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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Runoff Election Is Set for New Orleans Mayor's Race - New York Times

Runoff Election Is Set for New Orleans Mayor's Race - New York Times
By ADAM NOSSITER

NEW ORLEANS, April 22 — Mayor C. Ray Nagin made a strong showing Saturday in the city's first mayoral election since Hurricane Katrina but failed to escape a runoff election next month in which he will face Louisiana's lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu.

With 94 percent of the city's 442 precincts reporting, Mr. Nagin had 39 percent of the vote, ahead of Mr. Landrieu, who had 28 percent. A third leading candidate, Ron Forman, a local businessman, had 17 percent.

Because no candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote, Mr. Nagin and Mr. Landrieu will compete in a runoff on May 20.

Mr. Landrieu's showing Saturday put him in a strong position to become the first white mayor of New Orleans since his father, Moon Landrieu, left office in 1978. He is likely to pick up most of Mr. Forman's vote, almost exclusively concentrated in white precincts. In addition, Mr. Landrieu apparently picked up as much as 20 percent of the vote in black precincts, according to analysts on local television stations.

Mr. Nagin, however, the only major black candidate, polled better than expected, setting up what is likely to be an intense campaign between the two men over the next month.

With turnout apparently low in black precincts, Mr. Nagin appealed for unity after the results were in.

"If we don't come together as men and women, we will perish as fools," he said. "We must become comfortable with one another."

Some black voters interviewed here Saturday, dissatisfied with the slow pace of recovery, said they were supporting Mr. Landrieu.

"We have no direction right now," said Marvin Keelen, who had journeyed from Baton Rouge to vote. "We can't make any decisions."

Nonetheless, it appeared that Mr. Nagin, who had not previously been popular in black neighborhoods, would pick up a large share of the black vote.

Mr. Landrieu, in a speech to supporters Saturday night, invoked his biracial support. He said the city's different racial and ethnic groups "almost in equal measure came forward to propel this campaign," and he promised to "push off the forces of division."

His campaign hopes to draw on the popularity of his political family among black and white voters. Mr. Landrieu's sister, Mary, is a Democratic United States senator from Louisiana.

State officials went to elaborate lengths to involve the tens of thousands of people still displaced from this damaged city. But for months, civil rights groups have challenged the very notion of holding an election now. Officials accepted ballots mailed and faxed in at the last minute, and the state set up voting places all around Louisiana.

Throughout the day, New Orleans citizens streamed past piles of debris to vote in improvised polling places. The hurricane's floodwaters had destroyed dozens of voting sites, forcing state officials to cobble together giant makeshift ones.

Some had traveled hundreds of miles to cast their ballots, piling into buses in Atlanta for an overnight trip, or getting into cars bleary-eyed for a long morning voyage from the rural hinterlands.

Many came to a giant warehouse on Chef Menteur Highway in flood-ravaged eastern New Orleans, where officials had combined 50 precincts and 27 voting places into the biggest of the makeshift precincts. Citizens cast their ballots under signs bearing the names of destroyed voting places in the Ninth Ward: "7925 Alabama St.," or "St. Mary's Academy," or "Schaumberg Elementary School."

In a festive atmosphere, voters greeted relatives and friends they had not seen since the storm and spoke of what they said was the imperative of appearing in person to vote.

"This is New Orleans; this is my home," said Frank Echols, who said he had driven all morning from Mississippi, over 100 miles. His home in eastern New Orleans was heavily damaged in the flooding.

"I could have voted by mail, but I wanted to be part of this," said Mr. Echols, a retired official with the city's mass-transit agency. "We don't know what the future is going to hold, but we're going to be part of it."

Melva Pichon had driven nearly eight hours from Conroe, Tex. "This determines the future of our city," Ms. Pichon said. Saying she had opted for the incumbent, she added: "I want to make sure that the person who gets in has experienced this before."

State election officials described turnout as steady all day. Before Saturday, some 20,000 people had already voted by mail or at early voting centers set up throughout the state.

With the massive task of reconstruction here stalled, citizens said repeatedly before Saturday's tally that they were looking for the city's chief executive to present a clear way forward.

Throughout the truncated mayoral campaign, the leading candidates largely avoided confronting the central issue: whether some neighborhoods were so inherently vulnerable to flooding that they should not be rebuilt. That issue, so tied up with sensitive questions of race and class, seemed too hot to handle in the current campaign, though analysts speculated it might now be taken up in the runoff.

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