Somehow, he did it. In what was a surprise to most observers, myself included, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin was reelected to a second term. The race was won in an environment that was characterized by two candidates who had many more similarities than differences, the unknown future of trying to rebuild a city that has been physically, emotionally, and economically devastated, the specter of race, and a radically reduced populace.
Nagin’s victory represents the triumph of resiliency. He overcame incredible national scrutiny and criticism, not to mention his own personal style which led him to say things in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that were not only impolitic, but seen by many as racist.
Nagin’s win drips with irony. A successful Black businessman, he was viewed suspiciously by some Black New Orleaneans because he supported Republicans in past elections; some even called him “Ray Reagan.” He was also an elite who was questioned by some about how well connected he was to Black problems and politics in the Crescent City. His victory four years ago was built on the strength of White voters, who were impressed with his moderation. Those voters abandoned him this time and he had to rely on Black voters to drag him across the finish line. He won this time with an overwhelming 80 percent of the Black vote even though more than 100,000 Black New Orleaneans are living elsewhere.
But, in the face of withering local, state, and national criticism, some of which was vicious, Nagin became transformed from popular, but trobled, Black elected official to symbol of what it means to be Black in America. That transformation led Black voters to stand up for someone who looked like them, almost as if they were defending themselves. Black voters in New Orleans feel under siege and understand the linked fate they have with Nagin. They responded accordingly.
The result reflects poorly on Nagin’s challenger, Louisiana Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu. Landrieu could not have had a better scenario in which to win this election. The incumbent was badly damaged, seen by some as incompetent and unable to lead the city into this new era. Nagin also turned off White voters as he came to be seen by some as a scary Black man. The loss of much of Nagin’s 2002 base, coupled with the declining Black population, left the election of a platter for Landrieu.
Landrieu may have been hurt by his past. He’s part of a political dynasty in Louisiana. His father was Moon Landrieu, the last White mayor of New Orleans. His sister, Mary, is a U.S. Senator. He had name recognition and was well regarded in all corners of the city. He also had a fundraising advantage and was seen as better able to negotiate for more federal support for reconstructing the city. But he never distinguished himself from Nagin or demonstrated that he was clearly better than the incumbent. For a constituency that yearned for a reason to vote for someone other than Nagin, Landrieu failed to give voters a viable choice. That’s a colossal failure when the incumbent is so damaged.
© Michael K. Fauntroy, Ph.D.
May 20, 2006