By Kevin McGill
NEW ORLEANS–New Orleans’ black political base is one more victim of Hurricane Katrina. The storm decimated once-thriving black, middle-class neighborhoods, undercutting efforts by black candidates to raise money and build voter support.
All of this is coming into play as the mostly black city readies to elect a successor to the very-public political face during and since Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin. There’s a good chance his successor will be city’s first white mayor in three decades.
Sensing the difficulty in winning, the most prominent black candidate bowed out of the race earlier this month. State Sen. Ed Murray acknowledged that it would have been difficult to beat Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, the scion of a prominent white political family that has been popular among black voters.
While blacks still make up about 62 percent of the voter rolls, white candidates have gained traction since Katrina hit in 2005. Whites gained a 4-3 majority on the City Council in 2007, and a white district attorney was elected in 2008.
In the mayoral election, political analysts say race may be less of a factor as voters consider who can accelerate the city’s recovery from the storm and fight its high crime rate.
“I think African Americans would prefer voting for an African American, but one that they feel comfortable would do what has to be done’’ said City Constable Lambert Boissiere Jr., a former city councilman who was among black leaders who rose to power in the 1970s.
But for a candidate to convince voters he’ll get the job done, he has to know where to find them and what issues matter to them. Boissiere said that can be a challenge in some black middle-class enclaves and poor neighborhoods like the Lower 9th Ward, which are still struggling from the storm and remain thinly populated.
“You don’t know how to reach them,’’ Boissiere said.
Many residents who scattered, disrupting neighborhood political networks, haven’t come back. The city’s overall population, about 450,000 before the storm, remains down by more than 100,000.
Those who have returned often have less money to contribute to black candidates, said Silas Lee, a professor of public policy at Xavier University who did poll work for Murray. He said the storm exacerbated economic problems for many working- and middle-class blacks.
Boissiere, 66, also blames the weakening of the black power base on factors that predate Katrina. He said his generation of black leaders failed to develop minority-owned businesses, leaving black candidates to the mercy of the white business community at fundraising time.
The group has also fallen short of helping “nurture younger African American candidates,’’ he said.
Local leaders often tout New Orleans’ racial harmony, but it has had its share of turmoil, notes Peter Burns, a professor of political science at Loyola University. Desegregation was followed by white flight to the suburbs in the 1960s, and blacks and whites have tended to favor different political candidates, he said.
Racial tensions were evident after Katrina hit, he added, as black residents feared that devastated low-income neighborhoods wouldn’t be redeveloped.
Nagin, who won with heavy white support in 2002, noted those fears as he courted black voters in the 2006 campaign. In January of that year, Nagin notoriously pledged that New Orleans would be a “chocolate city’’ again, offending many whites.
Murray’s departure leaves three lesser-known African Americans to face Landrieu and millionaire white businessman John Georges. Nagin, who narrowly defeated Landrieu four years ago, can not run again because of term limits.
The field for the Feb. 6 Democratic primary includes black businessman Troy Henry, who blasted reporters at a news conference this week for focusing on race.
“We have a long way to go, and I, for one, will not let this campaign be decided without a fight,’’ he said.
Georges also said he’s fed up with the white mayor story line.
“I am an African American candidate,’’ he said flatly in a recent interview. “What I mean by that is, I am a candidate that African Americans have voted for and will vote for.’’
For his part, Murray said he foresaw an expensive, bruising runoff in March between himself and Landrieu.
“A heated run-off election between Mitch and I would probably become extremely racially divisive whether either of us intended it or not,’’ said a statement from Murray, who declined an interview request.
Other candidates include former state Judge Nadine Ramsey and fair housing advocate James Perry, both black, and white businessman Rob Couhig, the only major Republican candidate in the race.
But the candidate widely considered the front-runner is the 49-year-old Landrieu, the son of the city’s last white mayor, Moon Landrieu, and brother of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
“Landrieu has universal name recognition and the political pedigree and John Georges has significant resources,’’ said Edward Chervenak, a University of New Orleans political science professor.
A local political scientist thinks Landrieu would likely lose to a black candidate in a runoff, which would feature the top two primary finishers if no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote. Gary Clark, chairman of the political science department at Dillard University, said he thinks black voters would unite behind the black candidate in a runoff.
For James St. John, a 46-year-old white construction worker who moved to New Orleans from Georgia for Hurricane Katrina rebuilding, the mayor’s race is his second as a resident.
“Race is always going to be a factor in this city. It was last time. Nagin didn’t help the situation with his `chocolate city’ remark,’’ he said.