Thomas Wells and Lawrence Spain sign up a registered voter to vote in New Orleans's mayoral election.
Thomas Wells and Lawrence Spain sign up a registered voter to vote in New Orleans's mayoral election.
Daniel Kramer

Displaced in the Diaspora

It's Election Day, and a dozen volunteers have descended upon the Thicket Apartments near Bush Intercontinental Airport, block-walking in an effort to turn out voters last week. Lawrence Spain is making his way up and down dusty stairs, gripping the rusty railings and clutching campaign literature. The political volunteer doesn't really care about the Texas governor's race, and he's only vaguely aware of the other local candidates. The voters he's trying to reach aren't even eligible to cast ballots in this state.

The race on Spain's mind will take place April 22, 350 miles away, in a still-broken New Orleans. Already it may be one of the most unique mayoral elections in American history. With hundreds of thousands of potential voters scattered across dozens of states and cities, candidates are having to take their local politicking on the road. Houston, with its 150,000 evacuees, has become the top prize and a central target of those efforts.

Spain lost his home and his janitorial business when Katrina hit. Since then, he's become involved in voter recruitment through his church and The Metropolitan Organization, a nonpartisan social justice group. "We was back home in the city of New Orleans being active through the church," he says. "Just so happens that now we doing it in Houston."


Hurricane Katrina

The goal of TMO's door-to-door campaign is to find 10,000 displaced people from New Orleans who are eligible to vote but may not know how or where to do it. Spain wants evacuees like him to be able to participate in rebuilding the city so they can all go home. "New Orleans wasn't the smartest city, Louisiana wasn't the greatest state," he says. "We had problems before Katrina, and now we have more."

Using a list of the 3,800 apartment complexes, the volunteers have been targeting the ones with the most evacuees (some have more than 200). With about a month to go, they have already signed up more than 1,000 registered voters.

Another volunteer, Walter Milton, a 47-year-old military veteran, was lucky enough to get out of New Orleans before the storm hit. "I don't like what I sense going on. The people in power seem to be doing things that will be harmful to people," he says, referring to some of the proposed plans to not rebuild predominantly black areas.

Talk of race has dominated the early campaigning, especially as Mayor Ray Nagin continues to make racial references, recently telling a mostly black Houston audience that "very few of [his opponents] look like us." Nagin, who was heavily criticized for promising that New Orleans would be a "Chocolate City" again, is facing 23 challengers, with most political observers expecting a runoff between Nagin and one of the two top white candidates: Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, who is well known, and Audubon Institute chief executive Ron Forman, who is well funded.

With only a month to go, the race is a logistical nightmare for the top campaigns. "It's like a presidential primary campaign in many ways," says Dana Peterson, Landrieu's campaign manager. Candidates are trying to target both voters living in New Orleans and those living in what's become known as the diaspora of evacuees clustered in cities such as Houston, Atlanta, Baton Rouge and Jackson, Mississippi. "You can't possibly afford to have offices and staff everywhere," says Peterson. Not only do candidates have to find voters -- which strategists aren't even sure they'll be able to do -- they then have to help them understand how to vote in a somewhat complicated process. Evacuees have three options: vote on the day of the election in New Orleans or one of ten satellite polling places, the closest to Houston being Lake Charles; vote early at one of those locations; or vote through a two-part absentee process that entails mailing in an application to Baton Rouge to receive a ballot.

The most popular strategy has been to offer up useful information -- about FEMA assistance, for example -- and hope that the people will hang around for the politician's message. Tim Phillips, Forman's campaign manager, says the Internet is the most vital tool for reaching the diaspora. His campaign sent out initial e-mails asking people to sign up for further information. About 80 percent have done so -- an astonishing response to what is essentially political spam. As for raising money, Forman's political strategy has been to build a coalition around business owners, which has helped him become one of the best-funded candidates in the race.

Landrieu is focusing more on grassroots efforts, trying to create peer-to-peer networks -- phone trees, e-mail chains and direct mail to turn out voters, according to Peterson. He'll also travel extensively; he was in Houston for a town hall meeting on Monday. A well-liked lieutenant governor, Landrieu has an asset in his famous last name: His sister is U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu.

Standing at the top of the heap is, of course, Nagin. When he was elected mayor in 2002, there were no white candidates. Nagin garnered 90 percent of the white vote but only 40 percent of the black, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. This time "it's almost the exact reverse," says Nagin political consultant Karen Carvin. "The mayor has had some problems with remarks that he has made that have alienated some of his previous support," she admits frankly, adding that Nagin plans to get those voters back.

But Nagin's strategy so far has been to run an "us vs. them" campaign to shore up support in the black community. As the Times-Picayune pointed out, even his campaign theme -- "Re-Elect Our Mayor" -- seems to be a coded call to the black community. Forman's campaign slogan, meanwhile, is "A Mayor for All of Us," and he has already announced that two of his deputy mayors will be white and two will be black. A rival strategist says Nagin needs the diaspora vote much more than any of the other candidates, meaning Nagin will probably be on the road a lot more than they will.

Nagin has some advantages in the race, which is why he's favored to make a runoff, even if he can't win outright. He'll easily be able to travel to evacuees on official business and grab national media attention. Thanks to a strong fund-raising effort before Katrina hit, Nagin also has a sizable war chest, and Carvin says the campaign plans to spend money on Houston radio.

None of the campaigns has any idea how this will all play out. A few polls have shown Nagin leading, with Landrieu and Forman close behind, but no one really trusts those polls, which relied solely on people in New Orleans or with New Orleans phone numbers. Most observers expect that people will be highly motivated to vote, but still can't predict turnout. The campaigns are essentially flying blind, with none of the usual political data available. Some campaigns are worried about the possibility of corruption and, given Louisiana's reputation, are preparing responses should charges of tampering arise.

At the Thicket Apartments, Spain isn't having much luck today. Most of the knocks go unanswered, and volunteers are forced to just leave behind voting information. "You got some that listen, and some that don't, and some that care, and some that don't," he says. Going door to door has given him a chance to listen to what's on people's minds, and he says there's a lot of anger. "You got a lot of folks that not just mad with Ray Nagin, they mad with everybody," he says. "The people should be fired up. This is what we want to see, but in the midst of being fired up we want to make sure that they see it's election time. That it's accountability time."

Spain says he's probably knocked on at least a hundred so far and will no doubt do a hundred more. When the volunteers do find a registered voter, it's a laborious process, with several forms to fill out. "It takes substance to do this," he says. "This ain't easy. People can get frustrated. Some days you see love, and some days it's not like that." When he's not working with the TMO campaign, Spain is finishing his GED with Houston Community College and working to get his business going again.

Today, the few people the group does find -- most of whom are registered voters -- say they haven't had much luck following the race but are interested in voting. Houston's media has flooded the zone with coverage of Katrina's effects on Houston, but it hasn't paid as much attention to this municipal election in a different state. To spread the word, The Metropolitan Organization is distributing candidate information and on April 8 will hold a teleconferenced debate, to be broadcast in several cities.

As Spain is signing up one evacuee in her doorway, a pair of Mormons happens by. Sticking out in their white skin and white shirts, they say they're on their way to deliver some Bibles. "There's a lot of Katrina people here," says one. Katrina was no doubt good for religion. The question on everyone else's minds is this: Will it be good for politics?


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