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The World is Watching

The first citywide elections since Hurricane Katrina will be studied for years to come -- as much for their mechanics as their results.

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After an 11-week delay and countless political and legal challenges, the New Orleans citywide primary will go off as rescheduled this Saturday, April 22. Voters will choose a mayor, seven City Council members, two sheriffs, two clerks of court and seven assessors.

Above all, New Orleanians from all walks of life -- and all parts of the country -- will have their first opportunity since Hurricane Katrina to send a message to the political establishment and to the world. The world is watching. The political establishment is quaking in its boots.

This election will be studied for generations, and for many reasons. First, there's the mechanics of holding a citywide election in a city that has largely been emptied of its voting population. Second, everyone wants to know how voters will channel their anger in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Will the elections break along racial or party lines? Will they turn on economic or geopolitical axes? Will voters just toss out all the incumbents?

We'll know Saturday night, and then we'll talk about it for years to come.

NEW ORLEANS VOTER REGISTRATION:

Total Registration: 298,192

White 90,759 30%
Black 188,163 63%
Other 19,270 6%

Democrat 67%
Republican 12%
Other 21%

To say that Katrina changed everything is an understatement. What hasn't been known, up to now, is how the vast physical, social and economic changes wrought by the storm will play out on the political stage. In the wake of widespread flooding -- almost all of it caused by arrogance and incompetence on the part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, fed generously by congressional indifference -- New Orleanians are enraged. At the same time, they are engaged like never before.

Two dozen candidates qualified to run for mayor -- a record number, at least by modern standards -- and 95 more qualified for other municipal and parochial offices. Several candidates qualified for two offices and had to drop out of one, including Clerk of Criminal District Court Kimberly Williamson Butler, who opted to run for mayor instead of re-election as clerk. At the end of the day, only Coroner Frank Minyard is assured of re-election, as his only opponent was disqualified because he is not a physician, as required by law.

With a majority of the city's voters living outside of New Orleans, campaigning has been more of a challenge than ever before. Candidates traveled to Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and points in between to attend forums and to try to reach displaced voters. They bought radio and TV ads in markets far and wide. It was mostly guess work, because no one really knows where the voters are, or how best to reach them.

To facilitate voter participation, state lawmakers relaxed absentee voting rules and established 10 satellite "early voting" precincts in the most heavily populated parts of Louisiana. But, despite pressure from black lawmakers and civic leaders, legislators refused to set up satellite polling places outside the state. Instead, state elections officials convinced FEMA to give them the confidential forwarding addresses of several hundred thousand New Orleans evacuees. The secretary of state's office then mailed notices to displaced voters with instructions on early balloting. Thousands responded with requests for mail-in ballots, indicating intense voter interest. Anyone who wants to vote on Election Day must do so in New Orleans.

After 8 p.m. this Saturday, local and state elections officials will begin counting the ballots in the city's open primary. Runoffs are expected in most races, and otherwise it could be a night filled with surprises.

On the following pages, Gambit Weekly offers its guide to the major races. We have included complete lists of candidates for each race. More than anything else, we hope voters will take the time to educate themselves about the candidates and the issues -- and then vote on Saturday.

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