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New Orleans Mayoral Race Down to Two


The New Orleans mayor's race is heading to a run-off next month between incumbent Ray Nagin and Louisiana's Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu. Voters went to the polls there yesterday in the city's first municipal election since Hurricane Katrina. John Mercurio is in New Orleans covering the politics there. He's senior editor of the National Journal's Hotline. Hello. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN MERCURIO (Senior Editor, National Journal's Hotline): Hello, Debbie. Good to be with you.

ELLIOTT: So Mayor Ray Nagin has taken a lot of criticism since the storm, but he was the top finisher in yesterday's crowded primary. Where did his support come from?

Mr. MERCURIO: Predominately from the city's black community. I think that a lot of the rhetoric that he had been using during the campaign was considered widely to be relatively racially divisive. He, of course, referred to New Orleans as Chocolate City during a Martin Luther King birthday speech and said that most of his opponents in the race didn't quote "look like us," so a lot of his support, a lot of the white voters in the city were less than excited about voting for him and it looks like, at least according to exit polling that I saw, he only got about ten percent of his support from white voters.

ELLIOTT: Now, Mitch Landrieu comes from what you might call a political dynasty down there in New Orleans. His father Moon is a former mayor and his sister, Mary is one of Louisiana's Senators. Does Mayor Nagin have enough support to stand up to Landrieu's challenge?

Mr. MERCURIO: Well, it's interesting. History is on Ray Nagin's side. No mayor in New Orleans in the past sixty years has been turned out of office and no first term mayor in the past eighty years has lost office. On the other hand, an incumbent who falls below a well known incumbent, like Ray Nagin, who falls below 50 percent, as Nagin did; he only won, I think, 38 percent; does look like he has an uphill fight, especially against, as you said, somebody like Mitch Landrieu from a political dynasty who at this point is extremely well-funded.

ELLIOTT: Now, as we've mentioned, race has been a big part of this election. Because so many of New Orleans' black residents had been displaced by the storm, there was concern that somehow holding an election yesterday would dilute black power in a city that's had an African-American mayor since 1978. What did the turnout yesterday reveal? Who came out to vote?

Mr. MERCURIO: Well, turnout was extremely high, as most people had expected. They had almost record turnout. But what was most interesting, I think, is that an expectation that the evacuees, people who have left New Orleans, living, at least temporarily, in cities like Houston, Memphis and Atlanta, would be a huge factor, that didn't turn out to be the case. People in the city voted at much higher levels.

ELLIOTT: So does that confirm the concerns that white voters may have been represented disproportionately in this vote?

Mr. MERCURIO: I think one thing that we do know is that white voters who had lived predominately in the areas that were the least damaged were the ones who voted in the largest numbers. Precincts that included more white voters did vote in higher numbers yesterday, and that might have accounted for Mitch Landrieu's strong showing.

ELLIOTT: John, New Orleans is banking on federal relief to help the city rebuild. I would think that this is one mayor's race that a lot of national leaders are watching.

Mr. MERCURIO: Absolutely, and I think that the ultimate result, whether it's Ray Nagin or Mitch Landrieu, will have a huge impact on how the city then relates to the federal government. You have Nagin who, since the hurricane, has had great difficulty interacting with federal officials, with the federal government and with the Bush Administration. I think one strong argument that Mitch Landrieu will make during the run-off is that, look, his sister is a U.S. Senator. He has an experience of being able to forge relationships with federal officials.

ELLIOTT: John Mercurio is Senior Editor of the National Journal's Hotline. Thank you.

Mr. MERCURIO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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