April 22, 2006

Battered New Orleans votes

By Jeffrey Jones

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - New Orleanians voted on Saturday in
their battered city's first post-Katrina election, facing the
tough choice of staying with Mayor Ray Nagin and his vision for
rebuilding or opting for new blood.

Polls opened after dawn for what many community leaders are
calling the most important election in the nearly three-century
history of the city known as the birthplace of jazz, which was
devastated by the hurricane nearly eight months ago.

At stake is the speed and shape of the massive recovery
amid concerns over the strength of the levees before the next
storm, drained city coffers, racial tension and questions about
whether some badly damaged neighborhoods will get rebuilt.

The local election has garnered global attention, partly
due to the huge task in providing access to voters with more
than half the city's population still displaced across the

Some voters said they felt a deep responsibility to cast
their ballots, given the need for strong leadership to move
past the crisis. Pre-Katrina voter turnouts were low.

"I think with the diaspora that's happened after Katrina,
people who come back are going to be very dedicated. I care a
lot about the future of New Orleans," Luisa Adelfio, an
arts-sector worker who lost her job after the hurricane, said
as she left a voting precinct in the Uptown neighborhood.

"And I hope people who are far away and are intending to
come back are also facilitated for voting," said Adelfio, 41.

Nagin, who is black and has been New Orleans' face to the
world since Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city, was
criticized for a shaky initial response and more recently for
saying rebuilding plans should favor the black community. He
later apologized for the remark.

He has said he hoped when residents vote they consider his
experience dealing with federal and state agencies as the June
1 start to the 2006 hurricane season looms.

His top rivals among more than 20 challengers include
Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, son of New Orleans' last
white mayor, and Ron Forman, chief executive of the Audubon
Nature Institute, who is also white. All three are Democrats.

If no candidate wins a majority -- and none is expected to
-- the two with the most votes will be in a May 20 runoff.


Civil rights activists tried to delay the vote, arguing it
was skewed against residents who are still evacuees, the
majority of whom are black.

But Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater said he did all he
could to ensure a fair vote, such as offering early mail-in
balloting and opening satellite voting centers in Louisiana
border towns and New Orleans for five days last week.

More than 20,000 early and absentee votes were cast amid
efforts by evacuee groups to bus displaced people to polling
sites. There are 297,000 registered voters.

Officials have filmed the delivery of balloting machines to
voting precincts and planned to log all telephone calls to
election offices, expecting at least some legal challenges to
the process and results later, Ater said.

"We have done everything humanly possible and we have done
everything legally, and everything else we can do," he said.

"I feel very comfortable, but that's not to say there's not
going to be a bump in the road, the truth of the matter is that
in almost every election there's a little bump in the road."

With billions of dollars in federal aid at stake, it is
crucial residents vote to show the country they are serious
about rebuilding, Ernie Bourg, 55, said after casting his
ballot near the French Quarter.

"If we don't turn around our lackadaisical attitude, people
are going to wonder, 'Why should we fund New Orleans?"'

(Additional reporting by Russell McCulley)