"It really came down to two candidates," said one Alliance member after the vote. "And it was very, very close." The two candidates in question were Forman and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who many expected to walk away with the group's support.
With 24 candidates qualifying to run for mayor, the Alliance faced a logistical nightmare just trying to stage the discussion. Its handling of that problem was instructive, especially because this group tries to treat all candidates equally -- in contrast to many organizations (and media) that adopt a "major candidates only" posture, which often leads to charges of unfairness.
In this case, the Alliance decided to interview the candidates in two shifts. First up were those who formally entered the race on the second and third days of qualifying (March 2 and 3). That produced 14 contenders, including former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson and Clerk of Court Kimberly Williamson Butler, who was a no-show. Butler's absence no doubt contributed to the lack of fireworks during the forum; it will be interesting to see the dynamics when she shares a dais with Nagin.
Next up were those who formally qualified on opening day, March 1. That allowed for nine candidates, including, coincidentally, all the front-runners.
But even the much-anticipated discussion by Nagin, Forman, Landrieu and attorney Rob Couhig was a relatively polite affair. As expected, Couhig was the most aggressive in setting himself apart from (and criticizing) the others. In contrast to the first televised debate last Tuesday, in which he went after Landrieu repeatedly, Couhig this time took aim at Nagin.
Noting that property tax bills typically are sent out by the city in December of each year, Couhig said this year they won't be going out "until after the election." He implied the decision to hold property tax bills until after his re-election campaign shows that Nagin is being disingenuous about the state of the city's finances. "The city's four-month budget is a fiction," Couhig said. He also blasted Nagin's alleged "failure to deal with housing" after Hurricane Katrina and for failing to have a "neighborhood evacuation plan" before the storm. He also noted that New Orleans prior to Katrina had a crime rate that was "10 times the rate of New York City."
Nagin, like Forman and Landrieu, appeared calm and comfortable throughout. He said near the end of the discussion that all his opponents failed to answer the questions forthrightly. He endorsed most but not all of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's land-use plan (not the part calling for a moratorium on building permits) and said the city has already issued 10 times the usual number of permits, many of them via on-line applications. "The marketplace is already deciding which neighborhoods will come back," he said, adding, "I support property rights."
Landrieu was perhaps the politest of them all, at times agreeing with others' responses and sometimes almost complimenting their answers. The one time he didn't was on the question about the controversial land-use plan, which he referred to as "the Canizaro plan" -- a reference to developer Joe Canizaro, one of the leaders of Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission. "The Canizaro plan has ominous overtones with regard to shrinking the city's footprint," Landrieu said. "Shrinking the footprint shrinks our destiny."
For his part, Forman told the group in his opening remarks that his "resume speaks of 33 years of dreaming, planning and building." On the question of the land-use plan, he also praised most of the document and cautioned everyone, "Don't start over again. Let's complete the plan and get it to the state -- and above all, tell property owners what's going on."
The Alliance endorsement gives Forman a needed boost in this early stage of his campaign. The organization has a well-respected name, and in this compressed election season its endorsement could prove to be more influential than usual. The primary is now less than six weeks away. Every day counts.