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New Orleans Readies for Mayoral Run-Off

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Tomorrow, New Orleans residents choose a mayor to preside over their reconstruction. It's a run-off election, coming after the first round narrowed it to two candidates.

Ray Nagin is the incumbent, known to millions from the days after the storm. He's facing off against Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, part of a great Louisiana political family.

One person following this race is Silas Lee. He was a pollster in New Orleans. Welcome to the program.

Dr. SILAS LEE (Political Pollster; Social Justice Analyst): Thank you.

INSKEEP: Is this a referendum on how the mayor did after the storm?

Dr. LEE: Well, I just think, yes it is, simply because of the fact that Katrina changed the dynamics of the electorate, as well as the priorities of the electorate.

INSKEEP: There's also a question about who's voting, right?

Dr. LEE: Yes, in terms of what percentage will African-Americans and whites vote; and what's unusual here is that, you know, the African-American mayor competing for African-American votes.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry - unusual that a black mayor would compete for black votes?

Dr. LEE: Well, usually, it's somewhat of a given that African-American candidates receive a significant majority of the African-American vote. The question in this race becomes, by what percentage will Ray Nagin, who is an African-American, get what percentage of the African-American vote...

INSKEEP: Because some might be attracted to Mitch Landrieu, the white candidate here?

Dr. LEE: Yes, because Mitch Landrieu comes from a very prominent political family and his father, Moon Landrieu, is credited with integrating the workforce at city hall. So they have historically been strongly supported by African-Americans.

INSKEEP: Mr. Lee, given all the problems facing New Orleans, I have to ask if it matters who wins this particular mayor's race.

Dr. LEE: It depends on who you talk to, because you have two competing realities, in terms of maintaining a symbolic presence in the mayor's office versus the restoration of the city, and for some whites, the question of who will best present the image of the city. Because, keep in mind, Mayor Nagin has been somewhat handicapped, especially in the white community, by his chocolate city comments.

INSKEEP: Do you think that blacks and whites, to some degree, will be voting on racial questions then?

Dr. LEE: The reality is that race will be a context. And race is a context with so many issues in society, so we shouldn't necessarily be thoroughly distracted by that.

INSKEEP: Dr. Lee, thanks very much.

Dr. LEE: Sure, you're welcome.

INSKEEP: Silas Lee is a pollster in New Orleans. We know that New Orleans voters are scattered across the country, but there is still a chance to vote by absentee ballot; and if you want to find more information about how to do that, got to our website: npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.