The colorful and controversial mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, is facing a tough challenge in the May 20 runoff election against Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu. The issue that looms over the race is Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city eight months ago. Many New Orleans voters blame Mayor Nagin for emergency response failures and other problems that have arisen post-Katrina, while his supporters say he did all that could be done in confronting the worst disaster in the city's history.
In the final days before the voters decide this election, the two candidates have been meeting in debates and discussions on a daily basis. On Thursday they came together for the second televised debate of this campaign, held at Loyola University. The debate was organized and televised by local Fox TV affiliate WVUE.
The main issue looming over the debate, and the mayoral race in general, is Katrina. Mayor Nagin gained international attention with his spirited and often colorful way of addressing the city's recovery problems last year, but many citizens were upset by what they perceived as ineffective leadership. Prominent local business leaders are among those endorsing Landrieu, saying they have lost confidence in Nagin.
In the debate, Mitch Landrieu emphasized his experience as lieutenant governor and said he would do a better job than Mayor Nagin at getting support for the city on a national basis.
"This city can come back. It will come back if we join together. The next mayor has to restore our credibility," he said. "The next mayor has to bring people together and the next mayor has to know how to get things done. I believe I can do that."
But Mayor Nagin said his government is making progress and that some of the ideas presented by his challenger would result in a setback. He said Landrieu's suggestion that auditors and consultants should be brought in would be a waste of time and resources.
"Now we have a plan for moving forward," said Mr. Nagan. "My opponent is basically advocating changing and disrupting a lot of things that are happening right now. We do not have the time or the luxury to step back to study and bring this one and that one in. We need to continue this progress."
Speaking to VOA after the debate, both candidates expressed confidence and spoke respectfully of each other. Lieutenant Governor Landrieu stressed that this election is not about personalities or rivalries, but about providing effective leadership.
"Obviously we like each other and respect each other, but we are very different in terms of our personalities and how we manage," noted Mr. Landrieu.
Mayor Nagin acknowledged that he is in a tough fight for re-election, but he said the endorsement of Landrieu by leaders of the New Orleans Hospitality industry and others were not of great concern for him.
"I am feeling pretty good," said Mr. Nagin. "It is a matter of time and what the people decide. I do not think endorsements are going to matter this time around. I am not discounting them, don't get me wrong, but I think the people are doing critical analysis every day and I think they are going to make up their own minds and I am comfortable with that."
The runoff election resulted from Mayor Nagin's failure to win a majority of votes in the first round of voting, held on April 22, in which there were two-dozen candidates. Nagin won 37 percent of that vote and Landrieu 27 percent, but a large part of the vote that went to losing candidates in that round is expected to move over to Landrieu in this election, making him the frontrunner.
Race plays a role in this election, but it is a complicated matter. Nagin, who is black, won his first election four years ago with lukewarm support in the black community and strong support from sectors of the white community. Although he is a Democrat, he has often expressed conservative views and clashed with fellow party members.
Landrieu, who is white, is also a Democrat and comes from a family with longstanding ties to the black community. His father, Moon Landrieu, was mayor of New Orleans several decades ago and his sister, Mary Landrieu, is a U.S. senator from Louisiana. He has solid support from the minority white population and mixed support from blacks, many of whom have expressed a desire to keep a black mayor in city hall. But black participation in the first round of the election was lower than expected. More than half the city's population remains displaced because of Katrina. Absentee voting and early voting at special satellite centers around the state were lower than expected, so voters who are currently living in the city are expected to decide this election.
No New Orleans mayor has lost a re-election campaign in 60 years, but as local political analysts note, there has been no event like Hurricane Katrina in recent history. It is also the first time a local election here has captured so much interest around the nation and around the world. Voters go to the polls to make their choice on May 20.