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23 likely battling just to face Nagin in runoff

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nola.com/news/t-p/frontpage/index.ssf?/base/news-5/1141543370113820.xml 23 likely battling just to face Nagin in runoff Few have money, name
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 5, 2006

      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
      career politicos.

      "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,"
      Lee said.

      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.

      Three-tiered race

      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
      the vote.

      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
      voters' eyes.

      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
      disproportionately black.

      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
      criminal justice.

      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
      this year.

      "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
      dark-horse challenge.

      "With so much uncertainty about so much, some of these
      candidates might think lightning could strike,"
      Renwick said.

      "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
      similar note.

      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
      grussell@... or (504) 826-3347. Frank
      Donze can be reached at fdonze@... or
      (504) 826-3328.
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