updated 3/20/2006 12:00:22 AM ET 2006-03-20T05:00:22

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said Saturday his city has made progress in rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina, while other mayoral hopefuls questioned the advances and stressed that their hometown’s pre-existing troubles need to be confronted.

Seven of the 24 mayoral candidates attended the Atlanta forum meant to give displaced residents an opportunity to hear from them before the April 22 election. More than half of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina population of 500,000 has been dispersed to other states, meaning candidates must campaign nationally.

Nagin, who alienated many voters after his “chocolate city” speech, in which he said God intended New Orleans to be a black-majority city, discussed levee rebuilding and evacuation procedures if another powerful storm threatened the city.

“We now have a comprehensive plan for rebuilding the city of New Orleans,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, the son of a former mayor and brother of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, said the city was behind on rebuilding and New Orleans had “lost a lot of credibility.” But he also said outsiders have a hard time grasping the vastness of the destruction, noting the devastated area is seven times the size of Manhattan.

‘It won’t be politics as usual’
Several of the candidates stressed that New Orleans should not go back to the way things were before, citing problems with education and race relations.

Marie Galatas, who said God had told her to run for mayor, said the city must become more inclusive. “I’m here to tell you right now that it won’t be politics as usual,” she said.

Johnny Adriani said the mayor must work with federal officials to help bring more resources into the city. Comments by Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Sen. Landrieu criticizing President Bush have not been helpful to New Orleans, he said.

“We’ve had a governor who’s really really hurt us because of the rhetoric,” Adriani said.

Also Saturday, the president of the National Urban League predicted that the failure to establish remote polling places outside Louisiana will disenfranchise voters.

“The current elections plan is a formula for problems and disaster,” said Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans, after a neighborhood meeting there. “There’s a prospect of contested ballots.”

He said the Urban League and other civil rights groups plan to urge the U.S. Department of Justice to force the state to set up in out-of-state metropolitan areas where displaced New Orleans residents now live.

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