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In New Orleans, ‘Opportunity’

Times Staff Writer

A day after winning a second term, Mayor C. Ray Nagin predicted that about 300,000 people would be living in the city by year’s end and that an economic boom would make New Orleans “a vibrant city” within three years.

“We have probably the most important opportunity ever in the city of New Orleans’ history,” Nagin told reporters Sunday after attending Mass at St. Peter Claver Church in the city’s Treme neighborhood, where he grew up. “We now have the economic stimulus that will happen at unprecedented levels in the city, for us to expand the economic power and for everyone to get a piece of that pie.”

More than half of New Orleans’ 450,000 residents were displaced when Hurricane Katrina battered the city in August.

Relishing a victory in Saturday’s mayoral runoff that ensures the continuation of almost three decades of African American leadership in New Orleans, Nagin announced that his first order of business today would be to set up three committees.

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The first is to be charged with devising a 100-day recovery plan that would focus on priorities such as debris removal and rebuilding houses.

The second is to evaluate his administration’s personnel to ensure that he has “the best and the brightest” on his staff, and if necessary launch a nationwide search for new talent.

And a third is to “re-energize” implementation of his Bring Back New Orleans Plan, a rebuilding initiative spearheaded by community and business leaders that has been slow to take off because of mayoral campaigning and other election preparations.

Nagin won 52% of 113,591 votes cast in Saturday’s mayoral runoff. His challenger, Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, won 48%.

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About 80% of African American voters cast ballots for Nagin, along with 21% of whites, according Greg Rigamer, a local political consultant and urban planner who analyzed the final results published by the Louisiana secretary of state. Only 8% of whites voted for Nagin in last month’s primary.

“The mayor is a powerful symbol to many African American voters that this is a black city and it’s going to remain so,” said Susan Howell, a professor of political science at the University of New Orleans.

Landrieu dominated in white precincts, but his showing among blacks -- about 20% -- was about three percentage points less than in April’s primary.

Blacks represented 55% of votes cast, whites 45%, Rigamer said. Each candidate drew about one-fifth crossover support.

“At the end of the day, you wound up with a mayor who represents the demographics of the city,” said Rigamer.

Analysts said Nagin, a former cable television executive, partly managed to woo conservative whites by emphasizing his business background in contrast to Landrieu, who is a veteran politician and a member of one of Louisiana’s leading political families.

Nagin’s victory also proved him to be better liked and a better campaigner than Landrieu, Rigamer said.

“We defied all conventional wisdom,” the mayor told reporters gathered in the church’s cafeteria, with wife Seletha at his side. “We ran a very smart campaign.”

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“Fax parties” were organized in cities where displaced New Orleanians are living to ensure that those who chose to vote by fax could do so without hassle or cost, Bill Rousselle, Nagin’s chief media consultant, said in an interview. And taped messages from Nagin, encouraging evacuees to cast ballots, were distributed to some 500 churches nationwide, Rousselle added.

Analysts said that criticism of Nagin’s failure to properly assist residents stranded in the flooded city after Katrina might also have backfired in the mayor’s favor by creating an aura of sympathy for Nagin.

“It wasn’t his fault that the storm came here and the levees broke,” said Carrollton neighborhood resident Carolyn McCaskill, 49, a Police Department worker, after casting her vote for Nagin on Saturday. “At least ... he was around.”

Her sentiment was echoed by many at the polls.

The mayor, whose new term begins May 31, listed several priorities for his new administration. They included rebuilding housing, creating a good climate for business investment, clearing the city of the mounds of storm debris and abandoned cars, and helping evacuees to come home.

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

Nagin said he would travel to Houston this week to consult with that city’s mayor about the situation.

Analysts cautioned residents keen to see the recovery process get rolling that they should not bank on the mayor’s ability to work wonders.

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“They have to be realistic about what a mayor can do,” said Peter F. Burns, who teaches political science at Loyola University. “The mayor has to put an imprint on what is happening. But to think that the mayor is going to be a savior is wrong.”

Much of Nagin’s direction is likely to come from state and federal government, which will largely determine how their money is spent, analysts said.

For that reason, said the University of New Orleans’ Howell, it was “important now more than ever for the mayor of New Orleans to have good relations at the state and federal level.”

A self-described maverick who has been criticized as a lone wolf, Nagin has underscored his willingness to work closely with the new City Council (three new members were elected Saturday) and with President Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. Nagin has sometimes been at odds with Bush and Blanco.

Nagin said Bush had called to congratulate him and had pledged to continue efforts to secure hurricane recovery funds for New Orleans.

Nagin said Bush “was pretty excited. He was happy” about his victory.

Nagin also said that he had a “good talk” with Blanco and that the two had agreed to meet.

The mayor reiterated his intention to “reach out to every segment” of New Orleans and said he wanted to see a city “where whites and blacks and Asians and Hispanics are all working together to expand this pie.”

Nagin expressed less goodwill toward the business community, which was the core of his support when he was first elected four years ago but which largely backed Landrieu this time.

Some of its members have threatened to leave in protest of his reelection.

“Businesspeople are predators, and if the economic opportunities are here, they’re going to stay,” said Nagin. Then he added: “If they don’t, I’ll send them a postcard.”


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