Is “Chocolate City,” as this town was famously called, on the verge of electing a vanilla mayor?
That is the political question gripping New Orleans, where white candidate Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana’s lieutenant governor, has emerged as a mayoral front-runner in a city where a black population diminished by Hurricane Katrina still holds a majority -- but where fear of the loss of black political power remains palpable.
Landrieu, a 49-year-old Democrat, was defeated in the 2006 mayor’s race by incumbent C. Ray Nagin, who is leaving office this year because of term limits. Nagin made a number of race-based rhetorical appeals to blacks in the run-up to that vote, at one point famously saying that God preferred “a chocolate New Orleans” that was majority black.
This summer, Landrieu said he would not run again. But in December, he had a change of heart and jumped into the contest while the leading black candidate, state Sen. Ed Murray, stalled in the polls.
Then last week, Murray abruptly dropped out of the race to avoid what he said would be an “extremely racially divisive” contest with Landrieu -- although observers here say he also suffered from poor name recognition and a lack of charisma.
A crowded field remains, including a number of black candidates.
But Landrieu is now the man to beat in the Feb. 6 vote, a known quantity with a storied lineage: He is the brother of Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and the son of Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, New Orleans’ last white mayor.
The elder Landrieu earned the enduring goodwill of blacks by opening government jobs and contracts to them during his eight-year tenure in the 1970s. In the emotionally raw months after the August 2005 hurricane, however, that goodwill proved no match for Nagin.
Many of the black voters who rallied around Nagin were motivated in part by fears that black voices in government would be lost -- and that historic but flood-prone black neighborhoods would be bulldozed to become green space.
But 4 1/2 years after Katrina, the city is still struggling. Nagin is suffering from low popularity ratings, as well as anger over the federal indictment of his chief technology aide in an alleged kickback scheme.
For some black voters, the race-based political prism no longer makes sense. Rodney Peters, a maintenance supervisor at Dillard University, said he voted for Nagin in 2006 to ensure a minority voice in post-Katrina planning. Now he’s backing Landrieu.
“It doesn’t matter the race,” said Peters, 49, who was forced to live in Baton Rouge for two years after the storm. “Just do the best job.”
That position -- described as “buyer’s remorse” by Blair Boutte, a veteran political consultant here -- partly explains Landrieu’s showing in a December poll of 300 voters, which gave him 53% support and an 81% favorable rating. No other contestant earned more than 7% support.
At the same time, however, New Orleanians are hearing from a boisterous contingent of black residents and leaders that the hard-won prize of the mayor’s office should remain in black hands.
On WBOK, a popular black AM talk radio station, host Paul Beaulieu on Thursday chastised friends of his who were thinking of voting for a white candidate.
“How could you even say that?” he said. “That a white man -- in this city, in this state, in this country -- could represent you better than a black man?” (Reached later, Beaulieu explained further, saying that “traditionally, not exclusively,” white politicians in the city have not adequately represented black interests.)
In New Orleans, the sentiment has been exacerbated by a force much stronger than gentrification: Katrina. The black population has shrunk from 67% in 2000 to about 61% today, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
Black voters before the storm held a 30,000-vote advantage over white voters on average; since, the advantage has shrunk to about 10,500, according to Ed Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans.
Since Katrina, the City Council went from majority black to majority white. A white district attorney was elected, and Joseph Cao, a Vietnamese Republican, defeated longtime Rep. William J. Jefferson, a black Democrat who was convicted of 11 federal corruption counts in August.
Mixed with these events was a historic mistrust among some blacks of the city’s white patrician class -- “the mint julep sippers,” Boutte calls them, “who decided immediately after the storm that we may be able to downsize New Orleans.”
Brian Brox, a political scientist at Tulane University, said such realities have added a combustible racial element to post-Katrina reform issues, whether the restructuring of schools or the awarding of trash contracts.
“The white business community saw this as a chance to correct some of the deficiencies holding New Orleans back,” he said. But in many cases, blacks saw reform “as a direct attack on their political leaders.”
Because Murray dropped out of the race so late, the three most viable black candidates are scrambling for money and endorsements. One of them, Troy Henry, held a news conference Wednesday criticizing the local press for emphasizing Landrieu’s lead, creating a “predetermined tone” that “marginalizes African American candidates in the race.”
Landrieu, for his part, has taken pains to paint himself as a unifying force for New Orleans.
At a Friday campaign stop in a historic but ragged stretch of the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, he stood before a group of black, white and Asian faces, his tone alternately down-home and serious as he spoke of his role in rebuilding, and as he extolled the city’s “beautiful mosaic” and “tapestry.”
A few minutes later, a reporter asked why blacks should vote for him this time around. Landrieu began his response by invoking President Obama: “He says that ‘I’m not a black president -- I’m just a president for all the people, who just happens to be black.’ ”