Dispatch From New Orleans
In Lakewood South, a one-armed skeleton dangles next to a boarded-up door frame, a creepy six-months-early Halloween decoration. This used to be one of New Orleans' ritziest subdivisions, but the signs of wealth now look misplaced and vulgar. There's a FEMA trailer that's hooked up to DirecTV, and a black Jaguar circling the block. Of all the flooded-out neighborhoods, Lakewood South would seem like the top candidate to get rebuilt. People here had flood insurance and savings accounts. Roughly one-third of the houses are getting rebuilt, one-third have "for sale by owner" signs, and one-third look totally abandoned, written off. A few blocks away in Lakeview, where the houses are a bit shabbier, there's just as little happening. There's no construction noise, no heavy machinery, and no people walking on the street.
This is my third time back in New Orleans since I came down days after Katrina hit. I know that progress comes in fits and starts, but this time it's hard to see the starts. I'll do my part and make up a partial list of what's improved: A lot more street lights are working. There are fewer makeshift garbage dumps. Pandora's Snowballs in Mid-City is open again and teeming with customers. Rally's Hamburgers on Carrollton Avenue is open, and the Wendy's next door got knocked over by a crane this morning—not a bad trade-off. And the grand New Orleans tradition of gouging visitors is alive and well: There are no less than three companies offering "Katrina tours" for $35 a head.
I'm in town because the mayoral election and my sister's wedding are both happening this weekend. All the wedding miscellany that's lying around the house—old photos, mostly—has me fixated on how things used to be. The election's making me worried about how things will be, or if they'll be at all. New Orleans has so many problems that even having an election seems ridiculously optimistic, as if any one person's bold visions for the future could turn around a city with no housing and no tax base.
Tonight's nationally televised debate proves that, cataclysmic flood be damned, the script never changes. It's hard to think of a campaign, besides the race for mayor of Tokyo after Godzilla stepped on it, in which it was as essential to articulate specific policy positions—where and when New Orleanians should begin rebuilding, how to fix the levees, how to create jobs. But the seven major candidates stick to the usual petty disagreements, platitudes, and avowals that it's time to stop politics as usual. In lieu of a discussion of housing policy, there was a debate about the meaning of "welfare queen." The few specific ideas that do get tossed out—Peggy Wilson's proposal to abolish taxes, Virginia Boulet's plan to move the University of New Orleans to the edge of the French Quarter because "kids like to study downtown," Mayor Ray Nagin's months-old suggestion to turn Canal Street into the Vegas Strip —are ridiculed, probably deservedly. So much for bold visions for the future.
This campaign is less about the future than it is a referendum on Nagin's leadership. At the top of the show, each candidate's accomplishments scroll across the screen: There's a corporate attorney, the guy who brought the city minor-league baseball. Under Nagin's name it says "Mayor," then "Hurricane Katrina." It's hard to see how his tenure as the hurricane mayor will give Nagin any kind of boost. When asked how he would prepare for a Category 4 storm, Nagin goes with understatement: "I've already been through something very similar."
Last September, I wrote that Nagin's first term as mayor was marked by a series of "ambitious plans derailed by the dismal reality of his often-ungovernable city." In the months since, New Orleans has become essentially impossible to govern, and his accomplishments have dwindled to zero. So has his political base. Nagin didn't have much support from black voters before Hurricane Katrina; he was a corporate candidate funded by the city's white business establishment and supported by white voters. The New Orleans plutocracy has abandoned him in favor of this year's business-friendly candidate, the white Audubon Nature Institute CEO Ron Forman. After this weekend's open primary, the top two candidates will meet in a runoff. In a race where polls are most likely completely useless, Nagin is polling roughly even with Forman and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, the son of Moon Landrieu, New Orleans' last white mayor, and the brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu. With his support from white voters now negligible, Nagin needs to win over the black voters he never had. That's why it's hard to see his comment that New Orleans should be a "chocolate city" as anything other than racial pandering.
If the mayor's worried, he doesn't show it. He only loses his cool once in the debate, yelling, "Jesus Christ!" when he thinks the other candidates are ganging up on him, tag-team-wrestling-style. After the debate, he practices some retail politics in the studio, shaking my hand like we're old chums, saying, "What's up, buddy?" Before the cameras started rolling, moderator Chris Matthews tried to lighten the mood by pointing out that all the candidates were wearing dark suits. He said they looked like a room full of pallbearers. Nagin made it clear that he wasn't going to a funeral. "For the record," he announced, "this is a dark navy."