In New Orleans, a Race About Leadership

Times Staff Writer

For the last month, two of Louisiana’s best-known political figures have battled each other for the right to lead this hurricane-devastated city back to prosperity.

But as the incumbent mayor, C. Ray Nagin, and the lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu, have debated the future of New Orleans, it has become clear that the choice facing voters at the polls this weekend is not between competing strategies for revitalizing the city -- but rather between sharply different styles of leadership.

Nagin and Landrieu have similar views on how to revitalize the city. Both talk of helping homeowners get back on their feet, jump-starting an economy that generates jobs and fighting for top-notch levee protection.


So close is their outlook on the issues that during some public forums they have spent more time on their commonalities than their differences. And they’re not shy about complimenting each other: Nagin has called Landrieu “a good man,” and Landrieu has said Nagin’s most admirable trait is being “a nice guy.”

Where they differ is in how they would achieve their goals. With each there is an incongruity: Landrieu, the steadfast member of the establishment, promises change. Nagin, who is proud to be somewhat of a rebel, vows stability.

“There is a definite identity that Mitch Landrieu has as a career public official ... and he’s going to function as mayor that way,” said Elliott Stonecipher, an independent pollster and political analyst based in Shreveport, La.

Nagin, on the other hand, “will be who-knows-what on any given day,” Stonecipher said. “And that is part of the attraction. He is not buttoned down. He has this almost rock star identity among many people.”

Nagin won last month’s primary with 38% of 108,000 ballots cast, and Landrieu scored 29%, sending them into a runoff. As of Wednesday, 22,980 people had voted at early-voting satellite stations in Louisiana, or by absentee mail ballot. The race is too close to call, observers say.

The campaign has been marked by a failure to get specific about controversial topics such as crime and education.


“Neither of them is willing to take a position on any of the major issues,” Stonecipher said. “They’ve stayed very much in the noncommittal political mainstream.”

“They’re being very cautious because it’s such a close race,” said Silas Lee, a national pollster who teaches sociology at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Landrieu has vowed to get the job done by moving away from what he has described as mediocre city leadership.

“What was OK before Katrina is not OK after Katrina” has become his campaign-trail mantra.

Nagin, a 49-year-old self-described maverick, has a catchphrase that boils down to asking to continue as mayor. “Now is not the time to experiment with new leadership,” he says, and it has become code among followers to “give Ray another chance.”

Acknowledging that their philosophies are relatively similar, Nagin and Landrieu have criticized each other’s style of governing.

Nagin has condemned Landrieu as part of the old boys’ network of Louisiana politics and warned that Landrieu’s ability to raise six times as much campaign money as Nagin shows that Landrieu would be obliged to reward “fat contracts to political insiders” if he becomes mayor, essentially signaling “a return to the politics of the past.”


Landrieu has argued that Nagin’s inability to raise substantial funds was evidence of his ineffectiveness.

A veteran politician with a family legacy in government, Landrieu, 46, was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1987, where he served for 16 years in the seat previously held by his sister, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.). He is credited with overhauling the state’s justice system to focus on rehabilitation, helping repeal a tax on sales at establishments that feature live music, and crafting legislation to fund a cancer research center.

Landrieu’s father, Maurice Edwin “Moon” Landrieu, was New Orleans’ last white mayor, in the 1970s, and gained a reputation for racial inclusiveness.

The lieutenant governor, a Democrat, stresses his ability to build coalitions and get along even “with people you don’t agree with.” He is well-known in the federal halls of power, and supporters believe New Orleans will have more leverage with financial brokers and political heavyweights if an establishment type like Landrieu is in charge.

Analysts agree that the family name holds cachet.

“The Landrieus are considered to be the local version of the Kennedys,” said Lee, the pollster. Detractors charge that the comparison is no badge of honor to some conservatives and Republicans, though the race is nonpartisan.

Nagin is also a Democrat.

In criticizing Nagin’s leadership style, Landrieu has lambasted the mayor’s often-untoward public rhetoric and individualist approach as a liability when dealing with state and federal leaders who control the funds that New Orleans needs to rebuild.


Nagin, a former cable television executive with an MBA from Tulane University, was a political novice until four years ago. He makes no secret of his contempt for political gamesmanship and has acknowledged that he sometimes goes against the grain.

“I am a doer. I am a pusher. I am a maverick. I cross the line periodically. But I am you, and I love this city,” he told supporters after his victory in the primary.

The mayor boasts of the generally scandal-free workings of his administration. He touts his pre-Katrina success at creating jobs that took some 37,000 people off the welfare rolls, improving technology at City Hall to allow the public to do some administrative transactions online, and forging a favorable environment for new investment.

“Unfortunately, Katrina hit in the middle of some of the turns we were making,” Nagin said during a recent televised debate with Landrieu.

And although he has been heavily criticized for failing to provide a better safety net for residents stranded in the city after the storm, the mayor counts as an accomplishment the fact that at least 75% of the city’s population was evacuated before Katrina made landfall.

A reputation for hard work, integrity and charisma has won Nagin many fans, as has his humble upbringing -- his mother ran the lunch counter at Kmart and his father held several jobs, including mechanic and City Hall janitor.


But the mayor’s lack of diplomatic skills and some racially insensitive remarks have drawn criticism. He has often been at odds with members of the City Council and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.

“Nagin is more of a Clint Eastwood type, in terms of shooting from the hip and in terms of going against the status quo,” Lee said. “But unlike Clint Eastwood, he gets wounded.”

In Landrieu’s TV and newspaper ads, citizens air their frustrations with post-Katrina life. In one TV ad, Landrieu appears in what he terms a “graveyard for abandoned cars” to illustrate Nagin’s inability to clear the vehicles more than eight months after the storm.

Nagin has countered that “no one can wave a magic wand and get rid of the debris,” and his ads warn residents that Landrieu cannot solve the city’s woes overnight.

Landrieu has the support of the Police Assn. of New Orleans, the New Orleans Fire Department and jazz legend Wynton Marsalis. And in a Wednesday editorial, the Times-Picayune called Landrieu the candidate who “can bring people together and get things done.”

Nagin, meanwhile, has the support of three of the top four primary contenders who finished behind him and Landrieu. (Third-place finisher Ron Forman endorsed Landrieu.) He has also won the endorsement of the Black Organization of Police.