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By Keeping Nagin in Office, Big Easy Blacks Were Making a Larger Statement

Black America Web.com, Commentary, Deborah Mathis Posted: May 22, 2006

I met the man a few weeks ago in a FEMA trailer park in New Orleans. Like everyone else there, he had a sad story to tell, but his was one of those you cant forget.

He lost both his home and his job in Hurricane Katrina. His 60-year-old sister lost even more.

As this fellow told it, his sister not only lost her home and all that she owned, but her daughter as well. A few days before the storm, the daughter had a cyst removed from her arm. Shortly after Katrina, the young woman was helping a neighbor clean up the storm damage when she came in contact with toxic water, which then set up a vicious infection in her arm that spread throughout her body. She died, leaving behind the two children she had been rearing with her second husband. The childrens biological father, a reported reprobate, showed up to reclaim the children he had long ignored. Now he wont let the children see their grandmother.

According to the man at the trailer park, his sister cries everyday.

None of this is right, he complained. Every single thing -- from the warning to the evacuation to the fact that were going to have to start getting our own propane soon -- all of it is wrong. Were all good people here, and we were all let down. By everybody.

Yet, when asked about the then-impending mayoral election, the man said he was going to vote for Ray Nagin, the incumbent and, as such, part of the everybody whose judgment calls have been blamed for the Crescent Citys continuing sorry state.

I was mad as hell at first, the man said. But, now I know he probably did the best he could. Nobody could have done anything different, really.

It must be true, then, that time heals all wounds, because, three months ago, most observers -- inside and out -- wouldnt have given Nagin a snowballs chance in hell of winning re-election. The evacuees, the political establishment and the citys elite were all fed up with him; the news media was perplexed.

One minute, Hizzoner was blasting George W. Bush and the feds with almost unheard-of candor and bluntness; the next minute, he was touring with Bush and expressing good faith.

Another minute, Nagin seemed to be more interested in commercialism than community, the next, he was the peoples prince.

One minute, he was extolling the return of a chocolate city, the next he was backpedaling with some balderdash about a vanilla blend.

Meanwhile, the almost solidly black and low-income Lower Ninth Ward decayed even further, barely touched by clean-up crews and still occasionally yielding a rotting body in some upturned house in the middle of the street. And the people who used to live there languish still in trailer parks, tent villages, motel rooms, borrowed apartments or relatives homes as far away as Seattle.

But, make no mistake: There was more than forgiveness behind Nagins victory over Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu in Saturdays election. And there was more than hope at play. There was a political statement being made too -- namely, that the citizens of a majority black city were not about to relinquish what power they had to a white man.

Whenever folks say that its not about race, it ends up being about race, said my friend, Monica Pierre, a wildly popular media maven in New Orleans. For some blacks, the election became more about battling the perceived power grab by whites bent on electing a white mayor.

Its not that no black New Orleanians voted for Landrieu; of course some did, as the lieutenant governors family has long enjoyed popular support among blacks, who helped put the candidates father, the late Moon Landrieu, in the mayors seat and his sister, Mary, in the U.S. Senate. Besides, as Pierre suggests, many black voters were embarrassed by and disappointed in Nagin.

But, as Pierre points out, It was more important for African-Americans to be the deciding factor on who gets elected.

If this reading is right, and I think it is, Nagin has his work cut out for him. He owes his political survival to people who came through for him even though he has yet to return the favor.

Ray Nagin would be wise to remember that and to walk humbly from now on. He has more to rebuild than just streets and structures.

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