Midway into his election night speech, Mayor Ray Nagin reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic device with a tiny speaker on one side. "I just found something they're selling for $8.95," the New Orleans mayor told a crowd of supporters. "It's called the Mayor in Your Pocket." He gave the novelty item a couple of squeezes and out came tinny-sounding snippets of vintage post-Katrina Naginese: "You've got to be kidding me! This is a national disaster!" The mayor basked in howls of laughter as the toy squawked. "They're making money off me," he said, "but it's OK."
The performance was vintage Ray Nagin, all confidence and charm with a touch of self-deprecation. Admittedly, a little swagger was in order that night: With 38% of the vote, the incumbent mayor led a crowded field of 22 candidates in Saturday's primary, beating his closest rival and runoff opponent, Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, by a 10,000-vote margin. But for all of Nagin's good humor, his victory may not be enough to carry him back into office in the May 20 runoff. Nagin's "chocolate city" remarks alienated many conservative white voters who helped propel the political novice to office four years ago, and there was lackluster turnout by his new base African-American voters.
That, more than anything, may be the most ominous result of the first round of elections in New Orleans. Eight months after Hurricane Katrina, the patience and hope of displaced voters is wearing thin, and many seem to have all but given up on the city.
Pollsters point out that fewer than 40% of the city's registered voters cast ballots, either in New Orleans, by absentee ballot, or at one of the 10 satellite polling stations set up around the state. "It was by no means a historic election with people pouring back into the city to choose the leader who's going to bring them out of the wilderness," said independent pollster Bernie Pinsonat, who runs Southern Media & Opinion Research in the Louisiana capital. "Maybe they're not coming back. Maybe they don't see any hope. Maybe they're literally on the verge of changing their addresses. It's something I'd be concerned about if I was a New Orleans official."
With a new hurricane season about to begin, more than half the city's 460,000 residents have not returned. Those who have are frustrated by the uncertainty both in their personal lives and the life of the city. There is a litany of daily annoyances, from crumbling streets to piles of flood-damaged cars that have yet to be hauled away, not to mention miles of abandoned housing. Sylvia Barabino, who lived in heavily flooded New Orleans East, drove in from Baton Rouge where she has been living since Katrina to vote. Her home is uninhabitable and the elementary school where she taught in the Lower Ninth Ward has not reopened. "This particular race is going to determine what's going to happen to New Orleans," she said. The fact that her neighbors didn't return to vote in large numbers is ominous to Pinsonat. "A lot of people have been watching," he said, "and don't see much progress, or hope."
Civil rights activists, most prominently the Rev. Jesse Jackson, fought unsuccessfully to have the election delayed and to have satellite voting stations set up outside Louisiana, in cities like Houston and Atlanta, where a large number of evacuees are still living. Turnout in predominantly African-American precincts was about 30% vs. nearly 50% for mostly white precincts, according to an analysis by GCR and Associates, done for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. Although Secretary of State Al Ater said the election went off without a hitch, Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition has threatened to sue for violation of voting rights.
Nagin's opponent in the May runoff, Landrieu, comes from a politically powerful family. His sister is U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and his father, Moon Landrieu, who served as mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s, opened up city government and facilities to African Americans a record that has not been forgotten. "One of the great challenges for the next mayor is, how do you harness all of this national energy that wants to come in, and how much energy there is in the city, and actually move it in the right direction?" Landrieu told TIME Sunday. He said Saturday's relatively low turnout was not about voter apathy so much as continuing frustration over the slow pace of recovery. "I think the lower turnout indicates how painfully hurt so many people still are, in so many ways," he said. "And you know, that cuts across geographic lines as well as racial lines."
For Nagin to win, he'll have to reap support from the white voters and business types who, after helping elect him four years ago, defected in large numbers this time around to the camp of third-place finisher Ron Forman, president and CEO of the Audubon Nature Institute. But Forman endorsed Landrieu Monday afternoon, despite the fact that Landrieu's long family affiliation with Democratic politics could be a bitter pill for many of Forman's Republican followers.
Nagin has pointedly been dropping the names of two of the city's most prominent white businessmen Joe Canizaro and Donald "Boysie" Bollinger who are close to the White House, but neither has come out publicly for him so far. If Nagin can't match the third of the white vote that Landrieu received, then, the pollster Pinsonat says, "stick a fork in [him], he's done."
Both Landrieu and Nagin have been criticized for dodging politically contentious rebuilding issues, such as proposals to declare some of the areas most devastated by Katrina's floodwaters off-limits for redevelopment. Landrieu said the next few weeks will give voters a clearer picture of where each of the candidates would lead the city. "I would suspect that whatever debates we have, and I'm sure there will be some, will be a little bit broader and more in depth," he said.
Sylvia Barabino, like a lot of New Orleans voters, will be eagerly watching. "It's been eight months, and I don't see nothing going on in the Ninth Ward or the Lower Ninth Ward," she said. "And that's my biggest concern. I'm ready to come home."