New Orleans' Election Leads to Run-Off
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A new campaign for mayor is underway in New Orleans after Saturday's first round made an election runoff necessary.
While race has long been a polarizing factor in the city's past mayoral elections, the two remaining candidates say there's much more to consider as New Orleans struggles to recover from last season's hurricanes.
Incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu say they'll spend the next four weeks working to persuade voters each one of them is the best choice to lead the city's revival after Hurricane Katrina.
NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY reporting:
Despite the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina and claims of disenfranchisement, thousands voted in New Orleans' election. Even so, turnout at 36-percent was low and down about nine percent from the last mayoral race.
African-Americans voted overwhelmingly for either Ray Nagin or Mitch Landrieu, for mayor. Nagin, who is African-American, won most of those votes during Saturday's election. But Landrieu received nearly 24 percent of the black vote, a fact Mayor Nagin recognized when he spoke to reporters during his election party Saturday night.
Mayor RAY NAGIN (Mayor of New Orleans): We're both very interesting candidates. He's a crossover candidate, I'm a crossover candidate. So I don't think you're going to have all of one segment of one population voting for me and another segment all voting for him. So it's going to make for a balancing of the midst.
CORLEY: For nearly 30 years, New Orleans has had a black leader. The last white mayor was Mitch Landrieu's father. Moon Landrieu served in the 1970s and oversaw the desegregation of city government.
Hurricane Katrina changed the balance between the city's black and white voters, bringing more parody when flood waters devastated many of New Orleans' predominantly black neighborhoods and forced the evacuation of the residents.
Mr. GREGORY RIGAMER (Political Consultant): Everybody in New Orleans feels that the city is at risk. And I don't think it's really about the color of the mayor. I think it's about the leadership qualities that the mayor brings to the table.
CORLEY: Political consultant Gregory Rigamer analyzes election results. He says Mayor Nagin, a former businessman who captured the office four years ago, is looking to regain some of the white support he lost in significant numbers after Katrina.
Landrieu is looking to win over more African-Americans, as well as pick up the support of the losing candidates in Saturday's first round. As a result, Rigamer says this runoff may be a rare occurrence.
Mr. RIGAMER: I think, for the first time in the mayoral election, you know, the cycle, now we have a chance to focus on the issues. I mean, you're not going to have people out there using offensive terms and saying things that just don't really do anything to promote the dialogue.
CORLEY: For Mitch Landrieu, the dialogue began yesterday, as he outlined what he hopes to accomplish if elected mayor.
Mr. MITCH LANDRIEU (Mayoral Candidate, New Orleans): We will have a safe city, with strong levies and coastal protection. I'll hire a professional to lead a well-paid police and fire force to keep our city safe. And when I'm mayor, the buck will stop here.
CORLEY: And he made plain that his election message will be less about race and more about whether he's the best person to lead the city.
Mr. LANDRIEU: One thing that separates me, and I think there are others from Mayor Nagin, is the ability actually to get the job done; to work with other people, to understand how the process works, to take an idea from nothing to turn it into (unintelligible) and actually make it happen, as opposed to just floating it out there, hoping somebody picks it up, and then blaming people when it doesn't get done.
CORLEY: Mayor Nagin took a day off from the campaign trail, but said election night that he'll continue his strategy of talking about his rebuilding plan for New Orleans. Nagin says he's made it clear that he's not afraid of making tough decisions.
Mayor NAGIN: We were doing a landfill that was not popular, which probably cost a significant amount of votes in New Orleans' east. You know, we were dealing with travel trailers, so--I make the best decisions based on the best information and let the chips fall where they may.
CORLEY: Despite Nagin and Landrieu's confidence that they'll run on the issues, civil rights activists say race is still a factor, and they will continue to push to make it easier for displaced voters, mostly African-American, to choose a new mayor.
As it stands now, the second phase of the election, set for May 20th, will maintain the same special circumstances used on Saturday. Voters can go to polls in the city or vote early at satellite locations around the state, or mail in absentee ballots to determine who will be the city's next mayor.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.