Ray Nagin's Redemption

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

So it turns out that New Orleans is still a "chocolate" city after all. What's left of it, I mean.

Back in January, when Mayor Ray Nagin's mouth outran his judgment (not for the first time) and he vowed that a rebuilt New Orleans would be majority African American -- "chocolate at the end of the day," he said, which was "the way God wants it to be" -- his political career looked as promising as the gloppy remains of last night's dessert fondue. He quickly apologized, but not before a Web site had begun offering T-shirts showing Nagin in a top hat, with the legend "Willy Nagin and the Chocolate Factory."

That Nagin was reelected Saturday, defeating the scion of a great Louisiana political dynasty, is a testament to an uncomfortable fact: Race was, and remains, a major factor in the way the people of New Orleans experienced the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

According to Greg Rigamer, a New Orleans political consultant who has studied the election results, about four out of five blacks voted for Nagin, who is black, and about four out of five whites voted for his white opponent, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. The fact that slightly more blacks than whites went to the polls boosted Nagin to victory.

Rigamer is quick to note reasons why the result shouldn't be oversimplified. For one thing, without the support of white voters Nagin never would have been mayor in the first place. Four years ago, having been painted as the preferred candidate of the white economic elite, he won with only 40 percent of the black vote -- and 80 percent support from whites.

And in a city that makes a point of reminding everyone how much it loves its outlandish characters, Nagin's frequent displays of ebullience and emotion can be more of an asset than a liability. Rigamer recalled driving to work one recent morning and seeing Nagin campaigning at a busy intersection in the Lakeview district, which is overwhelmingly white and was devastated by the flood that followed Katrina. People were smiling, honking their horns, giving him hugs. "I don't know anybody who dislikes him," Rigamer said.

Still, there are those inconvenient numbers. A near-unanimous 95 percent of whites voted against Nagin in this year's mayoral primary. While that number fell to 80 percent in Saturday's runoff, Rigamer attributes the shift largely to Landrieu's failure to provide a clear alternative vision of the ruined city's future. Even if you assume there was no racial motivation for the way whites voted -- even if the "chocolate" remark was completely forgiven -- it's still true that white New Orleans voted overwhelmingly for change.

The surviving remnant of black New Orleans, on the other hand, clearly closed ranks behind a black mayor who previously had been viewed with suspicion or even contempt. No formidable black candidate emerged to challenge him in the primary, which he never could have won without 70 percent of the black vote. And when it came to the runoff, there were significant increases both in black turnout and in Nagin's share of the black vote.

So Nagin's victory can't be called race-neutral. New Orleans is just barely a chocolate city these days, but black voters went to great lengths to ensure it at least has a chocolate mayor.

To understand why, it's useful to begin with those awful scenes of black poverty and despair we saw in the days after Katrina hit. Keeping those images in mind, look at what's happened since. Because of topographic elevation and economic resources, a bigger fraction of the pre-Katrina white population has been able to return than the black population. African Americans are more likely to remain in the scattered post-Katrina diaspora, lacking the money to return and rebuild.

The future of some of the city's most historic black neighborhoods -- places like the famous Lower Ninth Ward, where some families had roots going back a century -- is in serious doubt. The question for many thousands of people is not when they will be able to come home, but if.

Nagin may be a loose cannon, and his politics may be too conservative for many black New Orleanians' taste -- Landrieu is more of a mainstream Democrat than the man people used to deride as "Ray Reagan." But in the end, black voters decided their highly imperfect black mayor was more likely to fight for the interests of desperate black residents and exiles than his opponent.

Not even a hurricane as powerful as Katrina can blow away hundreds of years of history -- or somehow make an easygoing but troubled city suddenly go colorblind.

The writer will take questions today at 1 p.m. onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address iseugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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