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Angry Voters Prepare to Pick New Orleans Mayor

High heels echoing, Ruby Ducre-Gethers crosses the floor of her airy but unlivable home — ear on her cell phone, eyes on the workers replacing her flooded-out walls, and mind on payback at the ballot box.

Across town, Irma Williams says the election for mayor this Saturday isn't truly an election without her neighbors to vote — but she says it's past time for street lamps to work outside her temporary trailer.

Alex Beard wakes up a thousand miles away and reads the New Orleans newspaper online, following each day's campaign news convinced that the storm brought a chance to rescue the city he adopted and then reluctantly fled.

Some people in New Orleans are angry about the government response to Hurricane Katrina and want to render judgment as the city casts ballots for mayor, city council and most every other elected official, from sheriff to assessor. Many want to look ahead.

But trumping all that as Election Day approaches, race — and all the history that comes with it here — has become the defining line for this election, dividing the city by neighborhood and color.

Any verdict on Mayor Ray Nagin's leadership, or any of the proposals to move forward, has been swallowed up by recriminations, paranoia and anger. There is fear — and hope — that the city may elect its first white mayor in three decades.

The election on Saturday has been vehemently challenged by those who say it should be postponed until more of those who left in the city's diaspora — more likely black and more likely poor — can find their way back. But early voting, so far, mostly reflects the racial demographics of pre-Katrina New Orleans.

The logistics alone present an unprecedented challenge, like everything else that Katrina left behind — a hundred thousand voters or more scattered across the country, the mystery of how many will actually vote, and potential crowds and confusion if voters flock back to the city on Election Day itself.

This city is still trying to piece itself back together: huge piles of moldering debris wait uncollected at the curb, drivers creep past nonworking traffic signals or hit the gas and pray, the French Quarter's neon burns bright while many restaurants and hotels are sadly quiet.

"Everything is so broken and destroyed. Everybody's in limbo," said Mark Fowler, manager of an Uptown co-operative that helps musicians replace instruments and find apartments. "The city's been traumatized."

Half the city is homeless — living somewhere, maybe within a half-hour's drive, maybe across the country — making it a guess as to who will vote.

"This is the most unusual mayoral election in American history," said Susan Howell, a University of New Orleans pollster. "When have people in 50 states been able to vote for the mayor of one city? This is a logistical nightmare."

And one that's likely to be repeated, since the nonpartisan election is almost sure to narrow the crowded field of Nagin and 22 challengers to two front-runners. If no one gets 50.1 percent of the vote, the runoff will be May 20.

Nagin won in 2002 as a black candidate supported by the white business community. His toughest opponent was the black police chief.

Now, his most serious challengers are two white men. Pre-storm, blacks, with 70 percent of the population, were the decisive vote. The last white mayor, Moon Landrieu, stepped down in 1978.

Everyone uses the city's geography to talk about race: Uptown and the French Quarter are the mostly white neighborhoods that survived with less damage; the Ninth Ward, Central City and New Orleans East are the majority black neighborhoods that suffered the storm's brunt.

"Right now, we have Uptown trying to reclaim its ideology," said Barry Ranski, an Uptown campaign worker bluntly laying out the mind-set of the scores of candidates who've jumped in for races far beyond mayor.

"When you take 65 or 70 percent of the citizens and displace them, they're not going to go through the hassle of registering absentee ballots."

At least that's the hope of some.

And others' fear. "The powers that be want black people out of here," said Beverly McKenna, publisher of the New Orleans Tribune, a newspaper that writes about black issues. "That's what's happening demographically, economically ... It's insulting how transparent it is."

Beard thinks such sweeping denunciations are unfair. An art gallery owner, he sees a chance for the city, black and white, to recognize how badly it had failed over the past half-century.

"If you pull back the curtain at all, and say this has been an increasingly unsuccessful welfare state for 50 years, and a devastatingly unsuccessful one for 25 or 30 years — your timing lines up with the last white mayor of New Orleans. So it's a racist statement, how dare you," he said.

"But it isn't. Everybody's equally guilty, white and black."

He is voting absentee, even as he sold his gallery and moved his wife and young son to New York City. Is he coming back? Not right away. It depends on the vote and how the city recovers.

Nagin's white challengers say race doesn't matter.

Mitch Landrieu, the son of the last white mayor, brother to a U.S. senator and himself the lieutenant governor. He has reached out to those burned by Nagin's rebuilding commission, which proposed not rebuilding some low-lying neighborhoods. His family has traditionally reached across racial lines.

Ron Forman, who built a can-do reputation with his oversight of the city's Audubon Zoo and construction of a downtown aquarium. In the public arena for decades, he's made powerful alliances without ever going before the public for a vote. The city's newspaper, the Times-Picayune, endorsed him.

Nagin famously stirred up the racial pot when he called New Orleans a "chocolate" city, and he stands by the comment. Critics said he was race-baiting. Nagin says he's convinced "the black vote is definitely coalescing" around him.

Some candidates have gone even further. Peggy Wilson, a former city councilor given little chance of getting into the runoff, threw out incendiary words like "pimp" and "welfare queen" that drew groans from other candidates at a televised debate.

Forman says outsiders and the media have injected race into the campaign. Landrieu looks at the camera and says he's proud of his biracial support — a reminder that his father helped integrate New Orleans.

For many, black and white, the election is about the past year, not the past 30 years.

Ducre-Gethers, like so many of the black middle-class already hiring workers to rebuild, intends to vote on how the storm was handled and plans for the future.

"The leadership we have, I'm not pleased with," she said, her gentle words delivered with the sharpness of a slap. She scoffs equally at speculation that black voters won't make their voices heard, or that they're coming together along racial lines.

"A lot of people are assuming the African-American voters are gone. That's not true," she said in her house in a gated community next to a golf course in New Orleans East, home to much of the black middle-class. "The black vote is going to kick Nagin to the curb."

She'll move back to the city from across Lake Pontchatrain, she promised. Once her home is rebuilt, once her teenage boys are out of school. She's putting her money behind her words, spending $200,000 to resurrect her home.

She wants New Orleans to be made whole, dismissing plans that pick and choose neighborhoods, or accept that it will be half the size it once was. "Right now, we need somebody to fix the city. I don't care if they're green," she said. Her candidate? Landrieu.

When it comes to the actual task of voting, there's bound to be even more confusion.

The city has revamped its voting system, reducing somewhere around 300 polling sites to 93 "mega" sites, to try to make the process more efficient. Absentee ballots are going to Baton Rouge.

Advocates are busing out-of-state evacuees to polling centers set up across Louisiana, and the state has expanded deadlines for absentee ballots. Still, many worry that the city's mail problems will lead to lost votes and complain that the state should have set up voting centers in places such as Houston and Atlanta.

Early voting — which ends a week before election day — drew 10,585 ballots by Saturday, according to preliminary numbers from the secretary of state. Through Thursday, the racial breakdown was roughly the same as New Orleans before Katrina: One-third white, two-thirds black, and 2 percent declaring themselves "other." So far, 14,760 voters had requested mail-in ballots.

Some question how fair any election can be when the city that was here eight months ago is not the city that's here now.

Irma Williams knows firsthand. It took her seven months to get home. She was rescued from the floodwaters by helicopter, swept away to Corpus Christi, Texas; then Houston, then Shreveport, La. She finally got back to her Central City neighborhood last month, living with her 78-year-old mother in the driveway.

On her house, a head-high waterline still marks the spot.

The election was already delayed from its early February date, and Williams asks why not wait longer so more residents can return.

"It's not fair to have an election and everybody's not back," she said, standing on the thin trailer steps after campaign outreach workers knocked on the screen door. "Half the people can't get here to vote."