By Ron Walters
-Guest Columnist-

Mayor Ray Nagin

Any time you have an election with an elected official already in office and running for re-election, the election is largely about that person’s leadership in office. In other words, it is a referendum on the leadership provided by him or her in their previous tenure in office.

In this case, the referendum on Ray Nagin, sitting Mayor of New Orleans, is complicated by the response to Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. I have been among those who have resisted blaming him for the fact that all of those Black people ended up at the Superdome.

The record shows that he issued what amounted to an evacuation order that was effective for 82 percent of the population, but his actions in caring for the remaining portion of the population are in question. For me, the questions alone were these: Was he alone responsible for the flaw in the existing evacuation plan that had been prepared over several majors and overseen by the federal government?; was he alone responsible for trying to move 20 percent of the population of New Orleans out of the city with inadequate resources?; what could he do when the city was effectively under water and neither the state government, nor the Federal government acted propitiously to rescue people?


I am not absolving Mayor Nagin of his share of the responsibilities, but I do not think that much of what happened can be blamed on him. In any case, my views aside (because they don’t matter and shouldn’t matter in this election), he will have his hands full in the May 20 runoff against Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

In the aftermath of the debacle in New Orleans, there were hints that Mayor Nagin was still looking out for the interests of the business community rather than those of Blacks when seemed to take the position that the Ninth Ward might not be rebuilt, first was the moratorium proposed by his commission that was rejected strongly by citizens. Then, his final view that all of the city would be rebuilt, but that if people came back to the Ninth Ward it would be at their own expense. I haven’t found anybody who knows exactly what that means, but I have been impressed by his tendency to change positions in the light of strong citizen opposition.

In the most recent poll in the election, he scored a surprising 40 percent support among Blacks, while Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu drew 28 percent. Because of such strong Black support, Mayor Nagin finished in first place Apr. 22, but must still compete in the runoff.

Mr. Landrieu benefits from his relatives, his sister Mary Landrieu, sitting senator from the state, and his father, the last White mayor of New Orleans. Ron Forman, head of the Audubon and manager of several successful high profile projects, together with Mr. Landrieu were the hope of Whites–with Mayor Nagin being supported by just five percent of Whites in the poll, Mr. Landrieu 26 percent and Mr. Forman getting the lion’s share of 30 percent of the White support.

In a field of 22 candidates, no one came out with a majority. Mayor Nagin was the top voter-getter. He now has a good chance of being re-elected, especially if he can pick off some of Mr. Landrieu’s Black support.

Regardless of who wins the May 20 runoff, I have been impressed with the efforts organizations led by the Louisiana Voting Rights Network, National Coalition of Black Civic Participation and their legal allies, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Bar Association, and support given by the National Urban League, NAACP and National Rainbow/Push Coalition that have plotted voter mobilization tactics, voter protection tactics, and how to provide transportation and other support services that enable folks in the state to vote.

Based on the Apr. 22 election, it seems like Black voters are willing to let Ray Nagin, a Republican most of his adult life, “come home,” something he has been trying to do, albeit clumsily, for some time now. He does not really seem to be cut from the same cloth as George W. Bush–plowing the same losing ground, hoping victory will emerge, unresponsive to a public crying for change.

(Ron Walters is the director of the African American Leadership Institute and professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park.)