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Nagin to Lead Rebuilding of New Orleans

Times Staff Writer

Savoring the vote of confidence Saturday that gave him a second term, Mayor C. Ray Nagin called for unity in the storm-ravaged city, saying it’s “time for this community to start the healing process.... It’s time for us to set the stage for recovery.”

Nagin won 52% of the 113,591 ballots cast in the runoff contest with Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Nearly 38% of registered voters turned out.

His victory solidifies his leadership role in one of the toughest reconstruction projects in U.S. history. His new term will begin on the eve of the next hurricane season, which starts June 1.

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Hurricane Katrina left more than half of the city’s 450,000 residents displaced across the country. Large swaths of New Orleans are still in ruins and uninhabitable. The infrastructure is in a shambles. And the city is broke.

In accepting victory and the tasks ahead, Nagin said, “I greet you all in the spirit of peace. I greet you in the spirit of love. But most importantly, I greet you in the spirit of unity, because if we are unified, there is nothing that we can’t do.”

It was an election striking for its civility, and that tone was present in the remarks of both candidates after the vote was tallied.

Said Nagin: “Mitch led a splendid campaign. He is a gentleman, and he is a good public servant for this state, and I look forward to working with him in the future. My door is always open.... We are going to be OK.”

Said Landrieu: “I want to congratulate Ray Nagin.... We have decided that come hell or high water, and we have had both, we are going to find higher common ground and find a way together to rebuild this great city.”

It was widely expected that Nagin would do well among African American voters, but he was also able to draw enough support from whites to give him the victory. In a crowded field in April, Nagin drew 38% of the vote; Landrieu 29%.

Since Katrina devastated the city almost nine months ago, Nagin has been a lightning rod for criticism and praise, often for the same things: He tangled with state and federal officials, and spouted racially charged comments. But he gained respect from many for simply being there through it all.

In his victory speech, Nagin acknowledged the tumult when he borrowed the words of Mohandas K. Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Nagin’s immediate mandate from residents will be simple, said Peter Burns, an assistant professor of political science at Loyola University: “Do something. Get things done.”

The mayor will immediately have to “establish an accurate state of the city,” said Greg Rigamer, a political analyst and urban planner with the New Orleans consulting firm GCR & Associates Inc. He will also have to appoint the equivalent of a commander in chief to lead the effort, Rigamer said.

Throughout the campaign, Nagin and Landrieu largely agreed on the issues, sharing views about the right of residents to return to all neighborhoods, promising to get tough on crime and committing to overhaul the city’s shoddy public school system.

Given the similarities in their philosophies, the race came down to a question of personality, credibility and style of governance. In short, how they would lead the city forward.

Nagin, 49, a self-described political nonconformist and a political novice until his election four years ago, won a reputation for tough talk, but his often-brash manner has also won him notoriety.

Landrieu, 45, a veteran politician, is the son of Maurice Edwin “Moon” Landrieu, New Orleans’ last white mayor in the late 1970s, who is credited with integrating City Hall.

The lieutenant governor argued throughout his campaign that he shares his father’s passion for racial inclusiveness and bringing different people together.

“The voters who are the losers are going to be very skeptical,” Burns said. “The new mayor is going to have to bring people who didn’t vote for him into the fold, into the decision-making process.”

The election day mood was defined by a mixture of anticipation and fatigue. But things went smoothly. Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater said the only glitch was a 15-minute electrical outage at one polling station -- which did not disturb voting.

There were 24,848 absentee ballots cast. Ater said 800 of those votes had to be rejected, because they lacked a signature or did not have a witness. “It’s very unfortunate, but it is part of a very necessary process,” Ater said.

Across the city, most vacant spots of grass had become a carpet of blue “Mitch Landrieu -- Mayor” placards interspersed with red and blue posters calling on citizens to “Re-Elect Ray Nagin -- Our Mayor.”

But while die-hard supporters lined median strips, waving signs and trying outdo their rivals in handing fliers to motorists stopped in traffic, other citizens -- weary of the throngs of news reporters mobbing the larger polling stations -- rushed to get away after casting their vote.

Kennith Jackson, who lives with his wife in a government-issued trailer and has managed to restore their auto body shop and tow truck business, said he decided to cast his lot with Nagin.

“With what we’re going through, we don’t need change again,” said Jackson, after casting his vote at Jesuit High School’s polling station. “For a new regime to come in, we’ll have to change the system and start all over again.”

His wife, Judy, said, “And we don’t see a lot of things that [Landrieu] did being lieutenant governor and working right by the side of the governor.”

But businessman Anthony Favre said he gave Nagin a chance to prove himself four years ago but he didn’t feel confident about doing so this time around because of what he viewed as the mayor’s inaction after Katrina.

“It’s like he’s been vamping ... playing the same note over and over again, waiting for the singer to come in,” said Favre, a sound and lighting specialist who lost all his equipment to the storm. “We need a clear road mark for when things will happen and what will happen.”

Both Nagin and Landrieu spent Saturday shaking hands, hugging voters and cajoling voters in a last-ditch attempt to convince them that each was the best cure for New Orleans’ ills.

After casting his vote at Jesuit High School, his alma mater, Nagin told reporters that the reaction he had gotten out on the street was “very positive among all demographics, all races,” adding that it was “pretty amazing.”

Landrieu described the campaign as being “well fought,” and sounded a positive note that “at the end of the day, the city’s going to be in good shape one way or another.”

The most poignant moment came when the two candidates turned up at rally near City Hall, where about 350 displaced New Orleanians, who had been bused in from Houston, Dallas and Atlanta by volunteer groups, had gathered prior to voting to air their grievances about housing difficulties. Scores of others arrived by car.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent eviction letters to more than 25,000 New Orleans citizens in Houston, raising concerns that many might soon become homeless.

“I want to come home,” Gwen James told Landrieu as he maneuvered through the crowd. So determined was she to vote that she spent $400 to rent a van and drove with five family members from her refuge in Houston.

Landrieu hugged her and promised to help. But at that stage, James was still undecided about her vote.

“What do you have planned for the Lower 9th Ward?” Ethel Wicker asked Landrieu.

“It’s coming back,” he told Wicker, who later said she trusted him.

A cheer went up as Nagin arrived, his wife and daughter in tow.

“He’s the only one who’s got the solution to our problems,” said Brother Miller X, a Black Panther, as he shook Nagin’s hand. “He’s the only one we can trust.”


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