Will Ray Nagin Win Redemption in New Orleans?

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F. CARTER SMITH / POLARIS

Nagin looks on during a forum last month, which involved several candidates trying to unseat him in the upcoming election

"I love you, Ray Nagin," yells the lady in the Chevy Blazer, honking her horn and waving to the mayor of New Orleans. "God bless you, Mayor," shouts a guy in a busted pickup. It is a little after 7 a.m. and the mayor is standing in a grassy median, ignoring fumes from three lanes of rush-hour traffic to glad-hand voters in hopes of getting reelected in the city that Hurricane Katrina battered and left for dead. "Thank you, baby, need your help!" Nagin says, reaching into a car to shake hands. An African-American man in dreadlocks hops out of his car to have his picture taken with the mayor in the middle of the street. "When hard-core 'hood brothers do that, sumpiní is up," says the mayor with a grin.

Sumpiní is indeed up. The open primary for New Orleans mayor is April 22 and the big surprise — to outsiders, at least — is that Mayor Ray Nagin is in the race and expected to easily win a spot for the May runoff. Ever since victims of Hurricane Katrina languished for days at the Superdome without food, water or buses to evacuate, politicians from the Louisiana statehouse to the White House have seen their poll numbers slump to new lows. Nagin, who took the brunt of verbal abuse from evacuees, tried to win them back in January by championing New Orleans as a "chocolate city" — a comment that he admits "soured" his rapport with white voters who got him elected four years ago. Now, however, heís finding electoral solace in the cityís African-American community — and the reason is simple, says black businessman and Democratic Party activist Kenneth Garrett Sr. "Heís the captain that stayed with the sinking ship."

No fewer than 24 candidates are running for mayor of New Orleans — most of them white, most of them Democrats, and most of them clueless as to their chances of getting a prized runoff spot. Accurate polling is an impossibility in a city where at least half of the cityís 460,000 residents are still miles away in exile. The pundits put Nagin in a runoff with Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, whose father was the cityís last white mayor in the 1970s, or Audubon Institute CEO Ron Forman. But Nagin, an unknown cable company executive before he became mayor, was running fifth in the polls when he won last time. ďTruth is, the campaigns donít have polling data,Ē says Elliott Stonecipher, a political analyst and demographer in Shreveport. "If there is a racial aberration in voting, all bets are off. If a lot of African Americans turn out, Nagin runs stronger. If the African Americans donít get their act together — and the Democratic National Committee and Jesse Jackson are very worried about that — then Nagin runs fourth or fifth."

Naginís new populism was on vivid display, however, at a recent rally and march organized by Jacksonís Rainbow/PUSH Coalition to protest the April 22 primary. Thousands turned out to cheer the mayor, Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who equated the New Orleans election to the disenfranchisement efforts against blacks during the Civil Rights era. (Comedian Bill Cosby was welcomed too until he excoriated the crowd for the cityís high murder rate, drug-dealing ways and teenage pregnancies.) Nagin supporters like Candy Williams, who lost her New Orleans home in Katrina, vowed to get far-flung family members back to vote for her man. "I have family thatís all the way in Dallas, and they have no way of knowing where to go vote," she said. "More than likely, Iím going to go pick them up. Iím very determined."

In the aftermath of Katrina, Republicans and conservatives watching the black exodus savored the idea of winning back the city. But as it turns out, the poor and dispossessed, who suffered the most from the mishandling of the Katrina aftermath are turning out to be ardent supporters of Nagin — at least based on the wobbly numbers available. "What heís done is reverse his base," says Ed Renwick, political analyst and director of the Loyola University Institute of Politics. "He got 85% of the white vote when he was elected first time. Now, this time, heís likely to get a small percent of the white vote, but a large percent of the black vote." Mitch Landrieu, whose dad, the legendary Moon Landrieu, opened up city government and public facilities to blacks in the 70s, is also, however, counting on the African-American vote. Forman, not to be outdone, is working the same crowd.

Trouble is, a lot of those votes are not in the city. Evacuees live in 44 states now. The NAACP and other groups filed a lawsuit to delay the election, establish polling centers out of state and force FEMA to turn over the addresses of evacuees to the campaigns. They lost. The state of Louisiana agreed to set up 10 polling places outside of New Orleans but in-state, near the borders of neighboring states. Community groups like ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which help low- and moderate-income families, have organized buses leaving Monday from Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Atlanta and Jackson, Miss., to get voters to these satellite locations for early voting. But compared to the sophisticated effort to get Iraqis to vote in the U.S., the get-out-the-vote effort for Louisiana residents is a ragtag affair. "Iím trying to get the info out but FEMA wonít tell us where people are," says a frustrated Katie Neason, who is organizing for ACORN in Dallas. "We just went to some apartment complexes based on word of mouth that people from Louisiana were living there. Itís like Iím spinning my wheels." So far only 40 New Orleans voters have signed up in Dallas for the trip.

Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater met with a similar lack of success when he went to Houston to spread the word about the election and absentee voting. Not a single displaced voter from New Orleans showed up. His office has spent $400,000 on an informational ad campaign, using change-of-address lists to get voter information to evacuees. He promised 300 employees at polling sites on election day and has spent $50,000 on signs to direct people to other sites if their usual polling station was devastated by Katrina and had to be moved. "Let me tell you something: If this doesnít work, if this is not a valid, good, legitimate election, nobodyís gonna have to sue the state of Louisiana," Ater told TIME. He said heíd go to the courts himself to do it. Not that he thinks that will be necessary. Ater said 100 employees with laptops will be assigned to precincts on election day to make sure people waiting to vote are listed on the voter rolls — and are in the right place. (Displaced voters should go to the secretary of stateís website for information.

Even inside the city, community groups that once worked door to door, ferrying voters to the polls and throwing big parties with music and food, are in disarray. This is not good for the Democrats. "Iím not going to sugarcoat this," says Donna Brazile, chair of the DNCís Voting Rights Institute and a New Orleans native. "We all know that in terms of the Democratic Party, in order for us Democrats to be viable in the state of Louisiana, we need New Orleans to come back. Thatís where the bulk of our voters are. Over one-third of the Democratic vote comes from those parishes impacted by Hurricane Katrina." In this scenario, Landrieu is running purely to save the future hide of his sister, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, who has long relied on the New Orleans machine, particularly in the African-American community, to get out her vote. Landrieu himself called for satellite voting outside the state — as did almost all the other candidates, except the Republican mayoral hopefuls Ron Couhig and Peggy Wilson. "It would obviously be easier if we had voting places outside Louisiana. Itís not unprecedented. We just did in the Iraqi election," says Landrieu. "From where I sit, the more the merrier."

Absentee voting has been heavy, with 300 to 1,000 requests a day and Ater predicting a total of 25,000 absentee ballots will be filed. The state has made arrangements to deal with the deluge, mainly by having requests and ballots sent and returned by priority mail routed through Baton Rouge because the New Orleans postal office is still understaffed. Nagin himself doesnít seem worried despite the confusion of the race. "People are really going to have to work to educate themselves, rather than depend on somebody else to feed them the information. Most of the so-called political experts are totally lost right now," he says with a laugh before turning back to his rush-hour audience. "How yaíll doin?" says Nagin, handing out a brochure. "Yaíll sure are getting your money's worth out of me today."