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Race will be a Factor in New Orleans Runoff Election
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 4/25/2006

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Race will be a major factor in New Orleans’ May 20 runoff election for mayor even though the two finalists – incumbent Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landreiu – have proven that they can attract support from members of the opposite race, political observers predict.

“No matter what the larger campaign group collectively decides, race will be an indelible factor in the outcome,” says political scientist, Lorenzo Morris, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Howard University.

“Though Landrieu is certainly not a Republican, he represents by image and by general characteristics of the New Orleans electorate, someone who is more to the right than Nagin…What will happen is where race is a factor, Blacks will tend to vote more likely than before for the Black candidate, even if his politics in recent years wasn’t the most appealing to them.”

Nagin is Black and Landrieu is White.

Saturday’s voting apparently said as much about how Whites vote as it did about Black voting patterns.

Four years ago, Nagin was all but rejected by New Orleans’ Black electorate, winning overwhelmingly with support from 90 percent White voters. However, in a field of 22 candidates, Nagin won only 10 percent of predominately White precincts and about 66 percent among those in Black neighborhoods. Landrieu carried 24 percent of the Black vote and 30 percent of the White vote. Ron Forman, president of the Audubon Nature Institute, won 4 four percent of the Black vote.

About 36 percent of the city’s 297,000 eligible voters went to the polls in the election. Overall, Nagin got 38 percent of the vote while Landrieu got 29 percent. Given that Nagin is the incumbent, he may have an uphill battle winning significant support from those 62 percent of constituents who voted against him. New Orleans hasn’t had a White mayor in 30 years.

The backdrop of racial issues is heavy. The images of poor Black people lined up outside the coliseum, begging for help for three days after the hurricane will not easily leave the minds of some Black voters. While the pre-Katrina voting population in New Orleans used to be predominately Black, pollster Silas Lee, a New Orleans native, has estimated that approximately 70 percent of the voters currently living in New Orleans are White. Some other polls placed the Black electorate at 52 percent.

It was the lower 9th Ward, the largest Black section of the city, that received the most damage from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Some civil rights leaders, including Jesse Jackson Sr., dismissed the election as unfair, given the hardship it caused for some to return home.

Less than half of the city’s 455,000 pre-Katrina residents have been able to return to permanent residency in the city. About 21,000 voted by absentee ballots.
But the threat of not having a Black mayor for the first time in three decades motivated some Black voters.

“We were at New Orleans East at one of the super precincts and it was a rhythm to it. People just kept coming - old people, people with children. And everybody had a determination in their walk. There was a movement afoot,” says Melanie Campbell, president and chief executive officer of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, which led a coalition to help people get to the polls and to educate displaced voters on the process.

“Black people came home to say, ‘You are not taking my city. You are not taking my neighborhood. You are not taking my community. And they came and they voted for who ever they wanted to vote for,”

Morris expects the runoff to have fewer voters participating.

But Campbell says the Rebuild Hope Now Coalition, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, the National Bar Association and the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) hope to change that this year.

New Orleans pollster Silas Lee agrees that May 20 could end up as a referendum on who will control the city and the mayor’s seat, Blacks or Whites, but much of the vote will also be about the Katrina disaster rebuilding process.

“The bottom line is it’s about recovery and who feels comfortable with the recovery process,” Lee says. “For some Blacks, it’s also about keeping the mayor’s seat in the hands of an African-American…You can’t quantify it, but for some people that’s a strong element and for others it’s the element of rebuilding or both.”

There were some problems at the poll, but much of it was confusion over where to go to vote, says Campbell. Details of problems were not readily available. Meanwhile, activists are already preparing for May 20. The number 866-OurVote is for anyone needing absentee ballot information. for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and for the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office are also voter information bases.

“The victory of what happened on April 22 is that the people of New Orleans came out and let their voices be heard. And they said, ‘We’re not giving up our city. We’re not giving up our community. We’re not invisible.’ It was the most powerful thing to see the people coming…We’ve got to do this again,” Campbell says. “I think the continuation of getting the information to people is just as important. Our job is half done if we don’t do what’s necessary to try to do the same thing between now and May 20.”

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