New Orleans Gears Up For Historic Mayoral Election

In one of the most watched mayoral races in recent history, New Orleans residents head to the polls Saturday to vote for a leader to bring the battered city back to life.

Eight months after Hurricane Katrina forced more than half the city’s residents to scatter across the country, New Orleans faces the daunting challenges of rebuilding the city and boosting its population back to pre-Katrina figures.

The next mayor — Democratic incumbent Ray Nagin or a challenger who defeats him — will have to make long-term repairs to the broken city and hope that history doesn't repeat itself in the near future. Nagin, who has been criticized for his leadership during and after Katrina, says the city is ready for hurricane season. The 2006 Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1.

On Saturday, Nagin will face 22 challengers. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the nonpartisan election will go into a May 20 runoff between the top two finishers. The winner will be sworn into office on May 1. If there is a runoff, the inauguration will be held on May 30.

Nagin's challengers include students, civil rights activists, a restaurant owner, business leaders and political heavyweights. There are also city council, sheriffs, clerks of court and tax assessors seats up for grabs.

The election could change the face of politics in the Crescent City, as well as in cities throughout the country. One debate was even televised across the country. New Orleans has been led by a black mayor for the past 30 years.

“This is the first opportunity that we’ve had in three decades to have a white mayor in a majority African American city,” said Brian Brox, an assistant professor of political science at Tulane University.

Nagin, 49, entered New Orleans politics in 2002 on an outsider's platform. Vowing to fight the corruption for which the city is famous, the former cable company executive rallied black and white voters in a runoff election. He has said he wants to stay in office to continue rebuilding the city.

“Now is not the time to change leadership,” Nagin says on his re-election Web site. “I ask the citizens of New Orleans to let me continue this important job of rebuilding our city.”

Among the leading challengers are Audubon Nature Institute Chief Executive Ron Forman, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, corporate attorney Rob Couhig, former New Orleans City Council member Peggy Wilson, corporate attorney Virginia Boulet and a minister, Tom Watson.

Some of the candidates dispute Nagin's assertion that the city is ready for another hurricane.

“We’re not ready for a Category 4 storm today,” said Emily Sneed, a spokeswoman for Landrieu, who has called for prioritizing repair of the levees and preparing for the worst.

“Our whole future is at stake,” she said. “It’s unprecedented that there are people displaced across the country.”

Landrieu has the advantage of name recognition. His sister is Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, and he is the son of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu.

‘A Chocolate New Orleans’

Nagin has received his share of criticism — before, during and after Katrina. At a Martin Luther King Day event in January, he said he wanted to see New Orleans become a "chocolate city" again.

“It’s time for us to come together. It’s time for us to rebuild New Orleans — the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans,” the mayor said. “This city will be a majority African American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way. It wouldn’t be New Orleans.”

A day after the comments, Nagin told FOX News that, if he could, he would take back some of the comments.

“I used some analogies and probably didn’t hit the mark on my message. But I never intended to offend anyone,” Nagin said.

Still, Brox thinks the comments made in January have likely impacted voters' perceptions of the mayor.

“I think people have processed it and remembered it. I think people’s current evaluations of the mayor [also] affect it,” Brox said.

Where Are the Voters?

One of the toughest obstacles the candidates face is reaching their would-be constituents. With so many residents forced to flee after Katrina, the city's population dropped from half a million to about 200,000.

Consequently, candidates have had to travel to other cities, such as Houston and Dallas, to court evacuees.

Originally slated for February, a federal judge postponed the election until April to give the city more time to prepare for the vote. Groups including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and National Urban League had expressed concerns about changes in polling locations and displaced residents.

Voters were allowed to cast their ballots early in New Orleans, at satellite sites in Louisiana or through mailed-in absentee ballots. Louisiana created an emergency election plan with polling stations in 10 cities statewide, a national advertising campaign targeting displaced voters and relaxed voting rules.

So far, 18,154 ballots have been cast in early voting, and 16,263 mail ballots have been requested, according to figures released by the Louisiana secretary of state's office.

There are 297,112 registered voters in New Orleans, and there are 76 polling places for Saturday's vote.

Some evacuees traveled to New Orleans for early voting through a group that paid for their transportation. The Katrina Survivors Association, a subgroup of the Association of Community Organizations for Relief Now (ACORN), sponsored bus travel for evacuees from Houston, Jackson, Miss., Little Rock, Ala., Atlanta, Dallas and San Antonio.

“This is a defining moment in New Orleans history,” said Tanya Harris, lead organizer for the devastated lower 9th Ward. “People feel that they don’t have a voice. This provides a voice for people, a role to play in this whole process.”

Harris said the group advocates voting and helps provide transportation for evacuees who may not have access to information about the election.

“Unless you have Internet access, a lot of people are left completely out of the loop. We want to let them know what their options are,” Harris said. “We just want people to vote.”