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Political Floodgate 

Mayor Ray Nagin faces a huge field of challengers, but you can't count him out.

Incumbent New Orleans mayors seldom face major opposition when they seek re-election, and they almost never lose. In fact, no incumbent has lost in 60 years. Robert Maestri, who once asked FDR "How ya like dem ersters, Mr. President?" while they were dining on oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's lost to deLesseps "Chep" Morrison in 1946.

Ever since then, incumbent mayors have had an easier time with both the Queen's English and the city's electorate. A few, like Vic Schiro in 1965 and Dutch Morial in 1982, faced highly qualified, well-financed challengers. But they all won a second term.

That could change this year.

Mayor Ray Nagin was coasting to his second term last August. He had at least a million bucks in his campaign account and only nuisance opposition. Then Hurricane Katrina struck, flooding 80 percent of the city and swamping Nagin's hopes of sailing comfortably back into office. The anarchy that followed Katrina -- along with many of Nagin's own words and actions (or failures to act) -- changed the city's political landscape dramatically.

For starters, the Feb. 4 primary and March 4 runoff were postponed indefinitely, then finally scheduled for this Saturday, April 22. More important, voters have grown increasingly frustrated, if not openly hostile, because of a perception that their political leaders and institutions failed them during and after the storm.

By the time qualifying closed on March 3, Nagin had 23 opponents -- 10 of them African American -- as a political floodgate seemed to burst open. Moreover, several of his challengers have matched or nearly matched his ability to raise money -- and still more have proven their mettle in debates.

Every mayor's re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. But this mayor's race is much more than a referendum on the last four years. It's also a watershed, a call to action on the next 20. It is axiomatic to say that every citywide election finds New Orleans at a crossroads. Never before, however, has it been so painfully obvious how much is riding on the outcome. Three Tiers for Mayor When a field grows as crowded as that for mayor, it's natural to separate candidates into tiers -- ideologically, financially or otherwise. In the mayor's race, there are three tiers, based roughly on the amount of money raised and candidates' perceived chances of winning. Polls also have shown the same three candidates consistently leading the field, with two of those three out in front each time.

The top tier includes Nagin, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Audubon Institute CEO Ron Forman. All three are Democrats, although Forman was a Republican at one time. Landrieu and Nagin have led all polls from the get-go, with the latest several showing Landrieu slightly ahead with 26-30 percent, Nagin close behind at 23-26 percent, and Forman third with 14-16 percent. The rest of the pack has remained in single digits. That has driven many observers to proclaim the contest a three-way race, but in truth the dynamics are much more complex than that.

For example, Landrieu is the only candidate in the field who runs equally well among white and black voters, whereas Nagin's vote is overwhelmingly black and Forman's just about all white.

In addition, the second tier of candidates includes people like attorney and businessman Rob Couhig, who many say has performed the best in debates and who certainly has had the most interesting TV commercials (his first was comical, while the follow-ups were quite substantive); former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson, who has spiced up debates with rhetoric about not wanting to see "pimps, gang-bangers and welfare queens" return to the city; corporate attorney Virginia Boulet, who was the first to present a comprehensive plan for recovery and who has advocated a universal health plan for New Orleans citizens; and the Rev. Tom Watson, the closest thing to a major black challenger to Nagin and whose 13-year military career adds an interesting dimension -- and uncommon credentials -- to the pastoral and ministerial elements of his campaign. Couhig and Wilson are Republicans; Boulet and Watson are Democrats.

What makes the second tier of candidates so significant is both the number and nature of votes they draw. Although Forman is running as a Democrat, he gets much of his money -- and his votes -- in conservative Uptown and Republican circles. In recent weeks, Forman has started to rise in the polls, but so has Couhig. A seasoned campaigner (he has run twice for Congress) who well knows the political ropes, Couhig undoubtedly cuts into Forman's strength among conservatives and Republicans -- as does Wilson, who represented Uptown, Carrollton and Lakeview on the City Council. If Forman could get all the votes going to Couhig and Wilson in the polls, he would be in a statistical tie with Landrieu and Nagin.

Similarly, Watson appears to cut into Nagin's standing in the black community. He has been getting less than 5 percent of the vote in most polls, but that would be enough to put Nagin even with or slightly ahead of Landrieu. The lieutenant governor, in turn, probably sees some of his potential votes going to Boulet, although she has not gotten more than 2 percent in most polls.

The third tier of candidates includes all the others -- from former state Rep. and community leader Leo Watermeier, who has taken to writing his own critique of debates that typically exclude him and other "minor" candidates; to Clerk of Criminal Court Kimberly Williamson Butler, who was jailed for contempt of court at the height of qualifying because of a bizarre dispute with the judges her office is supposed to serve; to a dozen others who rarely get invited to forums and debates and thus rarely get public notice or media attention.

With so many in that third tier, it's entirely possible that they will get 5 to 7 percent of the vote between them all on Saturday. That's a lot of votes, and it could prove to be the difference -- particularly in concert with the votes going to Couhig, Wilson, Boulet and Watson -- between who makes the runoff and who goes home empty-handed Saturday night.

Issues and Endorsements

The overarching issue in the mayor's race has been all things related to Katrina: Did Nagin handle the preparations and immediate aftermath properly? If not, who is best suited to lead New Orleans out of its current mess? Is the Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) Commission's recovery plan right for the city?

And that's just a start.

Most of the dialogue since January has been about the BNOB plan, which was drafted by a 17-member, blue-ribbon panel appointed by Nagin weeks after the storm. Some have complained that the commission was not diverse enough, or that it has been dominated by large-business interests, but so far it's the only citywide plan on the table.

Although he appointed the commission that drafted the plan, Nagin has not hesitated to go his own way on some issues, such as a proposal for a moratorium on building permits. In fact, his opposition caused the commission to drop that proposal. Last month, the mayor presented his "tweaked" version of the plan and has sent it to the City Planning Commission for review.

The plan's most controversial element is the land-use report, which initially suggested not allowing certain neighborhoods to rebuild if they were not able to demonstrate "viability" after Katrina. Critics say the plan offered no benchmarks for "viability," and funds that were supposed to be used to help neighborhoods chart their own futures never materialized. As a result, Nagin ultimately told residents they were all free to return -- but to do so with their eyes open, knowing that some areas effectively would be rebuilt at property owners' own risk. Consequently, some areas are coming back strong, whereas others are seeing tepid efforts to rebuild.

Among the leading candidates, Forman has been the most supportive of the BNOB plan. Many of its promoters are among his biggest political and financial backers. Forman's background as a builder of big projects -- the renovated zoo, the Aquarium of the Americas, the species survival center, the insectarium, Woldenberg Park -- also makes him a natural promoter of the BNOB plan. It's a grand vision of what some say New Orleans could become after Katrina, and Forman has been an enthusiastic promoter of the concept that the storm has given the city a chance to come back smarter and stronger -- but smaller.

Landrieu is not as quick to accept the notion that New Orleans' reduced population will require a proportionate downsizing of the city's "footprint." "When you reduce New Orleans' footprint, you reduce our potential," he says. Instead, Landrieu proposes to let the free market play a larger role in determining which neighborhoods are viable, with government making sure people are safe and have the resources they need (such as reliable utilities and public services) to rebuild good neighborhoods.

In general, voters fall into two camps: those who want Nagin re-elected and those who don't. Among those looking for a new mayor, the question then becomes what kind of mayor should lead New Orleans for the next four years? That's where sharp differences arise between the Forman and Landrieu camps.

Forman backers point to his record as a visionary and a builder at Audubon. He is unquestionably one of the area's most effective promoters. He also has proved his ability to tackle "impossible" tasks, having virtually reinvented the once stodgy and inert Chamber of Commerce while serving as its chairman. Doubters say that all of Forman's big successes have involved "feel-good" projects such as the zoo and aquarium -- not thornier problems such as public housing, crime, racial tensions and the city's tax base. He says his successes prove he knows how to marry the public and private sectors to build and maintain successful public projects. Forman admits he will not be a hands-on mayor but instead will hire four "city managers" to operate city government. He sees that as a strength.

"My campaign is about building an excellent team to fix our city's short- and long-term challenges," Forman says on his Web site. He proposes the hiring of four "deputy mayors" who have experience and/or expertise in running a city and then delegating them authority to make City Hall work more efficiently. He proposes a "Friends of New Orleans" organization to raise private-sector money and volunteers to rebuild the city, just as his landmark "Friends of the Zoo" rebuilt Audubon Park.

Without doubt, Forman's weakness has been his campaign's failure to draw more black support in polls. In recent weeks, he picked up support from several African-American elected officials, including Recorder of Mortgages Desiree Charbonnet and state Sen. Derrick Shepard. More black officials were expected to announce their support of Forman in the final days of the campaign.

Landrieu's supporters say New Orleans has already had its experiment with a "businessman mayor" under Nagin -- and it hasn't worked. What's needed now, they say, is a mayor who understands how to make government work effectively -- and who can build a team of experienced professionals to get City Hall on track quickly. They point to Landrieu's two decades in public office and say that he has proved he can make difficult public policy decisions and bring together legislators and others from diverse constituencies and even opposing political persuasions. "We only have one chance to rebuild New Orleans, and our margin for error is zero," Landrieu says. "I have the experience to get the job done, and get it done now. ... We need a leader that can make a plan, and then make it happen."

Critics say Landrieu is too tied to the existing political system and may devote too much energy to helping his sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, win re-election in 2008. He says if that were his plan, he'd run for governor, not mayor. As lieutenant governor, Landrieu gets high marks for his work to bring cultural, tourist and cinematic investment into Louisiana. He says that proves he knows how to grow an economy by working with business and industry as well as the arts and culture.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Landrieu has aired radio ads with testimonials of support from several black officials -- state Reps. Karen Carter and Cheryl Gray, and state Sen. Ann Duplessis -- as well as prominent business and civic leaders such as Gary Solomon, Nancy Marsiglia, Leslie Jacobs and others. He also won an endorsement from businessman Jimmie Thorns, who qualified for mayor and later dropped out of the race.

For his part, Nagin says he understands better than anyone what it will take to rebuild the city because he's been involved in the recovery effort -- at the highest levels -- since the day after Katrina. He says he has forged relationships with FEMA, the White House, Congress and others to guide the city's recovery, and he cautions that New Orleans could lose valuable time -- 12 months or more -- and traction if it elects a new mayor. He also says he knows the recovery plan better than any of his opponents as well as the status of city finances. Before Katrina, he says his administration cleaned up "a mess" at City Hall by installing new telephone and computer systems and streamlining the permitting process, which has made City Hall and the city itself much more business friendly.

In response to critics of his actions during and after Katrina, he says he implemented the best plan that he could in the face of an unprecedented storm. "We got more than 90 percent of the people out before the storm hit," he says. "There has been a huge learning curve for us after Katrina, just as there was for New York after 9/11. If I leave office, the city will be in very good shape for the next mayor because of steps that my team and I have taken."

Last week, Nagin intensified his efforts to garner votes from displaced New Orleans voters. His campaign hired state Sen. Cleo Fields and former state Democratic Party leader Ben Jeffers to help with turnout at satellite voting locations, and he picked up endorsements from several out-of-town state lawmakers.

Post-Katrina Realities

Between the arrival of Katrina and the New Year, the ball was pretty much in Nagin's court, and by most accounts he dropped it. He initially impressed voters and commentators with his impassioned pleas for federal assistance and his attempts to get the nation to focus on New Orleans' plight.

Then, beginning about a month after the storm, he began to fall out of favor. He refused citizens' requests that they be allowed back into the city to check on their property -- and in some cases he refused to meet with citizens themselves as they gathered for neighborhood meetings. Longstanding feuds with City Council members and other elected officials -- including Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- left him isolated from the political and governmental mainstream. An inexperienced staff, poor follow-through, and inconsistent messages eroded his once-unshakable standing among middle- and upper-income voters. By mid-January, Nagin was clearly in for a tough re-election fight.

Then, in a Martin Luther King Day speech to a nearly all-black crowd, Nagin gave his now-infamous "chocolate city" speech, telling the world that God had told him New Orleans was meant to be a black-majority town and that Katrina was God's punishment for America's war on Iraq. The city, the nation and the world were stunned.

The next day, after intense pressure from his top aides, he gave one-on-one interviews to local and network TV reporters in which he offered an apology. Then, about six weeks later, he told a mostly black Houston audience that most of his opponents "don't look like us." By then, it was clear that Nagin had abandoned the coalition of black and white middle-class voters that had elected him in 2002 and was instead running a "black" campaign.

Meanwhile, in the weeks leading up to qualifying, Forman and Landrieu jockeyed behind the scenes to see who would be Nagin's main challenger. Initially, each of the two old friends encouraged the other to run. Ultimately, they both jumped into the race. Landrieu claimed that Forman broke a promise not to run against him; Forman averred that Landrieu took too long making up his mind to run.

Another complication was the fact that Forman's wife, Sally, had been Nagin's communications director up to the day he informally declared his candidacy. When he formally announced, she did not join him on stage in the Audubon Tea Room -- and she has played no public role in the campaign. She did, however, send a fawning letter of resignation to Nagin, praising him for his courage and leadership during the city's time of crisis.

As the relative newcomer to the political game, Forman generated considerable buzz after he announced, particularly in the Uptown enclaves that have supported his Audubon efforts. He won the endorsement of the Alliance for Good Government, which endorsed Nagin four years ago, and last Sunday picked up the backing of The Times-Picayune. As the campaign entered its final week, however, he was still shy of widespread black support. Landrieu, meanwhile, began airing radio spots from several well-known black lawmakers and civic leaders. Forman also parted ways with his media adviser, Jim Farwell, and replaced him with Ray Teddlie, another veteran political adman.

Despite leading in just about every reliable poll, Landrieu stumbled out of the blocks after his formal announcement. His first TV ad showed him rescuing Katrina survivors and was supposed to emphasize "leadership" -- but the footage of his post-storm heroics caused some to wonder if he had hired a video crew to document the moment. As a result, the "leadership" message never really hit home.

Questions about the footage of Landrieu rescuing people were pervasive enough that his campaign posted a statement on his Web site stating that an independent video crew happened to be on the scene during the rescue and later offered him the images. His campaign ultimately pulled the spots and replaced them with a message that focused more on his plan for the city's recovery. The flap didn't hurt his standing in the polls, but while he struggled to present a coherent message, Forman went from single digits to 16 percent -- and Couhig established himself as the guy unafraid to tell the truth.

Voters began casting mail-in and absentee ballots last week, and the initial count showed intense voter interest in the race. The likelihood of any candidate getting a majority in Saturday's primary is slim-to-none. The runoff is set for May 20 -- four weeks later.

Mayor, City of New Orleans

Johnny Adriani, 34, Democrat

James Arey, 38, Democrat
Music manager, producer

F. Nick Bacqué, 25, Independent

Virginia Boulet, 53, Democrat

Elvin D. Brown, 37, Democrat
Health-care management

Manny Chevrolet Bruno, 41, Independent

Kimberly Williamson Butler, 43, Democrat
Clerk of Criminal District Court

Robert Couhig, 56, Republican
Businessman, attorney

Roderick Dean, NA, Democrat
Family caretaker

Sonja "Lady" DeDais, 41, Democrat
Political consultant

Ron Forman, 58, Democrat
President/CEO Audubon Institute (on leave)

Marie Galatas, 66, Independent

Greta Gladney, 41, Independent
Non-profit manager

Mitch Landrieu, 43, Democrat
Lt. Governor, Louisiana

James "Jimmy" Lemann, 47, Democrat
Aircraft mechanic

C. Ray Nagin, 49, Democrat

Mac Rahman, 55, Democrat

Norbert P. Rome, 50, Democrat
Real estate

Jimmie Thorns Jr., 59, Independent
Real estate appraisal, consultant

Leo Watermeier, 56, Democrat
Real estate

Tom Watson, 50, Democrat

Shedrick C. White, 36, Democrat
Social services

Peggy Wilson, 68, Republican
Fundraising consultant

click to enlarge A total of 24 candidates initially qualified to run for mayor - of New Orleans. More than 20 remain in the race and will - appear on Saturday's ballot. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • A total of 24 candidates initially qualified to run for mayor of New Orleans. More than 20 remain in the race and will appear on Saturday's ballot.
click to enlarge Mayor Ray Nagin - CHERYL GERBER
click to enlarge Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu - CHERYL GERBER
click to enlarge Ron Forman - CHERYL GERBER
click to enlarge Rob Couhig - CHERYL GERBER
click to enlarge Peggy Wilson - CHERYL GERBER
click to enlarge The Rev. Tom Watson - CHERYL GERBER
click to enlarge Virginia Boulet - CHERYL GERBER


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