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1. Pick a mayor; 2. Rebuild the city

Kai Ryssdal May 22, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: New Orleans has a new mayor. Same as the old one. Ray Nagin was reelected Saturday by a surprisingly large margin: four percentage points. He’ll need every edge he can get. In his victory speech, Nagin said he’s confident about New Orleans’ future. He sort of had to say that, because much of the city’s population is still scattered across the country. Businesses, too. Marketplace’s Sam Eaton is in New Orleans.

Hi Sam.

SAM EATON: Hey, Kai.

RYSSDAL: So, how are New Orleanians feeling about the once and future mayor in the light of day?

EATON: I think what people are feeling is relief. This election has kind of dominated people’s lives down here. And so many of the people here feel like everything has been put on hold until the election’s been over. There are everyday things in people’s lives that they want to see fixed that haven’t been fixed. Say, traffic lights . . . getting rid of debris . . . There are thousands of cars still scattered across the city. So, I think people are ready to have a mayor sit down and really focus on the rebuilding of the city.

RYSSDAL: Other than the nuts and bolts, what do you think it is that Ray Nagin has to look at as his biggest challenges now?

EATON: I think the No. 1 challenge is repopulating the city. This is a city that has seen 80 percent of its neighborhoods flooded. And two-thirds of its population is still scattered across the United States. I think Nagin is facing maybe one of the largest chicken-and-egg dilemmas in US history in the sense of, How do you get a labor force back to the city? Businesses are struggling to get back up and running. There are Help Wanted signs on every window. But people can’t live here because the rent’s too high, there’s not a place to live. And without those people, the businesses are having trouble getting up and running. Schools are not opening. There aren’t enough hospitals. So, how do you design a city where its future population levels are yet to be determined. It’s going to take a creative outlook going forward.

RYSSDAL: Ray Nagin is this sort of outsized personality. He has this tendency to say things before he’s really thought them through. What do you think his relationship now is going to be with the businesses of New Orleans, who have to come back to make the people come back?

EATON: Before Katrina, he was elected as the business candidate. He really had the white, conservative, business backing here in New Orleans. He opened his mouth a few times and seemed to alienate some of those voters with comments about Chocolate City and so forth. But since the April primary he actually gained back three times the amount of those voters that he had lost and that was the key to his victory. So there’s a sense that, I think, the business comunity does still have faith in Ray Nagin to carry this forward and get the businesses and the economy back up and running.

RYSSDAL: What about the people of New Orleans? I mean, everything from poor African Americans to upper-middle-class white people to those businesses . . . you know, when they come back, they don’t even know now, as I understand it, if they are going to be able to rebuild where their houses once were. How’s he going to keep the people of New Orleans behind him as he tries to rebuild that city?

EATON: Well, I think people understand the scale of what’s going on here. And they are willing to be patient with Ray Nagin to do it right. Barbara Lacen Keller is a Nagin supporter I was talking to on Saturday night. And she said, “You know, everybody needs to step up to the plate.”

BARBARA LACEN KELLER: We have to be willing to do our part. And that’s by sweat equity. That’s by taking the personal initiatives to want to rebuild, not just our lives and our homes, but also our city. Because this is our city. We that live here, we can’t leave it all up to him.

RYSSDAL: How are his relations with the state of Louisiana and the federal government — the folks who have all the money that he’s going to need to rebuild?

EATON: Obviously, Ray Nagin, during his victory party speech on Saturday night was on his best behavior. And he said, based on Gov. Blanco, the governor of Louisiana . . . he said he’s excited about what she’s getting ready to do going forward. So, obviously, there was a little bit of a political jab there. But, expecting to have much more help from the state going forward. He also praised President Bush for following up on earlier speeches where he had committed money to rebuilding New Orleans. So, obviously, he is setting himself up to curry favor and keep those relationships strong.

RYSSDAL: Alright. Marketplace’s Sam Eaton in New Orleans, La. Thanks, Sam.

EATON: Thanks, Kai.

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