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 Saturday.
“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 Harris.
THREE-HOUR BUS RIDE TO VOTE
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.