Will Nagin's Victory Make a Difference?

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Even before the confetti had been swept away Saturday night, the New Orleans mayoral race was starting to look like it had been just an elaborate, expensive distraction from more pressing matters at hand. After months of debates, candidate forums and campaign advertisements, conditions in the hurricane-ravaged city are not much different from when the race began.

Less than half the city's population has returned. Congress is still debating when, or even if, it will unleash $4.2 billion in community development block grants allocated for the city's rebuilding. And the candidates Mayor Ray Nagin and Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu had largely managed to sidestep the most troublesome questions facing the city: whether it is realistic to rebuild New Orleans' entire pre-Hurricane Katrina footprint — a daunting prospect for a city hard-pressed to provide basic services for its drastically reduced populace — and how it will handle things if another major hurricane hit the city. Most important, Ray Nagin, whose political obituary had been all but written last fall, is still mayor, having coasted to victory over Landrieu in Saturday's runoff election. He did it with the overwhelming support of African-American voters, many of whom voted from exile or drove miles to cast ballots in polling places set up in still-desolate neighborhoods.

With a 52%-48% margin, Nagin, a pro-business Democrat who cobbled together enough conservative white support to give him the edge, cast himself as the underdog, a non- politician who had performed admirably under the unprecedented pressure of Katrina. Landrieu, who comes from a powerful Democratic political family (his sister is U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and his father was the city's last white mayor), ran a cautious campaign that was long on money but short on specifics.

In one of the nation's most closely watched municipal race ever, Nagin's victory was a dramatic example of democracy in action. Thousands of displaced city residents went to extraordinary lengths to exercise the right to vote, though some observers think they could have an unhealthy influence on the future planning for New Orleans.

"You hear a lot of fear that Ray Nagin is beholden to evacuees in Houston and elsewhere, and is he going to throw out the smaller footprint and restore New Orleans to [the size] it was," said longtime Louisiana political observer Elliott Stonecipher. But Nagin, who was a cable television executive before making his first run for public office in 2002, is a businessman, Stonecipher noted, who "knows that to literally restore the Ninth Ward, to literally restore New Orleans East, is of course not what we want to do."

By Louisiana standards, the campaign was exceedingly cordial and slime-free — no wild accusations, no political bombshells. But it did reveal some of what critics say is the mercurial mayor's greatest weakness, a go-it-alone style that floats ideas before the key players have completely signed on.

In the final weeks of the campaign Nagin released two headline-grabbing initiatives: a new evacuation plan for the upcoming hurricane season, which begins June 1, and news that a consortium of banks had agreed to extend the city a $150 million line of credit to help plug holes in its operating budget. But the evacuation plan included several conditions, such as transportation and shelter for special needs evacuees, that state officials have not yet approved, and the four banks involved in the city budget deal still have not signed the necessary papers.

In his victory speech, Nagin vowed to work more closely in his second term with Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and state lawmakers, who, through the Louisiana Recovery Authority, have more power over how funds will be distributed than the Mayor of New Orleans does. "It's time for a real partnership," Nagin said before a jubilant crowd of supporters Saturday night. "It's time for us to get together and rebuild this city. And when we rebuild this city, we rebuild the entire state."

But he and Blanco have a rocky relationship, going back to at least 2003, when Nagin endorsed Blanco's Republican rival for governor, Bobby Jindal, now a U.S. representative and likely Blanco opponent in her expected bid for reelection next year. "The last four years, Nagin hasn't worked well" with lawmakers, from the governor down to the New Orleans City Council, local political analyst and pollster Bernie Pinsonat said. "Maybe he's serious this time, but he hasn't been a bridge builder for the last four years."

The mayoral race may have been a long distraction in most respects, but one thing certainly has changed: with the results of Saturday's election to back him up, Nagin is in a much stronger position now to demand a greater role for himself, and New Orleans, in the recovery authority's decisions. "By the way, if it doesn't work," Stonecipher said, "Ray Nagin's going to pull an 'endorse Jindal' on them again next year. It's not like he doesn't hold some cards." Now it's just a question of how he plays them.