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Week of 5.19.06

Interview: J. Celeste Lay

J. Celeste Lay J. Celeste Lay, an assistant professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans, answers some of our questions on the mayoral elections and addresses the main challenges facing the winner. On Tuesday, Lay and a colleague released results of a new survey of voters likely to go to the polls on Saturday.

Were you surprised by Nagin's victory?

In some ways I was surprised, but in other ways I was not. Our poll obviously had Landrieu up by a wide margin, but I assumed that the displaced voters and especially the undecided voters would have a large effect on the outcome. Our poll taken before the primary had about 17% undecided and these voters went primarily to Nagin; the same thing happened here. Perhaps individuals were waiting to see if Landrieu differentiated himself from the mayor in the days before the election. It may be that undecided voters were not excited about either candidate and had trouble differentiating the two candidates because they were so close in their proposals. Voters may have thrown their support to Nagin because people have a tendency not to change leaders during a crisis without a clear, better alternative.

What effect will the win have on the city?

My hope is that now that the election is over, plans can move forward and individuals can make decisions about rebuilding. Now that policy makers at all levels know who they will be dealing with for the next four years, they can make decisions and move this city forward. I am optimistic.

Q: What do you believe are the major challenges facing the newly elected mayor?

A: The major challenges facing either Landrieu or Nagin are removing debris and rebuilding the economy. In the short run, current residents are growing frustrated with the lack of city services, such as garbage removal and street repair. Flooded cars are still present, traffic is getting worse, and abandoned houses are becoming serious health and safety concerns. However, with a budget crisis, there does not seem to be a quick way to solve these issues. The new mayor will need to attract businesses and grow the economy very quickly. However, the city is still dealing with a reduced housing stock and the problems of recreating a public education system. With limited places to live and send one's children to school, people are hesitant to return.

Q: What is the biggest obstacle to rebuilding New Orleans?

A: The biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is the magnitude of the problem and obtaining a consensus among policy makers at all levels. There is no easy solution to the myriad problems facing New Orleans, and any complex effort by the government runs the risk of gridlock and caving to political pressure.

Q: How are the people of New Orleans faring almost nine months after the hurricane struck?

A: "The people of New Orleans" are in varied circumstances, so there is really no way to answer such a question reliably. Some people have returned to their lives as normal, with some added inconveniences of busy streets, longer lines, and fewer city services. Others, however, are living in very difficult circumstances and dealing with the need to make huge decisions without complete information. The city's reluctance to develop and pass a rebuilding plan; a hesitance about the impending hurricane season; and decisions by the state, FEMA, and private insurance companies are holding up many individual rebuilding decisions.