NEW ORLEANS — Anyone who thought the New Orleans mayoral race was void of passion and fireworks (and there are many) might have had a change of heart after watching Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu square off in a nationally televised and heated debate that focused on issues of leadership, race and the risks of rebuilding a city below sea level.
With just one debate left before Election Day on Saturday, the candidates assumed their positions: Nagin on defense and Landrieu on offense. Nagin spent the better part of the hourlong debate defending his actions during and after Hurricane Katrina while encouraging voters to remember a New Orleans that he said he was reforming before being demolished last summer. From Landrieu’s perspective, the city has made little progress in the nine months since Katrina hit, and voters need someone who is capable of “getting things done.”
Since they emerged as the top two vote-getters in the April 22 primary, in which one-third of the city’s registered voters participated, political observers have argued that Landrieu and Nagin have few philosophical differences, which has turned this election into one about leadership. When asked about that observation, Nagin said that he didn’t buy into it and that Landrieu was nothing more than a “copycat.”
A new poll released Tuesday by Tulane University, which shows Landrieu with a 10-point lead, says voters are deciding whom to vote for based on who they think has the strongest leadership skills; the survey shows that Landrieu has an overwhelming lead in that area. However, because the survey did not poll displaced residents -- who are voting in large numbers -- its ability to predict the outcome is debatable.
Co-moderators Chris Matthews of MSNBC and Norman Robinson of NBC affiliate WDSU were aggressive in their questioning and made use of their second meeting with Nagin and Landrieu by re-asking questions the candidates avoided when the field was more crowded and dodging questions was a little easier. Matthews and Robinson co-moderated a debate last month among seven of the race's 22 contenders, including Nagin and Landrieu, before the primary.
Nagin and Landrieu were asked again to address why taxpayers around the country should care about rebuilding New Orleans.
Landrieu, who didn’t give a straight answer last time, argued that the city was a “gateway” for exports and a major supplier of oil and energy. Without rebuilding, he said, Americans could take a hit in their pocketbooks.
Nagin borrowed Landrieu's answer by also saying that gas prices could be affected and said he was confident that stronger levees would protect the city from further catastrophes.
In the absence of any real differences on policy, some of the attacks turned personal. Nagin alluded that because his opponent has raised millions during the campaign, if elected Landrieu would be beholden to those donors and it would take the city "back in time" when Nagin says New Orleans was overrun with corruption. Landrieu said he wouldn't apologize for his successful fundraising campaign because it's a sign that voters want change and in all of his years in public office, no one has questioned his "integrity."
But Landrieu's integrity -- and that of his family's -- was on the line last night.
Landrieu comes from a political lineage steeped in Louisiana politics. Landrieu's father, Moon, was the last white mayor of New Orleans and his sister is US Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Since Katrina brought to light many of the racial and economic issues plaguing New Orleans, Matthews asked Landrieu if his family could be labeled a "legacy" of "inaction" rather than a political dynasty. Landrieu insisted that local politicians could not be blamed for problems he thinks are caused by the federal government, like building levees that inevitably failed.
Matthews sought to address the racial issues underscoring this contest by asking Nagin if it would be fair to win because of "ethnic solidarity." Nagin jumped on the defense saying he had many other attributes which make him qualified to be mayor. Landrieu was asked if he would be concerned that minorities might have been disenfranchised if he wins. Landrieu said he doesn't think that will happen and that the mayor must have the consensus of the voters.
According to Secretary of State Al Ater’s office, 22,134 votes had already been cast by Tuesday, through either early in-person or absentee voting. Sixty-five percent of those voting so far have been African-American. A similar, though lower, number of votes were cast at this point in the primary.
Nagin was expected to coast to re-election last summer but quickly saw a downturn in his popularity after being heavily criticized for his conduct in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and pundits began questioning his political viability. But in last month’s primary, Nagin emerged in first place with 38 percent of the vote, while Landrieu came in second with 29 percent.
The primary, which was originally scheduled for February, was postponed to give state election officials time to figure out how to pull off an election with more than half of the city’s polling precincts damaged and unusable, a skeleton staff of elections volunteers and an unprecedented and widely dispersed electorate. To accommodate displaced voters, election officials relaxed absentee and early-voting rules and designed a television, radio and mail campaign to educate voters about their voting rights, but not before civil rights groups tried unsuccessfully to postpone the election to explore other options.
Leaders in the civil rights community argued that African-Americans would be disenfranchised because, they said, the plan did not ensure that displaced residents, most of whom are minorities, would have an equal opportunity to vote. The groups, such as the Advancement Project and the NAACP, wanted polling precincts to be set up in other Southern cities, like Houston and Atlanta, where many residents temporarily settled. Election observers closely watched last month’s primary, expecting those same groups to question the election results, but the deadline to file such challenges quietly passed without any objections from them.
NBC’s Steve Majors contributed to this report.