LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This week was the deadline to register to vote in New Orleans in time for the upcoming primary for mayor. There are plenty of municipal races to be decided in that city on April 22, but the talk of the town, and perhaps the nation, is the mayor's race, which has a whopping 24 candidates.
Susan Howell teaches political science at the University of New Orleans. She joins us from the studios of member station WWNO. Welcome.
Professor SUSAN HOWELL (Teacher, Political Science, University of New Orleans): Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: We understand that New Orleans has re-elected every incumbent mayor since World War II, but this year, Mayor Ray Nagin is facing 23 challengers. Why so many? And why now?
Professor HOWELL: Any mayor in America that was the incumbent during the largest natural disaster in American history is going to face trouble. Everybody in the city is living a difficult life. The other reason is that the racial composition of those who are in the city has changed. It was two-thirds black and now it may be 50/50, so there are many proportionally more white voters today than there were before the storm. So he has attracted viable white opposition.
WERTHEIMER: Who are the front runners?
Professor HOWELL: Right now there are really three front-runners. The first is the incumbent, Mayor Nagin, and Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu and a local business person, Ron Forman.
WERTHEIMER: Now, Ray Nagin was a millionaire business executive at Cox Cable. He is black, but his original constituency had a lot of white affluent people in it. His base of support seems to have changed considerably. Could you tell us what happened?
Professor HOWELL: It changed, it's reversed. Actually, before Katrina, he made a concerted effort to repair his relations with the black electorate and was quite successful. Now post-Katrina we have a very different situation. Now, Mayor Nagin is the only viable African-American candidate in this race. And so that is his base now and there certainly are many African-American voters who say we don't want to go back to having a white mayor.
WERTHEIMER: Mitch Landrieu is the Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, a long-time state representative from Uptown New Orleans. He is the son of the last white mayor of the city, Moon Landrieu. What does Mitch Landrieu offer the city?
Professor HOWELL: Well, one of the characteristics of Mitch Landrieu is that he has a strong liberal voting record in the legislature, and one of the issues on which there's dispute is how big the footprint should be. And for those of you who aren't familiar with this issue, the footprint is whether some neighborhoods should be declared delayed development or return to wetlands and we shrink the city.
The mayor has, his plan allows for certain neighborhoods, including the Lower Ninth Ward, not to come back very soon. Mitch Landrieu has been more of a proponent of every neighborhood can come back. We're going to rebuild the city. We're not going to say to some neighborhoods you can't or can come back.
WERTHEIMER: The other candidate in the top three is Ron Forman, who is the head of the Audubon Institute, which manages the city's zoo and aquarium. How is he doing?
Professor HOWELL: His base is the business community, and among voters I would say it is the upscale white voters, the uptown set.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think that the mayor of New Orleans, whoever he may be, is going to be able to fix the things that need to be fixed, including the levees, before the next hurricane season comes?
Professor HOWELL: The mayor is actually in, the way I like to refer to it, he's at the bottom of the recovery food chain, that the money is coming from the federal government has to go through the Louisiana Recovery Authority. The city is broke. It's hard for other people not living in New Orleans to understand what it would be like if two-thirds of your city, all the people, just disappeared, and 80 percent of the businesses, they're gone. So it's going to take years and years before New Orleans is anywhere close to normal. It's going to take more than the next term of the next mayor.
WERTHEIMER: Susan Howell teaches political science at the University of New Orleans. She joined us from member station WWNO. Susan Howell, thank you so much.
Professor HOWELL: Thank you, I enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.