New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin won re-election Saturday, beating Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu with 52 percent of the vote. The close tally—after a listless campaign in which debate moderators and citizens alike couldn’t perceive much difference between the candidates—almost made the election seem a months-long distraction from rebuilding New Orleans. The anticlimactic result bodes poorly for the city’s future, though, since it showed that New Orleanians don’t expect much leadership from their mayor and that they’re not even sure what to look for in a leader.

The New York Times unwittingly summed up the attitude of the candidates and of New Orleanians in general in its election wrap-up: “Mostly unspoken was the larger reality: that the federal money destined for the city, as much as $10 billion that would perhaps arrive by late summer, would have far more influence on its recovery than the actions of any mayor,” the paper noted Sunday.

But that kind of thinking exposes a flaw that could prove fatal to the Big Easy’s recovery. The federal government doesn’t run New Orleans. Nor does Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, whose obvious incompetence many New Orleans residents blame for the glacial pace of recovery. Nor can $10 billion in home rebuilding funds lead New Orleans out of misery.

New Orleans needs that federal money, of course, and state support too. But above all it needs a mayor who realizes that he is ultimately responsible for his city’s fate—and that he can do something to influence it. In this campaign, neither Landrieu nor Nagin seemed to grasp that simple point. Neither ever stood up and declared: “I want to be in charge. I want to be the man who will fix this city, and here are my bold ideas to do it, whether you like them or not.” Instead, the candidates seemed to be running for the post of ambassador to the federal government rather than for mayor: Nagin often implied that he was the better man because he enjoys good relations with President Bush, while Landrieu fought to counteract fears that he couldn’t work effectively with the Bush administration because his sister, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, has severely criticized the president.

Closeness to other political figures, even the president, isn’t leadership, however. The city must figure out how to repopulate its most devastated areas, which are likely to flood again. Will the mayor be strong enough to insist that returning homeowners elevate their homes, even if the cost is prohibitive for some homeowners? Nagin, unfortunately, has winked and nodded at homeowners who have sought reconstruction permits quickly in order to rebuild before the federal rules change and require higher elevations.

Further, will the mayor be strong enough to insist that New Orleans’s housing projects not wind up repopulated by an underclass that harms the city’s recovery? Neither Nagin nor Landrieu could bring himself to say anything beyond having vague “high standards” for returning housing-project residents; neither insisted categorically, for example, that able-bodied public-housing tenants, including adult males living with their mothers and grandmothers, be required to work.

And the candidates seemed oblivious to New Orleans’s serious murder problem. In April, the amount of blood shed on the city’s streets matched the pre-Katrina rate, proportional to the city’s post-Katrina population. To stanch the flow, the city must spearhead a politically and culturally unpopular reform of the city and state criminal-justice systems. But the mayoral candidates steered clear.

Making matters worse, the New Orleans media failed to press the candidates to demonstrate real leadership on these issues. Shockingly, in a city so devastated by floodwaters that more than half of its citizens have no homes to return to, one debate moderator actually used valuable time two days before the election to ask how each candidate would achieve Hispanic representation in his administration, in light of the influx of Latinos to do construction work.

Tellingly, neither candidate could specify what qualities a good leader needs. When a second debate moderator asked for a past example of a superior local politician—admittedly a difficult question in New Orleans—Nagin vaguely extolled eighties mayor Dutch Morial for “being an in-your-face kind of guy [who] got some things done,” while Landrieu lauded his father, Moon, for “[serving] at a critical time in history . . . [and working] very hard to make sure that African-Americans and whites stayed together.” But these former mayors never exhibited the kind of decisive leadership New Orleans needed in the seventies and eighties to reverse the economic and social decline that plagued the city for decades before Katrina.

And now New Orleans has chosen Nagin again. The mayor said in his victory speech Saturday night that his re-election had “humbled” him. Nagin, a decent man, wants New Orleans to thrive, but good intentions are not enough. For the city’s sake, let’s hope that he realizes soon that his ideas, decisions, and execution are what will determine whether the Big Easy succeeds or fails.


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