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Nagin Re-elected in Narrow New Orleans Mayoral Race

May 22, 2006 at 6:35 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Though New Orleans is still suffering nine months after Katrina, a majority of voters this weekend chose not to punish incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin, giving him four more years in office.

RAY NAGIN, Mayor of New Orleans: I want to thank all the wonderful people of the city of New Orleans for this encouragement, for this victory, for this time for us to set the stage for our recovery.

RAY SUAREZ: Nagin led all candidates in the first round and picked up enough new supporters to defeat current Lieutenant Government Mitch Landrieu, by roughly 52 to 48 percent.

LT. GOV MITCH LANDRIEU (D), Louisiana: Of course, I want to congratulate Mayor Nagin. This was a hard-fought campaign. It was fought well within the boundaries of political discourse.

RAY SUAREZ: The race was not nearly as nasty as previous mayoral battles. The results did split largely along racial lines. Fewer than half the city’s 455,000 pre-Hurricane residents are still in the city, now divided about equally among blacks and whites.

Landrieu’s father, Moon, was the last white mayor to lead New Orleans in the ’70s. Landrieu won a majority of the white vote and picked up more local endorsements during the campaign.

But Nagin, a former cable television executive, captured 80 percent of the black vote and convinced enough white conservatives that his business background would help return the city to pre-Katrina glory.

Nagin has vowed to solve the severe housing shortage and remove the mountains of debris, just two of the lingering problems that have kept thousands of evacuees scattered across the country.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN: It’s time for us to get together and rebuild this city. And when we rebuild this city, we rebuild the entire state.

RAY SUAREZ: The mayor also said he’d improve strained relations with Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and his own city council. His second term begins May 31st, one day before the start of the new hurricane season.

Nagin's battle plan

Silas Lee
Xavier University
You had African-Americans supporting the mayor because of the belief that it was very important to keep him in office, the symbolic significance of it, as well as many believe that he was unfairly criticized for his performance after Katrina.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, I am joined by Silas Lee, a professor of sociology at Xavier University, and head of his own public opinion research company. He is a consultant to the Democratic National Committee and has worked for Mayor Nagin as a pollster in this year's campaign. He's done additional work for the mayor in the past.

And Susan Howell joins us, a professor of political science at the University of New Orleans. She's not affiliated with any of the candidates.

Professor Lee, in the first round of the election, Mayor Nagin got 38 percent. Who did he add to his coalition to get to 50 percent-plus-one?

SILAS LEE, Sociology Professor, Xavier University: Well, it was a very unusual political marriage here. You had white conservatives coming together to support Mayor Nagin, because they were closely aligned in his political philosophy and they did not like the Landrieu family. Basically, they felt Mitch Landrieu was too much of a traditional Democrat.

And you had African-Americans supporting the mayor because of the belief that it was very important to keep him in office, the symbolic significance of it, as well as many believe that he was unfairly criticized for his performance after Hurricane Katrina. And that criticism was shared by African-Americans, as well as whites.

So he was able to enhance his voter support with African-Americans in the process, as well as increase his voter support with whites. In the primary, Mayor Nagin received about 60 percent of the black vote. And in the runoff, it went to 80 percent and, in some precincts, 90 percent.

In the primary, Mayor Nagin had in the single digits with white voters, anywhere from 6 to 8 percent in some precincts. And in the runoff, he was able to increase that up to the 20-percent range. Those two factors were extremely critical in helping Mayor Nagin win on Saturday night.

And another fact is that Mitch Landrieu ran more as an alternative to Mayor Nagin rather than a strong challenger. Many voters could not distinguish the platforms of Mitch Landrieu and Mayor Nagin.

An underdog wins

Susan Howell
University of New Orleans
He [Nagin] came out of the primary as an underdog. I think most observers, including myself, thought that Landrieu had an advantage. The mayor was outspent six to one. Most of the endorsements went to Landrieu.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Howell, do you share that analysis? And what do you see in the results that showed that, for more voters, ideology may have trumped race this time around?

SUSAN HOWELL, Political Science Professor, University of New Orleans: Well, I think, first of all, we have to backtrack and say this was a tremendous political accomplishment for Mayor Nagin.

He came out of the primary as an underdog. I think most observers, including myself, thought that Landrieu had an advantage. The mayor was outspent six to one. Most of the endorsements went to Landrieu.

And the mayor accomplished something very difficult -- and Silas was describing it -- as he expanded the black electorate. He brought in more voters. Voter turnout increased in heavily black precincts.

And this somewhat became a cause, a cause of black solidarity. In that case, it was sort of a racial issue. But ideology may have come in on the white side, where you have white, both conservative and moderate voters, who were in play, and they were looking at these two candidates, neither of which they were crazy about, and ended up voting for the one they were least uncomfortable with.

There were a couple of key endorsements by a Republican and by a woman in the race who were very pro-change. And they, I think, increased white moderates and conservatives' comfort level in voting for the mayor.

And, after all, some of these white voters probably voted for the mayor in 2002. So on the white side, yes, ideology came into play. I think on the African-American side it became more of a cause of solidarity.

Landrieu's race to be lost?

Susan Howell
University of New Orleans
Mayor Nagin showed a command of information that only an incumbent would know. He clearly was the most knowledgeable candidate, or appeared to be the most knowledgeable.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard Professor Lee suggest that Mitch Landrieu ran as an alternative but didn't set himself apart quite enough, but he had so many advantages: endorsements from a lot of elected officials; a six-to-one money gap toward the end of the race.

How come he couldn't parlay some of those advantages into more votes?

SUSAN HOWELL: Well, that's what we both -- you know, we were both kind of surprised at this outcome. But I think we both explained by the black solidarity on the African-American side.

And, let's face it, Mitch Landrieu had a very liberal voting record in the legislature. He has very low ratings by business groups. So, for white voters who were looking really closely at this and looking for a business-oriented candidate, it's very easy to choose Nagin because he was -- he's been that way throughout his administration.

And there's another factor I think that came through in the debates and in the last, maybe, week: Mayor Nagin showed a command of information that only an incumbent would know. He clearly was the most knowledgeable candidate, or appeared to be the most knowledgeable. I mean, he just knew so many details.

He's unscripted. Sometimes, you know, he says things that, you know, may not be politically correct, but that's always been part of his charm for us in New Orleans.

I think Landrieu, on the other hand, was much more programmed. And it was very difficult to see, as Silas said, what the difference between he and Nagin were, but it was also difficult sometimes to pull out of what he said what his specific proposals for change were.

So I think there is a personality -- the intangible personality factor weighed in pretty much on the side of Nagin.

The tough road ahead for Nagin

Silas Lee
Xavier University
It's a tremendous balancing act. The mayor must be part political Houdini right now, in order to accomplish some of the goals.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Lee, let's talk about what happens now. Whoever was going to be the next mayor of New Orleans, they've got a pretty tough job ahead. There is money that's now ready to come into the city that's going to have to be managed by the re-elected Mayor Nagin. What's about to happen in New Orleans?

SILAS LEE: Well, first, Mayor Nagin must articulate an agenda, a vision for the rebuilding. Many people, they are still confused, and they're still in a state of shock, based on the events of Hurricane Katrina. So he must answer who, what, where, when and how, for the residents of this community.

Who will be in charge of various initiatives? When will it happen? How will it happen? People want to know: What should they do next?

Priority number one: the levees. Until we are able to get the levees up to a Category 4 or 5, it's going to be very difficult to convince people that it's OK to come back to New Orleans, for businesses to invest in this community, and also for residents to feel comfortable with rebuilding.

Then, you have to look at the other issue, and that's housing, affordable housing. If you do not have affordable housing, it's impossible to attract workers or to get people to come back to the city, and to live, and to work.

And, aside from that, we have the infrastructure problems and the institutional issues: public education, health care, the economy. All of those pre-Katrina issues, they are now intensified in a post-Katrina environment.

So it's a tremendous balancing act. The mayor must be part political Houdini right now, in order to accomplish some of the goals. And, bear in mind, he will have incremental levels of success. We are looking at a five- to 10-year or longer rebuilding effort.

When you look at the progress that's occurred in this community, yes, some has been made, but other areas, a significant portion of this community, it still looks like Katrina hit a few days ago.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Howell, let me jump in just to get your read on whether this new mandate and this re-election gives Mayor Nagin the freedom to be more specific about the final footprint of the city, which neighborhoods are going to be rebuilt, and which are not? Briefly, please.

SUSAN HOWELL: Absolutely. It gives him a lot more authority, because now he's going to be the mayor for the next four years. He doesn't have to be distracted by a campaign. People are not going to speculate about whether he's vulnerable or not.

It gives him a lot more authority to talk about the possibility that some neighborhoods may not be rebuilt, and he's already doing that. He's already saying that, you know, we're going to re-look at this issue, which would have been political suicide during the campaign, and say, "Maybe some areas will be green space, but we have to provide for some compensation for the people whose homes were taken."

But he's also talking about accumulating land, public land, that would become public land. So, yes, we are seeing him take immediately, in 24 hours since his election, a more aggressive stand on the footprint.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Howell, Professor Lee, thank you both.

SILAS LEE: Thank you.

SUSAN HOWELL: Thank you.