New Orleans Mayor's Newest Foe

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Mayor Nagin testifies Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2006, during the hearing on "Hurricane Katrina: Managing the Crisis and Evacuating New Orleans" on Capitol Hill

Before Mayor Ray Nagin made his now notorious comment about New Orleans as a "chocolate" city on Martin Luther King Day, the former businessman was in surprisingly good shape to win re-election in April. Despite repeated missteps since Hurricane Katrina hit five months ago, he still had backing from both whites and African Americans in the city, a splintered opposition and a tidy campaign treasure chest with over $1 million.

This week, however, Louisiana's lieutenant governor Mitch Landrieu—a Democrat whose father served two terms as mayor of New Orleans—told supporters privately that he would return home from Baton Rouge to contest Nagin. That's bad news for Nagin because the Landrieus—including both Mitch and his sister, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu—have built a formidable political dynasty in Orleans Parish since the 1970s when Moon Landrieu served as the city's desegregationist mayor. During the aftermath of Katrina, while the mayor was struggling with the woes inside the Superdome, Mitch was acting like a macho man out in a boat saving people. "Nagin just went from almost a sure thing," says pollster Bernie Pinsonat, "to probably an underdog against Landrieu."

With New Orleans voters spread across the country, of course, reliable polling is next to impossible. But there are some telling trends that don't bode well for Nagin in the election, now set for April 22. Pinsonat, a partner in Southern Media and Opinion Research in Baton Rouge, notes that New Orleans, once 72% black, is now increasingly white—50% to 60% by some estimates. While Nagin's vow to rebuild a "chocolate" city played with the evacuee crowd in Houston and Dallas, it was not well received by middle class whites, especially those in the largely undamaged Uptown neighborhood who are back working in the city. While they will turn out to vote on election day, no one is quite sure what will happen with the out-of-town vote, much of it African-American. This week, in fact, the courts in Louisiana are expected to rule on a request by several African-American state legislators—all Democrats—to force the release of a highly coveted FEMA list the Louisiana attorney general has with the locations of evacuees, their emails and phone numbers. "Nagin created the problem for himself with white voters in Uptown whom he insulted," says Pinsonat. "He has had too many foot-in-mouths. Question is: was that the mayor's last chance?"

If anyone can replace an African-American mayor, it's a Landrieu. Moon Landrieu was one of the few white politicians who voted against the "hate bills" of segregationists in the 1960s, and he opened up city government and public facilities to blacks while mayor from 1970 to 1978. (He was also behind the push to build the Superdome.) Elliott Stonecipher, a political analyst and demographer in Shreveport, notes that one possible factor in Landrieu's decision to seek the mayor's office may be to save the city for the Democratic Party and his own family's future political fortunes. Under Moon Landrieu, the city's white flight began in earnest, but now the city has the opposite problem, with blacks fleeing, which is causing headaches for Democrats like the Landrieus, who traditionally win big in black districts. Nagin, by comparison, is not considered a true Democrat and, his recent remarks notwithstanding, does not cater to the black vote machine. "If a Mayor is to [help] repopulate the Ninth Ward," says Stonecipher, "Nobody is more dependable than a Landrieu."

Mitch Landrieu, who ran an unsuccessful primary race for the mayor's office in 1994 against another former Mayor's son, Marc Morial, has since piled up a resume as a state legislator and No. 2 to the governor. He was widely rumored to be thinking about a gubernatorial run, but he and his sister—no doubt coached by dad, who still lives in the New Orleans area—know the chance of the Dems winning statewide in 2007 and 2008 is "out the window", says Stonecipher.

Besides his offbeat comments, Nagin's biggest negative today is his failure to win over the White House to the Baker bill, which would allow the city to buy out homeowners in the most heavily damaged neighborhoods with government-backed bonds. Without it, his Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which has laid out a $30 billion fix for the city, will have a difficult time scratching money together to rebuild. On Wednesday, Nagin told a Senate committee that the city has only so far received about 2,000 of the 45,000 to 60,000 temporary homes it needs; on the other hand, he said that the broken levees should be sufficiently repaired by the next hurricane season. Still, no matter how often Nagin pleads his town's case in Washington, it's clear that "New Orleans needs help inside the Beltway with Republicans," says Stonecipher, and the Landrieus know it. When President Bush visited New Orleans recently, Mitch Landrieu was constantly at his shoulder, not Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, notes Stonecipher. Mary Landrieu, for her part, last month named a Republican as her chief of staff.

The Republicans, of course, aren't sleeping either. As a former cable company executive, Nagin always enjoyed support among the city's business leaders, but recently at least one other candidate—Ron Forman, the CEO of the non-profit Audubon Nature Institute, which runs the Audubon Zoo—has become a favorite with moneyed Republican backers and business leaders. Forman, who is a dynamic speaker like Landrieu, has done a bang-up job fund-raising for Audubon post-Katrina, but has none of the political baggage of Nagin or Landrieu. Ironically, Forman's wife Sally just happens to be Mayor Nagin's chief spokeswoman. That just goes to show that no matter how much else changes in Louisiana, politics down there is still all in the family.