New Orleans Picks New – or Old – Mayor on Saturday
By: Hazel Trice Edney
Originally posted 5/17/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – New Orleans’ Black voters, from high-profile ministers to everyday citizens, will choose this Saturday between incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin, a Black man elected four years ago by receiving a majority of the White vote and a minority of Black ballots, and Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, a White man whose family has a longtime reputation for reaching out to African-Americans.
In the aftermath of the racially-charged Hurricane Katrina fiasco, whom will they elect?
“Mayor Nagin should be in the office to clean up what was created during his administration,” says lifelong resident Nakia Hooks, who is still working on home repairs while living with relatives in the city. “Someone who knows what happened, when it happened and how it happened. I believe Nagin is the right person for the position.”
New Orleans Bishop Paul S. Morton, whose 20,000-member predominately Black congregation was spread across the nation after last August’s hurricanes, disagrees.
“For the past four years, Mayor Nagin has not been for African-Americans at all,” says Morton, who has resided in Atlanta since his home and one of his three church sites were severely damaged. “We’ve just been left out of mainstream. I’m just not a person that can be used. To come to African-Americans at the end when you have not done anything for them in four years, I can’t take that chance.”
Jazz great Wynton Marsalis also endoresed Landrieu, saying in a statement: ''Mitch has the expertise, the desire and the heart to get us where we need to be. I wholeheartedly endorse Mitch Landrieu for mayor of New Orleans.''
The diverse views being debated inside and outside New Orleans illustrate the dilemma in which Black voters find themselves.
Mitch Landrieu is the son of Moon Landrieu, who was New Orleans’ last White mayor 30 years ago. Moon Landrieu was first elected in 1969 by forming a multi-racial coalition. He became a symbol of the New South by opening up City Hall to African-Americans. He was re-elected by a landslide in 1973 and left office in 1978 only because of term limitations. President Jimmy Carter appointed him as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu has established a similar bi-racial coalition for his election bid.
On the other hand, Nagin may have won some points with some African-Americans when he asserted in a Martin Luther King day speech that God wants New Orleans to be “a chocolate city.” He later recanted and apologized for his statement. Yet, during a series of mayoral debates sponsored by the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, Nagin again expressed his belief that New Orleans should again be a majority Black city.
Nagin was elected by Whites with 90 percent of the vote four years ago; only 10 percent of Blacks supported him. But a month ago, in a field of 22 candidates, Nagin won only 10 percent of predominately White precincts and about 66 percent in Black neighborhoods. Landrieu won 24 percent of the Black vote and 30 percent of the White vote.
Some residents will vote for Nagin simply because he’s Black. Others could care less about the race of the candidate, only about who will help them rebuild their homes and make the city safe for future hurricanes.
“We’re sitting on a powder keg waiting to see what’s going to happen, especially those of us who live nearest the lake where that water came in,” says the Rev. Louis W. Smith, a New Orleans native who has lived with relatives in Jackson, Miss. since the hurricane. “For those of us who are trying to get on our feet, we want the mayor and the governor to see that we are treated justly; that the insurance companies won’t be allowed to just outright take people’s properties that they have paid insurance for 33 years with no consideration whatsoever. We need someone who is sympathetic towards that.”
Having seen his home in the Lakeview section of the city and his once 110-member Trinity United Missionary Baptist church in the Upper Ninth Ward both destroyed, Rev. Smith is now among the thousands of former and current Black residents of New Orleans who anticipate the results of Saturday’s mayoral election just to see who will lead the Hurricane-ravaged city from here.
The winner of Saturday’s run-off will have less than two weeks to prepare for another hurricane season. The June 1 target date to complete the 169 miles of levee repairs draws closer.
Don Resio, a senior researcher for the Army Corps of Engineers, says that even though levee repairs are on schedule, the repaired levees still won’t be high enough to prevent future flooding.
Speaking to a National Academies of Science committee on Monday, Resio said: “If another Katrina were to occur tomorrow, you’re going to have 6 feet of water overtopping some levees. The levees will hold but you’re still going to have some amount of water inside the levees.”
According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Resio said, “It’s clear that Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane protection cannot be build within the existing (levee) footprint. And you’ve still got to wrestle with what the nation wants to invest in overall protection of southeast Louisiana. Whether it’s a combination of levees, a frontal barrier system or just an evacuation system.”
Blacks supporting Nagin remember his emotional – sometimes profane – plea for help from the Bush Administration. While Nagin often points to his experience in dealing with Katrina, many voters don’t trust him to lead the city through another crisis.
Between running errands and making phone calls to maintain his property ownership, Rev. Smith says he has already cast an absentee ballot for Landrieu. He explains, “Number one, the mayor has to be a person that is going to be sympathetic to the Black community.” Obviously, he doesn’t feel that Nagin is that person.
Jermaine Parker, who has been living in San Antonio since he lost his home, says it will be issues – not race that will decide the election for him.
Having lost everything he owns in the Lower Ninth Ward, the hardest hit of all the neighborhoods, Parker says safety from crime and hurricanes are his basic priorities.
“I want those that will clean up the crime front, shore up the levee system,” Parker says. “I want someone who will leave the city like it was, but a better city.”
Early voting in the election indicate slightly increased interest over last month’s primary.
Just seven days before the runoff, about 11,500 people had submitted early ballots, about 500 more than at the same time before the primary, confirmed Jennifer Marusak, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office. Approximately 5,000 absentee ballots had been received by Saturday, May 13. That’s 2,000 more than the same time before the primary.
Much is riding on Saturday’s turnout for both candidates and constituents. About 36 percent of the city’s 297,000 eligible voters went to the polls last month. Overall, Nagin got 38 percent of the vote while Landrieu got 29 percent. Nagin appears to face the tougher challenge because 62 percent of his constituents voted for another candidate.
In addition to housing reconstruction and land use, Nagin and Landrieu also face questions about how the city will survive financially and be able to pay police and firefighters and other key municipal personnel.
While Nagin is reportedly counting on a $150 million bank loan, Landrieu is strategizing to renegotiate bank debts and aggressively collect taxes. Financially, the next mayor may have to deal with the possibility of bankruptcy, which has been widely suggested, partly because of the loss of revenue from tourism. Two major New Orleans tourism companies, New Orleans Paddle Wheels, which operates steamboats, and New Orleans Tours Inc., a bus company, have already filed for bankruptcy protection. They are both a part of Hospitality Enterprises, Inc., which employees approximately 800 people.
For some, returning to New Orleans is not an option they will select.
Demetria Crumbly, executive director of the Housing Authority of the city of Bay St. Louis, Miss., less than a one hour drive from New Orleans, says the gulf appears well ahead of New Orleans in rebuilding their housing stock. While New Orleans has yet to decide whether certain neighborhoods will be rebuilt, Crumbly, who has lived in Jackson, Miss. since losing her beachfront home in Bay St. Louis, says most, if not all of the 3,000 to 6,000 homes lost in the Mississippi Gulf Coast are set to be rebuilt within the next three years, if not sooner.
“If we do that before New Orleans does, then a lot of people are going to want to move closer to home, which means the Mississippi Gulf Coast is going to receive a lot of people from New Orleans,” she says. “I think we’re going to have a significant impact when the building starts back.”
Continuing a campaign to maximize Black voter participation in New Orleans, Melanie Campbell, president and chief executive officer of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, says that her Rebuild Hope Now Coalition, which includes 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), will continue to push for a high Black voter turnout this weekend.
The phone number, 1-866-OurVote, will serve as an Election Protection Hotline to help steer voters to their correct precincts and assist with any problems. Other voter information bases are NAACPLDF.org for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and http://www.sos.louisiana.gov/ for the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office.
Meanwhile, as people pour back into New Orleans, the world awaits the outcome of Saturday’s election and what will happen in the years to come as many take their plights into their own hands.
“You can’t get into the Lowes and the Home Depots for the long lines of people trying to repair their homes,” says Rev. Joseph Profit, pastor of the once 325-member Stronger Hope Baptist Church that was badly damaged.
“These are both good men. I don’t think people should condemn either one of them before they get a chance to do anything.”