Last Friday, Ater recommended postponing the elections -- possibly until as late as September -- while the city recovers from Hurricane Katrina.
Ater is the state's top elections officer. Under state law, an election can be postponed if the secretary of state finds that a state of emergency exists and that the emergency would prevent the election from being held in a fair manner. Among the factors that the law recognizes as constituting or contributing to a state of emergency are the accessibility of polling precincts, voters' ability to get to the polls, and any logistical problems getting machines and commissioners in place. All of those factors are in play with regard to the New Orleans elections.
Whether those issues will linger until September is another question -- as is the question of whether a delay of that long a period seems more in response to political exigencies than storm-related ones.
By law, Gov. Kathleen Blanco must concur in Ater's recommendation in order for the postponement to occur. In this case, Ater says the Governess had indicated that she would follow his lead. She could disagree -- or she could schedule the election on April 29. In the wake of Hurricane Rita, she postponed elections in southwest Louisiana for only a month. Why does New Orleans need a delay of 7 months?
These and other questions will continue to swirl around her and Ater's decision.
For now, some form of postponement appears likely. That said, the question then becomes one of who benefits. More specifically, does it help or hurt Mayor Ray Nagin's chances of being re-elected? I think it cuts both ways.
Let's start by examining how Nagin looked a mere 100 days ago. Back then, he was a shoo-in. He had a pile of dough in the bank and no major opponents on the horizon. Then came Katrina, the flood, the slow response, the confusion ... and voters' anger.
Everything is different now. The conventional wisdom holds that a February election would have put Nagin on the ropes, his war chest notwithstanding. People all over town are mad at all levels of government, and a lot of them are angry with Nagin in particular. (See "Commentary," p. 7." If people have a higher regard for FEMA than they do for you, it's time to dust off your resume.) Add to voters' ire the city's recently altered demographics, and you have a potentially lethal combination for Nagin on Feb. 4.
But consider the flip side. Feb. 4 is only 60 days away. Katrina swallowed up the election's preseason. There was no time, and no opportunity, for potential opponents to float trial balloons, raise money, conduct polls and test the waters. All that weighs in favor of Nagin winning re-election after a quickie campaign. He may be weakened, but he's still the incumbent.
The city's black political establishment is not fond of Nagin, but it does like the idea of having a black mayor and a majority-black City Council. They believe that a lot of African-American voters who are currently scattered across the South could be back -- or at least located -- by September. As they look at who is back already, and who is likely to be back in the next few months, they are understandably nervous. For the sake of their own relevance, they want the election delayed as long as possible. They see a September election date as their best chance of holding on to the mayor's office and the Council.
Then again, a delay gives Nagin's opponents more time to do all the things they need to do to run for mayor -- or council.
Like I said, it cuts both ways.
In the end, the one thing that will likely determine Nagin's chances of winning re-election more than anything else is the pace of recovery -- and voters' perception of him as either a genuine leader or a clueless knucklehead. And that's true no matter when the election is held -- or who shows up.