TOPICS > Politics

New Orleans Voters Divided as City Prepares for Saturday’s Mayoral Election

May 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: As a local band entertained New Orleans residents in Lafayette Square, it was almost hard to tell the city has been through such chaos these past eight months. But Hurricane Katrina has not only destroyed thousands of homes, it’s changed the complexion of the city. Formerly two-thirds black, it’s now half white, as a third of its residents are still spread around the country.


MAYOR RAY NAGIN, New Orleans: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: The storm remade the city’s politics. Ray Nagin had been a popular mayor before Katrina. Now he’s fighting for his political life against Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, son of the city’s last white mayor.

The two have been debating each other nearly every day leading up to Saturday’s runoff election, but to most voters and even to the candidates themselves what they’re saying about how they’re rebuild New Orleans sounds remarkably similar.

You conceded in the debate that you and the mayor are seeing eye to eye on a lot of the issues facing the city, so what’s the choice for the voters? Is it a programmatic one, a personality one?

LT. GOV. MITCH LANDRIEU, Candidate for New Orleans Mayor: The question is, which one of us can actually bring people together, find higher common ground, which is critically important when you have so many different people trying to do one thing and actually implement the plan. That’s what the city’s going to need now. And what was OK before Katrina is not after, and that’s going to be the difference between who wins and who doesn’t.

RAY SUAREZ: Mayor Nagin bases his appeal on two pillars, that he’s brought reform to a city that had been rife with corruption, and he’s not a career politician like his opponent.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN: People are looking to create the right environment for growth, where billions of dollars are going to be spent, and you’re telling me we want to set up the system that didn’t work for 200 or 300 years, and clearly didn’t work for the past 50 years? And we’re going to set somebody up in office who’s a professional politician where to have to come kiss the ring to get things done? That would be terrible.

RAY SUAREZ: Because of the city’s open primary system, it’s the top two vote getters, not party nominees, squaring off in the second round. So how do voters choose between two Democrats with very similar plans for the city’s future?


Niether has a detailed platform

Betsy Mouk
It's great to say, "Well, we're going to increase the police force. We're going to do this, and we're going to do that," but they've never said how they're going to do it.

BETSY MOUK, New Orleans Businesswoman: This is Galactic Ooze. See how it's gooey stuff?

RAY SUAREZ: Businesswoman Betsy Mouk hasn't made up her mind and says she probably won't until she's in the voting booth.

BETSY MOUK: I think neither of these two candidates has really spelled out specifics as to what they're going to do. I mean, sure, it's great to say, "Well, we're going to increase the police force. We're going to do this, and we're going to do that," but they've never said how they're going to do it. We don't have any money, so how are they going to do all that?

RAY SUAREZ: Nagin became mayor with strong support from whites like Mouk for years ago, and he must do well with them again if he hopes to win.

ROB COUHIG, Former Mayoral Candidate: I didn't run for the exercise.

RAY SUAREZ: His campaign got a big boost early this month when his former rival for the job, businessman Rob Couhig, endorsed him.

ROB COUHIG: I've known Ray. He's a business guy. He's honest. He's not part of the old political machines. And he and I have a very firm understanding about the need to build the housing that I think is so desperately needed, the health care system that needs to be revitalized from the ground up, and to save our universities.

RAY SUAREZ: But others aren't so sure this time. Robert Smith said he would love to vote for Nagin for local reasons, but wonders about what the rest of the country would think.

ROBERT SMITH, New Orleans Resident: We are very concerned with our national image out there because it's the nation's taxpayers who are going to fund our recovery. And it's going to be a full-fledged recovery from the ground up, and we can't do it alone. And in a sense, we owe it to the nation to select someone that they feel comfortable with.

REV. ZEBADEE BRIDGES, New Orleans Resident: Ladies and gentlemen, we're here to give our support to Mayor Ray Nagin.

RAY SUAREZ: Among black voters, Nagin has won the endorsement of many who in the past supported members of the Landrieu family for office, people like the Reverend Zebadee Bridges.

REV. ZEBADEE BRIDGES: This particular mayor has faced something that no other mayor in the city of New Orleans and no other city before has faced. Whether you believe it or not, he did the best that he could with what he had to work with.


Support from the black population

Wilhelm Smith
I'm pretty much overwhelmed with all that I have to do around me. It just seems like voting, from my perspective, voting is the least of my priorities right now.

RAY SUAREZ: But Landrieu has garnered much support in the black community, even from former Nagin voters, like State Senator Edwin Murray.

STATE SEN. EDWIN MURRAY (D), Louisiana: Our city needs some new direction. I think that the pace of our recovery has been very slow. I think that some new leadership maybe will help make a difference and bring our city back much faster.

CAMPAIGN WORKER: Orville, we can count on your to vote for Mitch this Saturday.

RAY SUAREZ: The better-funded Landrieu campaign is putting its muscle to work in these final 48 hours, running phone banks and sending volunteers out to work the precincts. Tulane University political scientist and pollster Brian Brox puts Landrieu ahead in the campaign's final days.

BRIAN BROX, Tulane University: Right now, Landrieu's in the cat-bird's seat. He is ahead, according to our data. He needs to continue to reach out with the message of change, a message of competent leadership, and reaching across racial lines.

That said, the story is not lost on a Nagin for a possible Saturday victory. We still have 14 percent of the electorate undecided in our poll. He needs to reach out to these people. He needs to reach out and say, "If you haven't made a decision yet, look to the person who was here through it all."

RAY SUAREZ: What Brox can't determine is what the displaced voters will do. They had the option of voting by mail, early voting throughout Louisiana, or casting their vote in person on Saturday.

KEMBERLY SAMUELS, Displaced New Orleans Resident: That's my baby. And it didn't even get wet.

RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday, New Orleans schoolteacher Kemberley Samuels watched as volunteers from the community group ACORN pulled the rotting contents of her house to the curb. She's been living in Houston for the past eight months where she was pushing evacuees to cast their vote.

KEMBERLY SAMUELS: I felt like our vote was being disenfranchised by the fact that they knew we were living in another state, but yet they went on and held the election anyway.

I ran across a young lady who said at first she wasn't going to vote because she didn't see what sense it made, because she didn't think her vote counted.

WILHELM SMITH, New Orleans Resident: That may be one of the biggest problems with the election, is that most people feel they have too many things to do. I'm pretty much overwhelmed with all that I have to do around me. It just seems like voting, from my perspective, voting is the least of my priorities right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Landrieu and Nagin are both appealing for votes across racial lines. They're hoping that the many black voters who are still unable to come home will make it a priority to vote on Saturday.

Federal money for New Orleans

Ray Suarez
Senior Correspondent, NewsHour
When it comes to police protection, firing up the public schools once again, bringing affordable housing into the city, both candidacies have identified what the major problems of the city are and what needs to get done.

JIM LEHRER: More now from Ray on the election. Margaret Warner spoke to him from New Orleans this afternoon.

MARGARET WARNER: Hi, Ray, welcome.

RAY SUAREZ: Good to be with you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: You said in your piece that these two candidates really have very similar plans and programs. If that's the case, or since that's the case, what are voters making their choice on?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it's interesting to listen to them roll out their plans. And when it comes to police protection, firing up the public schools once again, bringing affordable housing into the city, both candidacies have identified what the major problems of the city are and what needs to get done.

What they need to convince voters of is that they, that either Mitch Landrieu or Ray Nagin, are the one to make it all happen. A lot of money is about to start coming into the city from various federal agencies. A new line of credit has been approved for the city to stave off bankruptcy on the part of from commercial banks, and now really the table is set for whoever the next mayor of New Orleans is going to be to start doing these things that desperately need doing.

MARGARET WARNER: So the voters are looking for what, who is best able to do that?

RAY SUAREZ: And, you know, it's funny. Incumbency kind of cuts both ways. Mitch Landrieu is the lieutenant governor of Louisiana; Ray Nagin, of course, has been the mayor for the last four years. There are a lot of voters who think that Ray Nagin was a pretty good mayor until Hurricane Katrina, but then he didn't impress them with the way he handled the city.

Mitch Landrieu has to labor under some of the ideas that people have that Kathleen Blanco's administration has not been great for the city since Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

So, while both point to accomplishments in that immediate aftermath of the hurricane, there are also detractors who can point to all of the things that haven't happened, either on the part of the state government or the city government, and incumbency thus becomes something less than a virtue.

MARGARET WARNER: So what does New Orleans look like now, nearly nine months after Hurricane Katrina? After being there a few days, give us a picture of what it's really like?

RAY SUAREZ: In the parts of the city that are intact, you can even see signs that something is terribly amiss. There are places that should be crowded, parking lots that should be full, places of business that should be busy and aren't. There are a lot of boarded-up store fronts; there are a lot of businesses that are either going out of business or have for rent or for sale signs in their windows.

In the places in the city that got the worst of it, there is surprisingly little economic activity, because it was so long in coming to get fresh water back in, to get electricity back in. There are a lot of people who are hanging on by a thread, living in trailers in deserted neighborhoods, while many of those neighborhoods you can ride for block after block after block and not see a living soul.

So, when you're in the heavily damaged areas, it really is hard to believe that the storm was eight months ago.
MARGARET WARNER: How ambitious are the plans that each of these candidates is offering for rebuilding? Are they in sync with what the federal recommendations and game plan is, or are they more ambitious, in terms of how many neighborhoods are going to be rebuilt and to what scale?

RAY SUAREZ: Both the Landrieu and Nagin plans are pretty comprehensive and try to touch on all of the parts of daily life in New Orleans that were touched by the storm.

They also are written with a high degree of consciousness that all was not well in the city before the storm came ashore. So there are promises in those plans to not only restore some of these services, but to address some of the shortcomings that were widely understood to be there, for instance in public schooling, before the hurricane shut everything down.

They're full, comprehensive plans. One of the advantages that Ray Nagin had by being mayor is that he could use the power of incumbency to get some things going, to have some high-profile conferences, to welcome dignitaries and powerful visitors from other levels of government, and talk about the things he was doing.

Mitch Landrieu wasn't able to do that in the same way. So during some of the debates, you know, Ray Nagin would bring up his plans, the things he's got ready to go right off the shelf, and Mitch Landrieu would point out, well, yes, but look at how little has been done already. And Ray Nagin would fire back, "Yes, but where were you during the aftermath?"

Race divisions

Ray Suarez
Senior Correspondent, NewsHour
Some of that real tug-of-war that goes on around City Hall, whether a black person or a white person becomes the mayor of the city, is there; it's there in the undercurrent.

MARGARET WARNER: Your piece noted that the city has gone from being two-thirds black to half and half. Is race a major dividing line?

RAY SUAREZ: Yes, it is, but not in the ugly, overt, highly contentious way that it sometimes has been in big municipal elections in the United States in the last 20 or 30 years.

Some of that real tug-of-war that goes on around City Hall, whether a black person or a white person becomes the mayor of the city, is there; it's there in the undercurrent, what people say perhaps when the microphones aren't turned on, but it's not really that overt.

It has to do with the racial calculus. New Orleans is one of those cities that didn't just recently elect its first black chief executive. There have been black mayors of New Orleans for 30 years now, and it was felt by a majority black city that this was just a part of the municipal scene, that the mayor of New Orleans would be a black person.

And as often happens in big cities -- it happened in Philadelphia; it happened in New York; it happened in Chicago -- when it looks like a black chief executive is going to pass from the scene and be replaced by a white politician, there's talk about losing City Hall, and what can be done to stop that, and who would be to blame for it.

There are some people who say that the election is not fair at its base, because, with so many people out of the city, and with so many of those people being African-American, it would be hard to run what, in their view, would be a fair poll.

MARGARET WARNER: So finally, Ray, you've been talking to all of these voters. Do they seem generally optimistic or pessimistic about their own future and the city's own future?

RAY SUAREZ: Voters from all different parts of the city, from all different communities of the city talk as if they're on the knife edge. They want to believe that good things are coming, that right now the city is on the verge of starting to bring in housing, bring back workers, re-open some of the major institutions, hospitals, universities.

But they really are not quite ready to be fully confident and fully sure that it's about to happen. It's a funny neither-here-nor-there kind of status. There's a general optimism, when New Orleanians talks about their city, but that optimism has taken such a heavy beating over the last eight months that people are almost reluctant to believe that, even with the money that's in the pipeline, these good things are going to start to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: I can certainly understand that. Thanks, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: So long, Margaret.