Image: New Orleans election signs
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Candidates for mayor of New Orleans have placed their campaign signs in front of an Uptown house in the Crescent City. The city's first major election since Hurricane Katrina struck is Saturday.
NBC News

It sounds like a game of SimCity. You're running for mayor nearly eight months after a hurricane caused devastating flooding that wiped out your city's infrastructure; shut down schools and hospitals; severly crippled its main sources of revenue, tourism and the port; endangered its unique culture and traditions; exposed rifts in race and class of a magnitude rarely seen before by any American metropolis; killed hundreds of residents and caused the long-term evacuation of tens of thousands of others. 

As the leader of the effort to reconstruct this city, you would receive aid from the federal government -- but you would have little say over its disbursement, and would get much of the blame from your constituents if something goes awry.  And, the next hurricane season is almost here and the city's defenses are not yet rebuilt. 

For those actually running for mayor of New Orleans, there's no hitting the pause button and taking a lunch break. A primary this Saturday is expected to winnow the field of 23 candidates down to two.  Incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin, a Democrat, is likely but not certain to be one of them.  After a runoff on May 20, one of the two will actually have won the job and all these enormous challenges it entails. 

On Monday at 9:00 p.m. ET, the top seven of the 23 candidates will face off in a nationally televised debate about their visions for the future of New Orleans and how, as mayor, they would implement these plans. 

The seven are business lawyer Virginia Boulet (D); Rob Couhig (R), also a lawyer and managing partner of Couhig Investments; Ron Forman (D), president and CEO of Audubon Nature Institute; current Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (D); Nagin; Reverend Tom Watson (D), pastor of the Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries; and Peggy Wilson (R), former president of the New Orleans City Council. 

MSNBC's Chris Matthews and NBC affiliate WDSU's Norman Robinson will jointly moderate the one-hour debate, which will take place at WDSU's studio and will air live on WDSU and on MSNBC. 

Can be seen by displaced residents
The candidates have participated in numerous forums by now, including in other cities beyond New Orleans where large numbers of Hurricane Katrina evacuees have settled, but this will be the first debate that displaced residents around the country can see live.

How many of these displaced residents will vote is another story -- and probably the biggest and most politically sensitive question of this unprecedented election.  First and foremost, because it will provide the first real measure of how many former residents of New Orleans still feel consider themselves to be residents, regardless of where they currently live.  And second, because the vast majority of residents who have left the city and not yet returned are African-American, and unless they vote in significant numbers, this election is expected to show that this formerly majority-black city is now majority-white. 

Given these stakes, if evacuees don't vote in large numbers, it will likely become a topic of an emotionally charged debate: Is it because they wanted to vote but weren't able to because they were disenfranchised, or because they just didn't want to vote?  Historically, African-Americans, particularly low-income African-Americans, have not shown much inclination to vote absentee.  Many evacuees have settled into their new locations, found housing and jobs and put their kids in school.  They may not see New Orleans, with its crippled economy, housing shortage and battered school system as having much to offer them.  But the suggestion that some evacuees may not want to vote is anathema to civil rights activists and advocates for New Orleans, who insist that the evacuees want to return to the city but can't, and point out that voting is one way to show they still consider themselves to be residents. 

No one knows how large the electorate will be.  More than 13,300 current and displaced residents of the city have cast ballots after a week of early voting.  According to Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater's office, a large percentage of those voting so far have been African-American. A majority cast their votes in person at polling places set up in 10 parishes across the state, while a small percentage have mailed in absentee ballots. 

Those numbers are hardly a dent in a city that is now estimated to be home to 297,000 registered voters, post-Katrina, based on state election officials' count of who is currently on the rolls there.  But the unprecedented logistics of staging this election, between the city's damaged infrastructure, the nationwide dispersement of the electorate, and the whirl of controversy that has surrounded the balloting, have all made it challenging for elections officials there to satisfy all parties involved. 

Calls for postponement
After the primary was postponed from early February and rescheduled for April 22, prominent civil rights organizations and activists fought to have it postponed again, arguing that the state should set up polling places outside Louisiana in cities like Houston and Atlanta where large numbers of hurricane evacuees have at least temporarily settled. 

Groups like the Advancement Project and the NAACP worried that minority voters would be disenfranchised because the unreliable post-Katrina postal service didn't ensure that absentee ballots would be delivered, and the physical and financial burden placed on voters to travel back to New Orleans might discourage them from participating that way.  But the Justice Department declined to weigh in, saying it's up the state, and a federal court determined that the state's outreach efforts have been sufficient.

Angie LaPlace, Louisiana commissioner of elections, says she's pleased with the early turnout, calling it "evidence that people are being informed."  Her office set up satellite polling precincts in parishes throughout Louisiana and relaxed absentee voting rules.  They also launched an extensive mailing campaign to inform registered voters of their rights, sending out more than 700,000 information packages to residents throughout the country to tell them when, where and how they could vote.  Secretary of State Al Ater toured evacuee hubs around and outside the state, holding town halls to explain to displaced residents how to vote.

The number of absentee voters this year far exceeds what the city has ever seen, LaPlace says.  As of last week, 14,760 absentee ballots had been requested but only 2,797 of those were returned.  But the unique circumstances of this election make it difficult to compare with past elections, since a far greater percentage of the electorate now lives outside the city.  To the extent that African-American evacuees are participating in the process, it may also be due to civil rights groups' providing information and transportation to voters who want their voices heard about how to rebuild their city.

Door to door
Kemberly Samuels, a volunteer for the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association and a displaced resident, says the organization has been going door-to-door for over two months telling displaced residents how to vote.  Last week, they provided transportation for voters from Houston to Lake Charles, La., some 350 miles away.  The trip was long, especially for the elderly and for voters who were hesitant about leaving their children behind.  But, Samuels says, evacuees want to have a say in what happens to New Orleans.  "We had to send a message out to our politicians in New Orleans that we are serious about rebuilding our city and we want people who are going to be committed," says Samuels.

Tanya Harris, a community organizer for ACORN who lives in the Lower Ninth Ward, says the group will step up their outreach this week by ramping up canvassing and phone-banking efforts and driving more voters to the polls on Saturday.  Harris says voters have sounded pleased with how the process has worked so far, adding that their only complaint has been the long lines.

Longtime observers of Louisiana politics and seasoned Democratic campaign operatives, however, call the early turnout levels low and continue to express skepticism that large numbers of evacuees will cast ballots.  "It's not like they have walls to climb over in order to vote," says political analyst John Maginnis.

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