NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans has elected its first white mayor in 32 years, ushering in hopes of a new era in a city still trying to rebuild five years after Hurricane Katrina.
Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu was elected Saturday to replace outgoing Mayor Ray Nagin, an African-American who led the city during the hurricane, but saw his popularity plunge over the slow pace of reconstruction.
“The people of New Orleans did a very extraordinary thing… striking a blow for unity,” Landrieu said after his nearest rival businessman Troy Henry conceded defeat.
Landrieu, a Democrat, becomes the city’s first white mayor since his father “Moon” Landrieu left the office in 1978. The city is 61 percent black.
Landrieu lost an earlier bid to unseat Nagin in 2006. Nagin could not run for re-election because of the term limits.
With all the votes counted, Landrieu led with a commanding 66.5 percent of the vote. “To all my opponents, I understand how it feels to lose. It happened to me twice before,” Landrieu said.
His closest competitor, businessman Henry, a black Democrat with extensive corporate experience, finished with only 12.8 percent of the vote.
Another important rival, millionaire businessman John Georges, conceded defeat when he was running in third place less than an hour after the polls closed.
Landrieu beat out 10 other candidates in the quest to replace Nagin, the much-maligned city leader during the killer storm of August 29, 2005 who has also governed during the often-spotty recovery.
“I wasn’t extremely happy with any of the candidates, but at least the change will be good. I love it here. There’s no place like it,” said Kellen Smith, 27, a voter who moved to New Orleans from Atlanta three years ago.
She was adorned with strings of Carnival beads being thrown from floats on the day the Big Easy also officially ushered in the start of the parade season ahead of Mardi Gras on February 16.
Thomas Overton, 32, stood on a nearby street corner waving a campaign sign toward voters and revelers alike as the floats went by.
“This is my first New Orleans election and my first Carnival parade,” said Overton, a native of the midwestern city of St. Louis. “It’s the luck of the draw that I got this corner.”
Overton said he moved here for a construction job several years after Katrina flooded most of the city, killing nearly 1,000 people.
The city’s population is estimated at 335,000, or 80 percent of pre-Katrina levels. But tens of thousands of New Orleanians have not returned permanently since the storm.
A local named Ralph Ampey propped up a giant red sign for a city council candidate, as masked float riders showered cheering crowds with beads, doubloons and toys.
“Everybody feels like they have to have hope,” Ampey said of the election. “Whatever they lost in the storm — homes, furniture, property — they hope they can get again.”
The new mayor must manage billions of dollars in tardy federal reconstruction aid and a balanced, but depleted, city treasury. Moreover, city hall and the police department are rife with scandals.
Violent crime remains high, and according to the state treasurer is keeping potential investors away from the still-rebuilding city.
On Saturday, however, voters spoke hopefully about the city’s future as they divided time between Carnival parades and polling places.
At least one polling site faced the Pontchartrain parade route near the historic St. Charles Avenue streetcar line in Uptown New Orleans.
Voters wearing Carnival beads came and went. Many cast ballots at computerized machines, bought food, drinks and outside — beer — to benefit school activities, then returned to watch the passing parade.
“Food, beer and voting — all in one place — and bathrooms,” said Paul Gregory, a computer consultant and native of the city. “Hopefully, no one will be voting drunk.”
“The city has nowhere to go but up,” Chris Dougherty said.
Local voting official Joe Broussard said the parades had started at noon, six hours after the polls opened. “We haven’t had any complaints from voters — not yet,” Broussard said.