23 likely battling just to face Nagin in runoff
Few have money, name recognition to compete
Sunday, March 05, 2006
By Gordon Russell
and Frank Donze%%par%%Staff writers
Questions -- many of them unanswerable -- loom over
the post-Katrina political landscape as New Orleans
embarks on perhaps the most pivotal mayor's race in
the city's 288-year history.
Six months after the storm and two days after an
unprecedented 24 candidates signed up for the race,
the most vexing imponderable is forecasting voter
participation among the tens of thousands of evacuees
scattered across the nation.
Another conundrum is whether incumbent Ray Nagin, who
appears to have lost some support among the white
voters who sealed his upset victory four years ago,
can win over a black electorate that has never
appeared particularly enamored of him.
The crowded April 22 primary ballot might seem to
present voters with a bewildering array of candidates
vying to oversee New Orleans' climb from the ruins of
Katrina -- and with only seven weeks to sort out the
But ironically, the short campaign season and the
lengthy slate -- unusual in a race with an incumbent
seeking re-election -- may serve to ensure what polls
are already suggesting: That this is a three-man
battle pitting Nagin against two well-known and
well-financed challengers, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and
Audubon Institute chief executive Ron Forman.
Nagin has the advantage of incumbency: He's likely to
be in the news almost every day as he pitches his
plans for recovery, and he has the ability to travel
in his official capacity, as he's doing this weekend
to Houston, a hub of Katrina evacuees. Nagin also has
a formidable war chest, most of it amassed before
Katrina struck, when he seemed to have a lock on
Landrieu is the son of a popular mayor, the brother of
a U.S. senator and was elected statewide in 2003, a
combination that gives him near-universal name
recognition. The family name -- in part because of his
father's ground-breaking efforts to offer high-level
City Hall jobs to African-Americans -- has long drawn
substantial black support.
Forman, meanwhile, has been drafted by some of the
city's captains of industry, a group that has promised
to provide him with as much money as he needs.
Forman's claim to the throne rests largely on the
success of the attractions he has managed, and in some
cases created, in his decades as head of the Audubon
Institute, among them the zoo, the aquarium and the
research-oriented Species Survival Center.
Though Nagin can no longer claim invincibility, a
CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey of current New Orleans
residents released this week gave him a slim lead,
with 19 percent of respondents saying they'd
definitely vote for him, compared with 18 percent for
Landrieu and 12 percent for Forman. A high percentage
of the undecided respondents also said they would
consider voting for one of the three.
Pollsters only asked about two other candidates,
former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson and minister Tom
Watson, who polled 7 percent and 4 percent,
respectively, in the "definite" column. However, broad
majorities of respondents said they would "definitely
not" vote for either Wilson or Watson, throwing into
question whether either has a real chance of making a
In another recent poll, taken by Ed Renwick, director
of the Loyola University Institute of Politics,
Wilson, Forman, Nagin and Landrieu were the only
candidates to register any measurable following at
all. The Renwick poll was conducted before Watson
announced his entry into the race.
Both polls come with caveats. The first is that they
did not include displaced New Orleanians, a group that
is proving elusive to pollsters and perhaps to
candidates as well. Renwick surveyed only people who
answered New Orleans phone numbers, while the Gallup
poll used cell numbers, but only questioned people who
said they now live within the city limits.
Most pundits believe that those who live in the city
now will vote in record numbers. But they're less
clear about the percentages of displaced voters who
will cast ballots. Moreover, it's possible, and
perhaps likely, that the displaced will tend to favor
different candidates than those in the city.
The other caveat, of course, is that both polls were
taken before the official beginning of the campaign
season, which kicks into gear this week with multiple
Nonetheless, many observers doubt that less well-known
candidates will have a shot at overtaking the three
front-runners. Not only is the race logistically
complicated, what with the need to campaign in Baton
Rouge and out of state, for the same reason it also
will be costly. With money relatively scarce, due to
the hurricane and recovery effort, available cash
appears to be flowing to the trio already leading the
"The best way break through the noise is with money,"
Renwick said. "But you can't have 20 well-financed
candidates. That's impossible."
Moreover, in the uncertain climate of Katrina's
aftermath, voters may be less willing to take a chance
on a relative unknown than they were in 2002. That
year, riding a wave of disgust with patronage and
status-quo politics, Nagin, a relatively low-profile
cable TV executive, easily outdistanced a field of
"It looks like a three-person race at this time," said
pollster Silas Lee, a Xavier University sociology
professor. For a dark horse to jump into the fray near
the top, Lee said, would likely require a "stroke of
"One of the major challengers would have to implode,"
Susan Howell, professor of political science at the
University of New Orleans, called the mayor's race
"basically a three-person contest."
Howell and most other observers believe a runoff
election, slated for May 20, is inevitable. Given the
demographic shifts wrought by Katrina, which
apparently have brought the white and black population
to near-parity, Howell believes it's likely that the
runoff will feature one white candidate and one
Unless something changes dramatically, Nagin -- whose
popularity has suffered but not collapsed -- will be
the black candidate, Howell said. Her view is that the
large field of white candidates, led by Landrieu and
Forman, is essentially competing for the second runoff
"I think we'll end up with Nagin and somebody in the
runoff," Howell said.
The crowded mayoral field can be grouped into three
categories: the presumptive front-runners; a second
tier, including candidates who possess some
combination of qualifications, money and name
recognition; and a third group of little-known long
The middle group includes Wilson, Watson, former state
Rep. Leo Watermeier, businessman Rob Couhig, lawyer
Virginia Boulet, Clerk of Criminal Court Kimberly
Williamson Butler and businessman Jimmie Thorns Jr.,
with the remaining 13 candidates bringing up the rear.
At this point, observers think there's little chance
of those patterns changing much. But that doesn't mean
the 20 candidates in the second and third tiers won't
play a major role in the election.
Couhig, for instance, is one of the only candidates to
have begun advertising. He debuted on the airwaves
with a sardonic spot that pokes fun at Nagin, Landrieu
and Forman. The only others that have taken to the
airwaves thus far are the well-funded Forman -- who
has been running an expensive blitz -- and businessman
Mike Hammer, who ran a slate of ads and then dropped
In past elections, Couhig has shown a willingness to
spend his own money, making the dearth of campaign
cash less of an obstacle for him. In 1999, Couhig
spent $441,750 to finance his campaign for Congress --
to little avail. He finished sixth with 6 percent of
Wilson, whose high negatives in recent polls likely
will deny her contender status, nonetheless has a core
of supporters -- about 7 percent of those polled by
Gallup -- who "definitely" plan to vote for her. To
build on that base, Wilson said she will run a
grass-roots campaign, with a fund-raising goal of
She also said she has a plan, one she was unwilling to
divulge last week, to improve her image in city
The Gallup poll showed that Watson also has high
negatives, but could attract a small but committed
group of supporters, some of them presumably
congregants of his Watson Teaching Ministries. Watson
is one of several pastors who have been sharply
critical of Nagin throughout his tenure, and his
critiques are likely to become more pointed in the
Watson said he has campaign staff in several cities
and plans in the next several weeks to visit evacuees
in Houston, Atlanta and Baton Rouge. As perhaps the
highest-profile African-American in the race other
than Nagin, Watson could well tap into the discontent
shared by many of the displaced, a group that is
Likewise, Butler and Thorns, both of them surprise
candidates who entered the race on Friday, could well
try to tap into the same well of African-American
unease with Nagin. Ever since Nagin forced her out as
his top aide, Butler and Nagin have feuded publicly.
Thorns, meanwhile, has served on the Chamber of
Commerce board and has long been politically active.
Watermeier, who announced even before the hurricane,
has been firing potshots at Nagin for more than a
year, mostly via e-mail blasts. The strategy has
caught public attention, but Watermeier could be
quickly eclipsed as better-funded and better-known
candidates take to the stump.
Boulet, meanwhile, boasts the sort of résumé and
gravitas that could prompt voters to give her a look.
Until recently, she was a special counsel with Adams
and Reese, and she has laid out a detailed platform
with a series of "action plans" to address issues
ranging from housing to emergency preparedness to
Will history repeat itself?
There's always a chance that someone in the second
tier of candidates could catch fire. There is
precedent, after all: Six weeks before the 2002
election, Nagin had yet to register in most polls, and
was excluded from some forums. With only three weeks
to go, he polled at just 5 percent.
But a spate of endorsements and the collapse of
then-state Sen. Paulette Irons' campaign propelled him
to a first-place finish in the primary.
Nagin's transformation from long shot to favorite was
unprecedented in modern New Orleans politics, and
analysts see little chance of history repeating itself
"Unless something happens that's totally unforeseen,"
it's unlikely, Lee said.
"You never say it won't happen, but I think it would
be extremely difficult" for someone in the middle tier
to break through, UNO's Howell said. She noted that
Nagin, Landrieu and Forman are all fairly well-known
and fairly popular, and thus seem less vulnerable to a
"With so much uncertainty about so much, some of these
candidates might think lightning could strike,"
"But I can't imagine that all of them really think
they will be elected mayor. Some must be doing it just
to have fun or to get a message across."
Nonetheless, analysts agree that some in the middle
tier could have an impact on the race by taking shares
of the votes that might otherwise be expected to go to
one of the leading candidates.
That most of the second-tier candidates are white is
generally seen as a boon to Nagin, whose claim on
nearly universal white support was eroded in part by
changing demographics, in part by the Martin Luther
King Day speech in which he said Katrina was proof of
God's anger and that New Orleans would remain a
"chocolate city," remarks that seemed to offend people
on both sides of the color line.
When Nagin ran in 2002, it was a foregone conclusion
that the city would have a black mayor, and most white
voters gravitated to the black candidate they liked
best. With Nagin wounded, this time many white voters
appear to be playing the field.
Analysts, and the candidates themselves, believe that
Couhig, Wilson and Forman are competing for the same
base: conservative and business-oriented white voters.
Both Couhig and Wilson are Republicans, while Forman
is a Democrat who recently switched from the GOP.
Watson, and to a degree Butler and Thorns, could
likely pull black voters from Nagin, though the trio
could also hurt Landrieu's chances of drawing black
Karen Carvin, a Nagin strategist, believes the Watson
entry is more damaging to Landrieu than to Nagin. She
concedes that anger over Katrina along with some
pre-Katrina black dissatisfaction with Nagin has
created an "anybody but Ray" segment of the
African-American electorate. Many in that group will
vote for Landrieu, she said, but others may feel more
comfortable voting for a black candidate, with Watson
the likely beneficiary.
The racial component
The political field has echoes of past mayor's races
that could be instructive in understanding the forces
at play in 2006.
In some ways, it is reminiscent of Dutch Morial's 1982
re-election campaign. Four years after Morial became
New Orleans' first black mayor -- thanks in large part
to significant crossover voting by white people in a
time when there was relative parity between the races
-- Morial fared poorly in the white community against
a white opponent.
Nagin likewise rode into office with the support of a
biracial coalition -- about 40 percent of black voters
and 90 percent of white voters, but now appears to
have lost some of the latter.
A similar dynamic was present in Sidney Barthelemy's
two victorious mayoral campaigns, in 1986 and 1990. In
his first win, Barthelemy widely outpolled his black
opponent, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, then a state
senator, among white voters, and secured enough black
support to push his candidacy over the top.
Four years later, facing white challenger Donald
Mintz, Barthelemy depended on near-universal black
support and scant white backing to win.
Howell said she expects "a strong underlying racial
theme" this time around as well. Some white voters see
a chance to "take the city back" by reclaiming major
offices that have been controlled by
African-Americans, Howell said. Their counterparts
among African-American voters see the white
candidacies as just that, a scheme to wrest political
control of the city from black residents, and they
intend to prevent it, she said.
"I would say we'll see very high racial polarization,
and the black electorate that was not particularly
enamored of Nagin before will rally behind him," she
Candidates reach out
Howell is not the only pundit anticipating a
racialized election, but candidates say they plan to
do their best to appeal to all voters.
Forman, for instance, has pledged the pre-election
announcement of a slate of four deputy mayors, two
white and two black, who will essentially become part
of his team. His television commercials appear to be
aimed at creating an impression of inclusiveness, with
shots of Forman cradling a baby as a
professional-looking black couple looks on. Forman's
slogan -- "a mayor for all of us" -- seeks to strike a
Landrieu has yet to hit the campaign trail in earnest,
but he is sure to angle for black votes. In a
statement Friday, his campaign manager said Landrieu
is "the candidate that can build the broad-based
coalition needed to move this city forward."
Nagin's campaign slogan -- "Re-elect our mayor" --
plays on the coded us-against-them dynamic that other
black candidates have used to reinforce their appeal
to African-American voters. But he has no intention of
writing off white voters, Carvin said.
"We are going to be working very hard to get our share
of the African-American vote since the mayor is the
only major candidate that's black," she said. "But
he's certainly not going to neglect his previous base
of support, even though many of them have pretty much
indicated they're through with Ray. The mayor's not
saying, 'Well, whites have abandoned me, so I'm
abandoning them.' "
. . . . . . .
Gordon Russell can be reached at
or (504) 826-3347. Frank
Donze can be reached at fdonze@...