42, is pushing a green dolly of science textbooks to a shelf in the Tulane University student bookstore. He's a compact man with black hair. He is wearing an untucked brown shirt, khakis and yellow Converse sneakers.

With the blessing of his boss, he takes a break to sit on a metal and concrete slab in back of the building near a couple of dumpsters. He bums a light from a passing student and flares up a cigarette. He says he's not campaigning much because he has a wife and a small child. He has thrown a couple of parties and posted scores of signs around town. His campaign slogan: "A Troubled Man, for Troubled Times."

Born in Los Angeles, Bruno arrived in New Orleans on Halloween night 1999 and never left. His message is that there are three ways to help the city recover from Katrina. "It's a triangle," he says. "Good, fast and cheap. You can't have all three at once."

So, he will explain to anyone who will listen and some who won't, if you want something done good and fast, it won't be cheap. Or if you want good and cheap, it won't be fast. Of his philosophy, he says, taking a puff, "I have come to believe it is true."

He also believes the city should call in the Amish to rebuild. "If they can build a barn in a day without electricity, they can probably build a city block here in a week."

The Chosen Few

Bruno is not among the Select Seven chosen for the great debate. A small number of people are allowed in the studio to watch Monday night's event. It is moderated by Chris Matthews of "Hardball" and Norman Robinson, a local newscaster.

Beforehand, Landrieu's people are concerned that his stool might be shorter than others. It's not, they are assured.

Matthews's quick delivery and Robinson's pressing manner give the already tense scene even more tension. In the waning days of the campaign, the politicians have become less polite. At one point, the candidates are asked to name the best mayor they ever knew. "Nobody mentioned you, Mr. Mayor," Matthews says to Nagin. "Does that bother you?" The mayor remains cool.

During a segment in which candidates asked questions of each other, the sniping increases. Nagin plays the victim: He accuses other candidates of ganging up on him.

Tom Watson, an African American minister, says: "We have a plantation model in this city. The rich have it, the poor try to get it, and we have a person sitting up here right now that has the audacity to call our people welfare queens, nobody says anything." He is referring to former City Council member Peggy Wilson, who has tried to explain that she wasn't referring to any one race when she said that.

"We need to stop the racism and confront it immediately," Watson says.

The racial makeup of the new New Orleans is still unknown. Before the flooding, the city of more than 450,000 was about 70 percent black. Because of the population flux, there is a chance there will be a white mayor for the first time since the late 1970s.

Several onstage roll their eyes when Wilson repeats her tax-free city refrain. She asks Nagin: "Do you want the welfare cheats, the pimps, the drug dealers, the murderers, all of those people, to come back to our city?"

Nagin replies: "You know, Peggy, I want everybody to come back to the city."

More rolling of candidates' eyes.

There is genuine dispute from Nagin, Landrieu and Forman -- the three apparent front-runners -- when minor league baseball team owner Rob Couhig says, "We would have trouble today servicing a major convention." He says the city's hotels and restaurants just aren't prepared.

Not everyone onstage is amused when Matthews shows one of Couhig's TV ads, painting Landrieu as a knight in creaky armor, Forman as a two-faced doofus and Nagin as a cuckoo clock. He refers to the rest of the field as "assorted candidates, weirdos and wannabes."

After the debate, one observer points out that Forman may be the most qualified because he has been in charge of running the city zoo.

Recovery Effort a 'Disaster'

Most of the leading candidates are successful professionals. By winning the election, they will probably be losing prestige. "Prior to the hurricane," Forman says, "I had the best job in the world."

Exactly. So why would anyone even want the headaches? Good question, says Lawrence Powell, a history professor at Tulane University. The city's myriad problems "would overwhelm even Salt Lake City, which has a much more homogenous community and more effective and efficient city government."

The whole recovery in New Orleans "has been a disaster, the way it has been managed," Powell says. "This is not a city that is used to planning. Remember, it's the city that invented jazz."

He adds, "If there were ever an argument for inspired federal intervention, this is it."

Instead, local people are overwhelmed. "It's like Kabuki theater," he says.

Powell and others point out that the next mayor of New Orleans will be transitional -- from the old-style mayor of a city drenched in history to a new-style city that was just drenched. "The mayor won't have much power anyway," Powell says.

Most of the city's money will be coming from the federal government and will be filtered through the state's coffers. The mayor will be low on the food chain.

But Powell does appreciate the colorful candidates and the rollicking race. Like everything else, the very particular quirks of the Louisiana political tradition have been magnified in the post-Katrina light. After all, this city helped elect Govs. Huey P. Long and Edwin Edwards. "New Orleans will not tolerate a dull politician," Powell says.

The City's 'Cheerleader'

"The mayor -- he or she will be a cheerleader," says candidate James Arey, 38, who is known in the city for his morning classical music show on WWNO, the National Public Radio station.

Arey has struggled to break into the first tier of candidates to little avail. He is wistful when he speaks about former second-tier candidate Virginia Boulet, a lawyer who has "somehow caught fire," Arey says. He even asked his cousin, former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, to come down and campaign for him. So far, Arey says, he has raised about $22,000.

The big three have each raised more than $1 million for the campaign.

Over a chicken-salad sandwich at an uptown cafe, Arey -- a tall guy with laser hazel eyes and a patch of blond hair beneath his lower lip -- speaks earnestly about his love of the city and his disenchantment with Nagin. He voted for Nagin in 2002, but believes that the mayor has been seduced by power.

Another layer of confusion in this election, Arey says, is the voting process.

Tens of thousands of registered New Orleans voters are spread out all across the United States. Frances Sims of the secretary of state's office says her staff has done "everything that we can to be sure that everybody who wants to vote is able to vote."

In certain circumstances, voters in other states will be able to fax in their ballots as late as Election Day, Sims says, though those voters will be waiving their right to a secret ballot and, as the deadline approaches, faxing or mailing in ballots can get "daresome." About 15,000 people have already voted by early and absentee ballot, according to the office.

The process is also somewhat confusing for those who will vote in person. Many of the polling places in Orleans Parish have moved.

Last time around, some 130,000 voted for mayor. This time, no one has a strong idea of how many, or even who, will be voting.

'It's a Circus'

Dozens of voters show up Tuesday night for the weekly French Quarter Town Meeting, run by erstwhile sitcom star Harry Anderson at his bar, Oswald's Speakeasy. On this last meeting before the primary, the parade of mayoral candidates also arrives to do a little home-stretch campaigning.

"It's a circus," says Boulet, who, like Tom Watson, has been moving up in public awareness.

She wants to build refineries to help save the wetlands. And she hopes to move the University of New Orleans downtown.

Arey points out that the nearly two dozen candidates are "a natural extension of the city, a microcosm."

There are comedians, Arey says, "and there are those who take themselves too seriously."

Asked where he falls on the continuum, he says, "I'm more earnest than I ought to be and not as funny as I think I am."

Neither Landrieu nor Forman appears on this night to drink from Harry's bar or taste the catered food -- brisket and salad from Tujague's -- but Nagin works the room. He is asked about the atmosphere of the contest at the moment. "Pretty wild," he says.

There is a wild feeling in the air, a sense of a strange and maybe dangerous future for this American work of art that is New Orleans. Many of the constituents in the room -- and throughout the city -- tell Nagin and other candidates harrowing stories of survival and displacement and uncertainty and fear.

They also add to the seriocomic character of the election.

A ponytailed guy walks up to the mayor. Of all the candidates, he asks Nagin, "who is your least favorite opponent?"

Nagin ponders the question for a moment, but can't find an answer. He looks around the room where some of his opponents are chatting.

The ponytailed man goes on, "No politician I have ever voted for has ever won. So I promise . . . I won't vote for you."

Nagin laughs. "In that case," he says, "all of them."

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