Correspondent Steve Osunsami has spent many months in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. He blogs on the eve of Saturday’s mayoral election.
The mayoral election in New Orleans should be about rebuilding the levees, or about the city’s reconstruction, or how Mississippi seems to be heads and tails above everyone else in Louisiana when it comes to the rebuilding effort. But this election — is all about race. The candidates can try to run from it as fast as they can, but when there are nearly two dozen people on the ballot trying to become mayor, and most of them are white, and it’s Louisiana — the issue of race is inescapable. This is the South. There’s a poor history here when it comes to elections, and ever since the government began making sure that African-Americans living in the South were allowed their right to vote, the feds have been watching the elections here. For all the complaints about the current process (the election should have been delayed to give black voters more time to return home; there should have been satellite voting centers in cities where displaced black residents call home), the process still has the blessings of the of the U.S. Department of Justice, and any lawsuits challenging the election are not expected to be successful. But the parallel between the voter rights concerns of this election, and the issues that faced African-Americans who fought for the right to vote years ago, is striking. No one wants to say it, but around town, you clearly get the sense that no one is shedding a tear for the lost black voting block. The feeling seems to be, ‘Sure, it’s a shame. But it’s no one’s fault and not the responsibility of anyone here to correct.’ (At right, a Hurricane Katrina evacuee receives assistance filling out an envelope for her early voting ballot.) It can easily be argued that black folks in New Orleans brought it on themselves. For years, African-Americans ran New Orleans city hall and were no less crooked than the white city leaders they replaced. Then Katrina tipped the scales, and the majority black population that inadvertently helped fuel these enterprises was displaced. The election this weekend will confirm what many people in the city have already figured out, and some people outside the city need to accept: the complexion of this city has changed, probably forever. And the political muscle black residents once had could be gone for good. The best guessers give this election to either Mitch Landrieu, the current Lt. Governor and son of the last white mayor, or Ron Forman, the guy who heads the zoo and is the so-called “uptown” candidate (a polite way of saying that his supporters are the whitest and wealthiest in the city). (At left, 8 mayoral candidates.) Nagin will be lucky to make the run-off. (A candidate needs more than 50-percent of the vote to win to avoid a runoff between the top-two vote getters in May). Ironically, Nagin was sent to office by white voters, and was seen as somewhat of an Uncle Tom by black voters, in 2002. His remark about “chocolate city” changed everything. It helped him curry favor with black voters and offend white voters in the same few sentences. It is very possible Ray Nagin will lose this election, and it could even happen as early as this weekend. Expect the lawsuits to fly. And the drama to continue. The other little secret around town is that a number of black voters are still angry with the way Nagin responded during Katrina. They blame him for the fumbled evacuation of the city and say that he spent more time in locked rooms than he spent on the city’s streets when the city was flooding. So, yes: there are plenty of black voters who will be voting for one of the white guys. (At right, voting machines.)