Saints, parades overshadow New Orleans mayor race
NEW ORLEANS—Jubilant crowds are flocking to New Orleans this weekend for Carnival parades and to celebrate the Saints' first-ever Super Bowl appearance. Oh, and then there's the little matter of picking someone to lead the city once Mayor Ray Nagin, the political face of Katrina-battered New Orleans, steps down.
Amid the festivity, voters face a serious task Saturday: Electing a new mayor to deal with the city's uneven recovery from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina and lingering troubles such as violent crime.
And it could be the first time in three decades that the predominantly African-American city elects a white mayor, as black political power seems to have waned. The last white mayor, Moon Landrieu, left the post in 1979.
Now his son, Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, 49, is making his third run for mayor and is widely seen as the leader of an 11-candidate pack hoping to succeed the term-limited Nagin. The question was whether Landrieu, also the brother of Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, would win an outright majority or be forced into a March 6 runoff.
Businessman John Georges, who also is white and has put more than $3 million of his own money into the campaign, was hoping for at least a second-place finish and a spot in the runoff.
However, black business consultant Troy Henry was also seen as a runoff contender. He has decried local news organizations' emphasis on the possibility of a white mayor being elected, though his criticism was blunted this week when two local African-American publications endorsed Georges and another backed Landrieu.
Others among the better-known contenders include lawyer Rob Couhig, the only Republican among the major players; housing consultant James Perry; and former judge Nadine Ramsey. Couhig is white; Perry and Ramsey are black.
More than 16,000 voters had already cast ballots during early voting period, far more than the just over 2,000 who cast early ballots in 2002. Some 22,000 cast early ballots in 2006, though that was an unusual year -- thousands of residents still displaced by Katrina cast ballots at early voting satellite sites around the state.
That could signal high interest in the race -- or merely indicate residents are mindful of the weekend's diversions: This is the first big weekend of Carnival parades leading up to Mardi Gras on Feb. 16; and the city's beloved NFL franchise, the Saints, play the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday's Super Bowl.
Both are welcome amusements in a city still badly scarred by Katrina, which hit Aug. 29, 2005. Levee failures led to flooding of 80 percent of the city, more than 850 deaths in the New Orleans area, days of chaos and the evacuation of virtually all the city's estimated 454,000 residents.
Now, the Census Bureau estimates 336,600 have returned. The French Quarter and neighborhoods on higher ground near the Mississippi River show scarcely a sign of the storm. Not so in other areas.
"I don't know if anybody can make a difference," retailer Alan Zimmer said when asked about the mayor's race. He and his wife, Karen, run "A to Z Framing," next door to a shuttered bar and an abandoned auto repair shop in the middle-class Gentilly neighborhood. Abandoned, vandalized houses, empty businesses and weedy lawns still dominate the landscape.
In eastern New Orleans, which, like Gentilly, was hit with a rush of roof-high water, returning residents complain there aren't enough medical services and retailers.
"We need more hospitals, more supermarkets, more policing," Ellen Bogues, a 66-year-old registered nurse, said at an early voting station last week.
Such complaints have hurt Nagin's popularity, as have the indictment of his former technology chief on corruption charges and ceaseless news of violent crime -- 189 homicides since Jan. 1, 2009. A University of New Orleans poll last year put his approval rating at 24 percent.
Nagin was elected with a large white vote in 2002. He defeated Landrieu in 2006, months after the storm, with strong black support fueled in part by fears African-Americans were being muscled out of post-Katrina politics.
Since then, black political power appears to have waned. Analysts point to several possible reasons, including the disruption of black neighborhoods and political networks and failure of the black power base of the 1970s and '80s to nurture new leaders.
The New Orleans Tribune, an African-American publication, lamented a "dearth of young leadership in the pipeline" in its editorial this week endorsing Georges, adding, "We think John Georges is the best candidate to 'hold' the mayor's office while we in the African-American community regroup."
Associated Press Writer Cain Burdeau contributed to this story.