March 25, 2006

New Orleans candidates court hurricane evacuees

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) - New Orleans city election campaigns are
being waged where the voters are -- in cities like Baton Rouge,
Houston, Dallas and Austin, where many residents ended up after
being scattered by Hurricane Katrina.

Mayoral candidates including incumbent Ray Nagin and
leading rivals Democratic Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Audubon
Nature Institute President Ron Forman have traveled to meet
with evacuees still living outside their devastated city, which
exceed the number of people who have returned.

Forman, who has raised the most money of any mayoral
candidate, said between one-quarter and one-third of his $1.6
million war chest would go to reaching out-of-town voters
through travel to as many as seven cities, newspaper
advertising, direct mail and e-mail.

No candidate can afford to ignore voters whether they are
in New Orleans or outside the city, Forman told Reuters on

"It's both," he said. "This could be the most important
election in the history of our city."

The campaign revolves around a controversial rebuilding
plan supported by Nagin that foresees a population less than
half of the 500,000 who lived in New Orleans before Katrina
struck on August 29.

About 180,000 people were estimated to be living in the
city in January, according to city emergency officials. The
Federal Emergency Management Agency counts 106,000 New Orleans
residents living in Baton Rouge and 69,000 in Houston. More
than 100,000 others are scattered around the country.

The hurricane killed about 1,300 people along the Gulf
Coast and 2,000 people are still listed as missing.

In Houston, using FEMA lists, volunteers carrying
clipboards are knocking on doors in large apartment complexes
on the southwest side of the city that Houston Police Chief
Harold Hurtt has identified as hotbeds of criminal activity.

"Some of them are very rough," said volunteer Glenda


The volunteers, sponsored by local and national nonpartisan
political organizations, have signed evacuees up for absentee
ballots or bus rides to satellite polling stations Louisiana
officials plan to place in Lake Charles, Louisiana, three hours
east of Houston.

But the voter registration and education campaign may
determine the outcome of the April election in which 24
candidates are running for mayor in addition to about seven
candidates for each of seven City Council seats.

"Houston by itself could decide who is mayor in New
Orleans," said Barbara Waiters, who evacuated from the Algiers
neighborhood ahead of Katrina and expects to live in Houston
for at least another year.

The rebuilding plan is seen as the key to which ethnic
groups will decide the future of New Orleans.

William Falk, a University of Maryland sociologist who has
studied black population trends, said New Orleans may have a
majority white population for years to come.

The 2000 U.S. Census showed blacks made up two-thirds of
the city's population.

"We cannot imagine a majority-black city for a long time to
come, barring some miraculous turnaround," Falk said at a New
Orleans sociology conference on Friday, according the New
Orleans Times-Picayune.