Mayor Ray Nagin, whose shoot-from-the-hip style was both praised and scorned after Hurricane Katrina, narrowly won re-election over Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu on Saturday in the race to oversee one of the biggest rebuilding projects in U.S. history.
With 93 percent of the vote counted, Nagin had 53 percent, or 56,068 votes, to Landrieu's 47 percent, or 49,884 votes.
Tough task ahead
Nagin will be sworn back in a day before the June 1 start of the next hurricane season in a city where streets are still strewn with rusting, mud-covered cars and entire neighborhoods consist of homes that are empty shells.
"I want the city to come back," said 61-year-old Alice Howard, an evacuee who returned by bus from Houston to cast her ballot. "This is my city. This is home to me. ... I want to make sure the correct person takes care of home."
Howard and 250 other evacuees wearing "Displaced Voter" T-shirts were greeted by a jazz band at a City Hall rally with Nagin and Landrieu.
The candidates embraced when they met while campaigning Saturday, reflecting the civil tone of a race where there has been little disagreement on the major issues: the right of residents to rebuild in all areas and the urgent need for federal aid for recovery and the best possible levee protection.
When a mega-polling place handling more than 40 precincts opened at 6 a.m., the line was about 20 deep and moved swiftly once voting began. After that, a steady trickle of voters entered.
Among the first to vote was Willie Solomon, who has moved back into her Eighth Ward home where she rode out Hurricane Katrina, even though flood water reached her knees. Solomon said she was voting for Nagin.
“I’m not going to see one family run the whole city,” Solomon said in reference to Landrieu, a career politician and a member of a prominent political family.
'We need change'
Annabelle Landesman, who said she is living in a trailer in the yard of her home in the badly flooded Gentilly neighborhood, said she was switching her vote four years ago for Nagin to Landrieu this time around.
“I think we need change,” said Landesman, who has lived in New Orleans for 75 years. “I have nothing against Nagin.”
Nagin predicted black voters and conservative white voters, many of whom supported him in 2002 but defected to other candidates in the April primary, would come together to support him.
“We’re going to have a coalition of African-American voters and conservative voters that will blow people’s minds,” he said Friday.
Fewer than half of New Orleans’ 465,000 pre-Katrina residents have returned to the city, which remains marred by hollowed out homes and debris nine months after the storm struck and flood walls broke.
Evacuees bused in to vote
Evacuees were being bused from as far as Atlanta and Houston to vote, and many were expected to drive in to cast ballots. More than 24,000 ballots were cast early by mail or fax or at satellite polling places set up around Louisiana earlier in the month.
The candidates, both Democrats, largely agreed on issues, including the right of residents to return to all neighborhoods, even those far below sea level, and the urgent need for federal aid to speed rebuilding.
As a result, much of the debate centered on leadership style, with Nagin, a 49-year-old former business executive, trying to cast himself as the man willing to make tough decisions and stand up to federal officials when necessary.
His maverick, everyman style has won him fans since he was first elected in 2002 but also has opened him to criticism that he’s a loose cannon.
Landrieu, 45, argued the city lost its credibility nationally and internationally because of its response to Katrina. But he also called for the city to come together.
Landrieu echoed the theme of his campaign -- a call for unity -- as he conceded to Nagin.
"One thing is for sure -- that we as a people have got to come together so we can speak with one voice and one purpose," he said.
"Join with me in supporting Mayor Nagin."