New Orleans Tapping Leader for Rebuilding
NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ A steady stream of New Orleans voters, some from storm-scarred neighborhoods and others by the busload from evacuee havens across the nation, cast their first ballots since Hurricane Katrina in a crucial election Saturday to decide who will lead the rebuilding of this devastated city.
Incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin predicted he would lead the field, but he faced 21 challengers, including the state’s lieutenant governor. If none gets more than 50 percent, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held May 20.
Because of the Aug. 29 storm, what ordinarily would be a routine municipal race became a tricky experiment in modern-day democracy, one that critics said would exclude many blacks who make up most of the storm evacuees.
Of the city’s 297,000 registered voters, tens of thousands are spread out across the United States. More than 20,000 cast ballots early by mail, fax or at satellite voting stations around the state, and thousands more made their way to 76 improvised polling stations that opened at daybreak Saturday and closed at 8 p.m. local time.
``Let me tell you something. This is an important election,″ said Gerald Miller, a 61-year-old stroke patient whose daughter was pushing him in a wheelchair. ``We’re going to straighten this mess out.″
Turnout figures were not expected to be available for hours after the polls closed, but Secretary of State Al Ater said an election that many had predicted would be a logistical nightmare proceeded smoothly.
Around the city, a mixture of black and white voters were seen moving steadily in and out of the ``super polling places″ that stood for the dozens of wrecked schools and churches where residents would ordinarily have voted.
In many cases, they were casting ballots in neighborhoods hard-hit by Katrina.
Just steps from the Eleanor McMain School, a polling place in the upper-middle-class Uptown neighborhood, many of the two-story homes bear the marks where flood waters reached 6 feet or more.
Still, 869 residents from six precincts had cast ballots by 4 p.m. _ slightly more than 40 percent of eligible registered voters.
``It means a lot because whoever gets elected is going to help us rebuild,″ said 57-year-old Lorraine Payton. ``This is about trying to save us right now.″
The winner of the mayoral and city council races will face a host of politically sticky and racially charged decisions about where and what to rebuild in a city where whole neighborhoods remain uninhabitable.
Four-fifths of the city was flooded, and large parts of New Orleans are still woeful tracts of ruin. Rebuilding plans _ and the federal money to pay for them _ are being debated. Nearly all the public schools remain closed, and the tourism business, long the economy’s mainstay, has drawn few conventions.
Nagin said at a precinct in his neighborhood Saturday that, with another hurricane season just weeks away, this is no time for a transition of administrations. ``We don’t have a year to wait,″ he said.
The 49-year-old former cable television executive became known in the immediate aftermath of Katrina for sometimes shaky leadership and frequent off-the-cuff remarks, such as when he cursed the sluggish federal response and later suggested that God wanted New Orleans to remain a ``chocolate″ city. Nagin stood by the comment and later said he was convinced the black vote was ``coalescing″ around him.
His chief challengers are white _ Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu, and businessman Ron Forman, chief executive of the Audubon Nature Institute, which oversees the city’s zoo and aquarium. Forman won the endorsement of business leaders and the city’s major newspaper, The Times-Picayune.
Race has become a key factor in the election. Less than half the city’s pre-Katrina population of 455,000 have returned, and civil rights activists note that most of those scattered outside the city are black. Prior to the storm, the city was more than two-thirds black; it has not had a white mayor since 1978, when Landrieu’s father, Moon Landrieu, left office.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson has said he plans to challenge the election outcome in court regardless of the winner, arguing displaced voters should have been allowed to vote in polling places in such adopted cities as Houston, Dallas and Atlanta rather than relying on a cumbersome absentee voting system.
Of the ballots cast prior to Saturday’s election, about two-thirds were cast by black voters, but analysts caution the numbers may not reflect overall turnout. In the 2002 election, 45 percent of voters were black.
Ater said he’s confident that election officials, who have fielded thousands of calls from voters on where to vote, have done what they can to educate voters.
But not all evacuees who returned to New Orleans on Saturday were able to cast ballots. Dana Young, an 18-year-old college freshman who traveled by bus from Atlanta, was told at the polls that there was no record of her registration. Young said she had a voter registration card but lost it along with her birth certificate during the hurricane.
``I’m really upset,″ she said as tears welled up in her eyes. ``I came all the way down here and now I can’t do anything about it. They said they couldn’t find me in the system, so I can’t vote.″
Associated Press Writers Errin Haines, Brett Martel and Hank Ackerman contributed to this report.