February 7, 2010 / 5:44 AM / 9 years ago

New Orleans elects first white mayor since 1978

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor of New Orleans on Saturday, the first time in over 30 years that voters of this majority-black city have chosen a white candidate.

Mitch Landrieu takes part in the Rebuilding New Orleans' panel discussion during the 10th Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California April 24, 2007. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Landrieu, a Democrat and Louisiana’s lieutenant governor, won more than 50 percent of the vote, defeating a field of 10 other competitors and avoiding a run-off election. Democrat Troy Henry, a black businessman, came in second.

Landrieu, 49, the son of New Orleans’ last white mayor, Moon Landrieu, rode a wave of discontent over the slow pace of the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and rampant crime.

In his victory speech, Landrieu said his election showed that voters wanted a city that was “unified rather than divided.”

About two-thirds of New Orleans’ population is black and Landrieu was helped by his father’s legacy of desegregating the city. Moon Landrieu left office in 1978.

The Landrieu family is a political force in Louisiana. Mitch Landrieu’s sister Mary is a U.S. senator.

The mayoral election was overshadowed by Sunday’s Super Bowl in Miami, where the New Orleans Saints make their first championship game appearance against the Indianapolis Colts.

Ray Nagin, the current mayor who can’t seek re-election due to term limits, was the public face of the city’s botched response to Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and killed 1,500 people.

Some of its neighborhoods are still unfit for habitation due to flood damage, and its system of levees and flood walls — protecting a city with large areas situated below sea level — is vulnerable to a repeat of Katrina’s catastrophic flooding.

Albert Arnold, 66, who lost his home in eastern New Orleans to Katrina, said Nagin’s performance on Katrina recovery and crime has been disappointing.

“Crime is the biggest problem in the city, and it’s gotten a lot worse in the last four years,” Arnold said.

However, this year’s election is less about race and more about “buyer’s remorse” from voters’ disappointment with Nagin, said Bernie Pinsonat, pollster and political strategist at Southern Media and Opinion Research.

“You have a very unpopular mayor who’s a big disappointment to voters,” Pinsonat said. “In Landrieu you have somebody the city looks to as a unifier and someone who can maybe get something done.”

Writing by Chris Baltimore; Editing by Eric Beech

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