On the night of Sunday, Jan. 24, after the Saints beat the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 to advance to the first Super Bowl in the team's 43-year history, New Orleans erupted into a wave of communal euphoria. It was as if someone had slipped Ecstasy into the water supply. Fireworks lit up the sky. Fans took to the streets, car horns honked in ecstatic rhythms, and elated chants of "Who dat?!" — the Saints rallying cry — could be heard across the city. Bourbon Street went from eerie silence to Mardi Gras-style revelry within moments of the game-winning field goal.
After suffering through years of futility, New Orleanians were certainly cheering for the success of their team. But their joy wasn't confined to football. They were also celebrating themselves. The Saints have become a symbol of civic unity, a sign of how the city's sense of self has undergone a profound transformation since Hurricane Katrina's devastation. And this hope is mirrored in the optimism many New Orleanians feel about the end of Ray Nagin’s notoriously incompetent reign as mayor — and the chance that City Hall may finally aid in the city’s recovery.
Andrew O'Brien, an Orleans Parish resident and 26-year-old Latin teacher, summed up the parallel between the Saints and the current mayor’s race with an analogy that resonates with many here. "This year the Saints are a model of competency and effectiveness," he said. "Now I think New Orleanians are trained to expect the same from their city officials. Our expectations are higher." O’Brien would not reveal whom he intends to vote for, but added that being an informed citizen goes hand in hand with being a dedicated Saints fan. “I don't think being a good Saints fan precludes being a good voter, or vice versa,” he said. “Can't I be just as concerned with Jeremy Shockey's knee as with charter schools?”
This Saturday, just a day before the Saints battle the Colts in Super Bowl 44, New Orleans residents will go to the polls to vote in citywide elections that include a mayoral primary to elect Nagin’s successor. The civic unity generated by the Saints may have a more significant impact on the mayoral election than any other factor — including, most notably, in this city known for its racial divisions, the race of the candidates.
Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana's lieutenant governor and the brother of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, is the current front-runner and may win the election outright in the primary. Recent polls have shown him winning more than 45 percent of the vote, with his closest competitors, Troy Henry and John Georges, trailing by almost 30 percentage points. Those same polls show that a high number of voters are undecided, but if Landrieu wins, either now or in a runoff with the primary’s second-place finisher on March 6, he would be the city's first white mayor since his father, Moon, exited City Hall in 1978. Landrieu has campaigned on his experience in politics and promised to restore competency to the mayor’s office. His ascendancy might provide an indication that the city's racial divisions, so exacerbated by Nagin, are not insurmountable and that the harmony most apparent on football Sundays has deeper community roots.
Given the wide array of problems facing the city, including the nation’s highest murder rate and astonishingly high levels of blight, residents are desperate for leadership from the mayor’s office. The question now is which of the six leading candidates do New Orleanians think offers the best chance to move the city forward.
After saying repeatedly that he wasn’t going to run this year after to losing to Nagin in 2006, largely due to the Nagin’s overwhelming support among African-Americans, Landrieu entered the race at almost the last possible moment. His campaign was boosted by the withdrawal of Ed Murray, a respected state senator and at the time the leading African-American candidate in the race. Murray said he determined he couldn’t win, but that he also withdrew to avoid dividing the city's voters along racial lines. Along with winning the endorsement of the Times-Picayune, Landrieu has consistently led in the polls with a strong backing from African-American voters. A recent poll had Landrieu polling ahead of all other candidates, with 40 percent of the city’s African-American voters.
Landrieu’s leading competitors are Democrats Troy Henry, a local businessman and consultant who once worked at Enron; John Georges, a wealthy local businessman who has spent copious amounts of his own money on the campaign but has had to fight a reputation of arrogance; James Perry, the young leader of a fair-housing organization who has won praise from notable national progressives; and Nadine Ramsey, a former Civil District Court judge. There is one Republican in the race, Rob Couhig, a moderate Republican reminiscent of John Lindsay and a reformer who backed Nagin in 2006 but now regrets that endorsement. “[The Nagin administration] didn't do anything,” Couhig said. “They have no urgency. Everything's mañana with them.”
Georges appears in second place in many polls, but it seems unlikely that he has a real chance to take the election. He has flip-flopped on his party affiliation, adopting the Democratic label in a move that reeked of politically expediency despite still describing himself as a conservative on the campaign trail. In a devastating profile in the Times-Picayune, he oozed ineptitude and haughtiness about his personal wealth.
The sense of bonhomie felt in the city over the Saints has been on display at the many mayoral forums held during the campaign as well. The candidates have often seemed congenial with one another. Aside from a brash ad from Perry early in the campaign attacking Murray and Georges, the candidates’ ads have mainly avoided negativity. Couhig has been the most vocal critic of Landrieu, blasting the him for what Couhig perceives as viewing the mayoral office as a stepping-stone to higher national office. But these attacks are a far cry from the negativity of the 2006 campaign.
Murray’s withdrawal minimized the racial tensions in the race, although it did not remove them altogether. The city’s African-American community has failed to cohere around a single candidate, with many expressing so-called buyer’s remorse over Nagin. The city’s most prominent African-American publications have endorsed white candidates.
Henry, who is African-American, has played the race card more overtly than any other candidate in the race. He recently grabbed headlines by accusing the local media of preordaining Landrieu the winner, saying, “There's a move afoot today to ensure that we have a majority white council, an inspector general that's white, a district attorney that's white, a U.S. attorney that's white, a head of education that's white.” Nagin, who has not officially endorsed any candidate, then went on a local radio show and backed up Henry’s charges, saying black voters had been “hoodwinked” by Landrieu’s reported lead.
Perry, who is also African-American, has rebuked both Henry and Nagin for engaging in what he sees as racially divisive politics. Early in January, after Nagin made some unsubstantiated insinuations about his campaign, Perry responded by issuing a stern rejoinder in which he lumped Henry and Nagin together, calling them a “tag team.” Perry added, “I don't want to continue down the path that Nagin has set for New Orleans, which is a path as divisive as it is destructive, a path that is sown by racial mistrust and suspicions on both sides … The Nagin-Henry approach takes us backwards, not forward, as a city."
Speaking to me recently, Perry reiterated this message. “In 2006, we saw an extremely racially divisive election, and that election ended up dividing the city,” he said. “This election season has the potential to go in either direction. It could be a unifying campaign or a racially divisive campaign. I respectfully think that’s a decision voters have to make between me and Mr. Henry. My message has been that people aren’t focused on a black mayor or a white mayor; they’re focused on getting the right mayor.”
Few polls have shown Perry with support outside the single digits, but though he may not make it into a runoff with Landrieu, Perry is indicative of the self-reliance at the base of the city’s rebuilding process. He has no interest in refighting the race wars of the past. A polished public speaker, he is a true reformer and has been a tireless champion for the housing rights of city citizens. Though a Crescent City native, Perry represents the young, idealistic progressives who have flocked to the city since Katrina and helped to reshape the city independent of direct government oversight. Perhaps the most obvious example of this trend is in the city’s school system, one of the most decentralized in the country, which has become a magnet for young education reformers. A higher percentage of New Orleans kids attend charter schools than anywhere else in the nation, and the results produced by these schools are beginning to mean significant improvements for education. Perry, like these education advocates, has found a way to move New Orleans forward despite Nagin’s dithering. He, like the Saints, is a reason for optimism.
To those who don’t call New Orleans home, it may seem hyperbolic to suggest that multiracial unity and exuberance over a football team could influence an election so strongly. Yet, it's hard to overstate how deeply New Orleans loves its Saints, and the impact they've had on civic pride this year. In the past month, as the team has advanced through the playoffs, schools have incorporated the Saints into lessons, and local businesses and churches have become plastered with signs urging on the team. During a recent downtown rally to increase the awareness of issues facing the city's youth, kids marched down the street wearing gold "Who Dat for Kids?" T-shirts, piggybacking on the Saints unofficial motto. (Full disclosure: I have done some freelance work for one of the organizations involved in the rally, Afterschool Partnership.) When the NFL tried to claim trademark rights over the phrase “Who Dat,” Republican Sen. David Vitter and Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon finally found something they could agree on and protested the NFL’s assertions. The league backed down. As Jonah Keller, a lifelong Saints fan said to me, “For too long, [New Orleanians] have accepted that we're a little below average to average at best. With the Saints, now everyone feels a passion for the team and feels they can be a winner.”
Gregory Rusovich, chairman of the Business Council of New Orleans and spokesman for Forward New Orleans, a collaboration of local organizations intent on reforming city governance, said he sees parallels between the city’s optimism over the Saints and the confidence citizens have in an improved future brought on by a new mayor. “There’s been a big sense of hope, pride and unity in the air,” he said. “The Saints and the city move in one heartbeat. The community has come together. There's some optimism that we'll get a good city council and an effective mayor, and we'll be able to grow from that."
It's hard to find anyone not linked with the administration who isn’t excited by Nagin’s departure. One local T-shirt shop has printed shirts rejoicing in "Nay-gone" and several floats in this past Saturday's annual Krewe de Vieux Mardi Gras parade exhibited images of the mayor burning in infamy. As one civically engaged longtime city resident described it to me recently, "Nagin is like Bush was [at the end of his presidency] in that everyone is just waiting for him to get out."
Yet the proximity of the election to the Super Bowl (not to mention that Saturday is also the commencement of the Mardi Gras season in earnest), has led many in the local press, as well as some political analysts, to express fear that voters’ attention won’t be on the election.
"With the Saints, Carnival and Mardi Gras, people are distracted," said Brian Brox, an assistant professor of political science at Tulane University. "All these things are hurting the candidates' ability to get through the clutter." Brox added that he's witnessed a nonchalant attitude among some voters because they believe that any mayor will be an improvement over Nagin.
This week, the local television news stations have unquestionably devoted more attention to the goings on in Miami, where the Super Bowl will take place, than to the election. Yet, many of the city's most prominent civic leaders share Rusovich’s belief that the Saints' effect on the election has been a largely positive one and that citizens are engaged.
Vera Triplett, the president and co-founder of the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association, bristled at the notion that New Orleanians aren't giving the election its due. "The Saints' Super Bowl run doesn't detract attraction from the mayor's race," she said. "That really underestimates New Orleanians because it assumes they can't focus on more than one thing at a time. We can keep football and the future of the city in perspective."
Triplett is supported by the swell of early voting that’s taken place over the past two weeks: A record 16,100 residents cast early votes at three locations across the city, surpassing even those cast in the 2008 presidential election. Many may have gone early to ensure they could vote before traveling to Miami for the game.
While Brox worries that the city could split along racial lines if Henry and Landrieu get into a runoff, Triplett, who is African-American, pointed out that the city is no longer as racially divided as it used to be. “The media always reduces everything to black and white, but we have large Vietnamese and Hispanic communities as well,” she said. “That sort of thinking disenfranchises a lot of our population.” Demographically, New Orleans has changed a great deal in the wake of Katrina. In 2008, the most recent census year, the population stood at 336,644, more than 100,000 less than it was in 2005. Around 61 percent of the population is African-American, down from nearly 67 percent in 2000, while the white population has increased from 27 percent to more than 30 percent over the same period. New Orleans also has growing Asian and Latino populations, together comprising more than 7 percent of the population, up from around 5 percent in 2000.
Many residents are hoping that James Perry is right, that all the goodwill felt during the Saints' run results in a mayoral race that further unifies the city. “The whole city is optimistic,” said Denise Thornton, who heads Beacon of Hope, a nonprofit neighborhood-recovery organization. “We've been under a dark cloud for the past four years. Now it's a new day. The Saints are just a sign of this optimism.”