Published March 10, 2006
NEW ORLEANS – Jimmy Carter was asked to monitor it. Race is defining it. A passel of candidates is making it fun, or foolish. What once was a colorful local campaign for mayor is now an election like no other in U.S. history.
With Hurricane Katrina still dominating life here, New Orleans is beginning one of the most important mayoral races ever in this city already known for flamboyant politics.
Incumbent Ray Nagin is seeking a second term in the April 22 primary, but he faces 22 challengers who hail from all walks of life. Some are veteran politicos; others include a popular reverend, a former baseball team owner and a public radio host.
There's one common sentiment: Anger and frustration in the wake of Katrina.
"To quote from the movie 'Network,' there's a lot of people as mad as hell and they're going to do something about it," said Sidney Arroyo, a veteran political campaign organizer.
Before Katrina, the mayoral race was not expected to offer much intrigue. Incumbents such as Nagin historically have won second terms easily, but the mayor gradually alienated many voters, especially after his now-infamous "chocolate city" speech in which he said God intended New Orleans to be a black-majority city.
Some of the city's heavy hitters entered the race, in part, because of Nagin's perceived weaknesses. Among them was businessman Rob Couhig, the former owner of a minor league baseball team, who ran an irreverent television ad labeling Nagin a "cuckoo" and portraying another candidate, Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, as a bumbling knight in clanging armor.
The two biggest stars are Landrieu, the politically savvy son of a former mayor and brother of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.; and Ron Forman, a businessman credited with making the Audubon Nature Institute into a zoo and aquarium system.
If no candidate gets a majority of the votes in the nonpartisan primary, the top two finishers will compete in a May 20 runoff election.
The field of candidates represents a kaleidoscope of ideas for rebuilding Orleans.
One is touting a "tax-free city." Another has proposed that New Orleans style itself like Amsterdam by offering legalized prostitution, hashish bars and gardens.
A third candidate even got herself jailed. Clerk of Criminal Court Kimberly Williamson Butler was incarcerated after she defied a court order in a squabble over the cleanup of her court's hurricane-flooded evidence room. She left jail Thursday surrounded by supporters and reporters.
Some worry the election is off to a bad start.
"This is the most serious election in the history of New Orleans, and all you know about the election is Kimberly Williamson Butler and all these — I can't call them clowns — but all these people running," said Robert Moffet, president of the Alliance for Good Government, an influential citizens group. "People are running for their 15 minutes of fame. I'm really upset about this."
The mechanics of the election are daunting. With more than half of the city's population dispersed, getting ballots to voters will be tricky. Also, polling stations were destroyed and election workers scattered.
The complicated logistics mean candidates for a local office are campaigning on a national scale. Polling stations are being opened around Louisiana for New Orleans residents, and election workers are teaching displaced voters in many of the nation's major cities how to vote by mail.
"We've probably made it the most accessible election in the history of the United States," said Al Ater, the Louisiana secretary of state.
Many fear the election will disenfranchise black voters who have been displaced. That's led Jesse Jackson and other black leaders to challenge the decision to hold the election.
Adding fuel to those misgivings is the large number of white candidates, including Landrieu and Forman, vying to unseat Nagin, who is black. New Orleans was nearly 70 percent black before Katrina hit, and the city has not had a white mayor since Landrieu's father left office almost 30 years ago.
"It's almost to the point that we need election observers," said Gary Clark, a political science professor at Dillard University in New Orleans. "The limits we have now are almost the same as in a developing society: an economic infrastructure that's been devastated and various factions trying to seize political control and influence."
Clark and others have suggested former President Carter monitor the election as he has done in Haiti and Latin American countries. But Carter Center spokesman Jon Moor said that would be inappropriate because Carter's "affiliation with the Democratic party could be perceived as detracting from our ability to be impartial."
There's one good sign, though: Voters seem itching to cast their ballots.
"This is going to be a ball," said Douglas Barden, a French Quarter waiter, as he talked politics on a street corner with a friend.
The friend, a jester-like and reedy man, was dressed all in white except for a stars-and-stripes tie and top hat. He identified himself only as "Uncle Louis," a spoof of Uncle Sam, and reached into his pocket for a voter registration card.
"I went down and renewed mine," he said. "It's open for business!"