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New Orleans Chooses Nagin to Guide Its Recovery

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

The people of New Orleans have reelected Mayor Ray Nagin to guide their city through its recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): We defied all conventional wisdom. We ran a very smart campaign, in my opinion.

ELLIOTT: Nagin spoke to reporters today at a church in New Orleans' Tremayne(ph) neighborhood. He portrayed himself as David using a slingshot to defeat Goliath, his opponent, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, who spent more money on the campaign. The mayor's new term begins just as the new hurricane season opens June 1, and his half empty city is still reeling from Katrina's devastation.

Nagin confronted his critics, taking aim at the business leaders who have complained about the slow recovery.

Mayor NAGIN: So I hear all their rhetoric about them leaving. I don't believe it. Business people are predators, and if the economic opportunities are here, they're going to stay. So I don't worry about that stuff, because I think there is enough interest around the country that we are going to attract top business people. God bless them. I hope they stay, but if they don't I'll send them a postcard.

ELLIOTT: Greg Rigamer is a political and demographic analyst, and he joins me from New Orleans to talk about Ray Nagin's victory and the direction he plans to take the city.

Hello there, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. GREG RIGAMER (Political and Demographic Analyst): Happy to do it, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Mayor Nagin won with 52% of the vote, compared to 48% for his challenger, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu. Nagin says he defies conventional wisdom. Was this victory a surprise?

Mr. RIGAMER: Well, given his position in the primary, it is a noteworthy victory. But one of the things that I would like to just point out relative to this is that New Orleans is largely an African American community, both pre-Katrina and post-Katrina. And this race was highly publicized. We had a very good turnout, given the level of the number of people that we have in the community. And it's truly a democratic process.

The leader that has emerged was elected to represent a demography that is consistent with the community. In other words, his profile is more consistent with the community that we are.

ELLIOTT: So is the bottom line here that New Orleans is still mainly an African American city?

Mr. RIGAMER: No doubt.

ELLIOTT: And that is why you have a Mayor Nagin again.

Mr. RIGAMER: Absolutely. I think it's important that the demographic of the election represented that. Otherwise it would be a very contentious situation.

ELLIOTT: Ray Nagin was the top vote getter in the primary, but his victory was not at all assured in the runoff because he didn't have that big margin. What do you think he did between then and now to win voters over, and who were those people?

Mr. RIGAMER: Well, the difficulties that the mayor had to overcome, which he did, was that he had approximately five percent of the white vote in the primary, and I attribute that to people saying that they were not satisfied with his leadership or of his style of recovery. They wanted something different.

ELLIOTT: Well, what changed their minds between then and now?

Mr. RIGAMER: Well, I think this is the point. The first week of the runoff - the runoff period was about four weeks. I think Mitch Landrieu had a bit of momentum. But the more we progressed into the campaign, the more the two candidates sounded alike, and some people didn't see the difference between Mitch Landrieu and Ray Nagin in that group of uncommitted white vote. And as a result, Ray Nagin picked up a very significant percentage of that vote.

ELLIOTT: So when you've got two candidates that both sound the same, you tend to lean with the incumbent?

Mr. RIGAMER: I think that typically that happens very often relative to that. Now, of course you do have some party politics in that, because Mitch Landrieu being part of the Landrieu family, and while New Orleans does not have a strong Republican contingency, there are certainly a number of conservative Democrats and Republicans who take a deep breath at the thought of voting for a Landrieu.

ELLIOTT: You know, Mayor Nagin is already taking a pretty aggressive stance against his critics here the day after the election. What does that say about what we're likely to see happen in New Orleans during his next term?

Mr. RIGAMER: Well, the mayor was criticized for not being definitive, not demonstrating leadership, and maybe this is one of his first steps in that regard relative to the aggressive posture. When someone, particularly an incumbent, comes off of a hard fought campaign, it's not all that uncommon or surprising that they would lash out at some of the people who are not behind that, and by and large the business community in New Orleans was not behind the mayor. Hopefully, this is a bit of venting and it will pass pretty quickly.

ELLIOTT: Greg Rigamer is a political analyst in New Orleans. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. RIGAMER: Thank you, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.