tampabay.com

New Orleans election a vote of faith

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published April 23, 2006


NEW ORLEANS - Their journey began at the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, and it ended at polling places in the shattered city where they once lived.

For four busloads of displaced New Orleans residents, their eight-hour ride from Atlanta was the ultimate expression of their civil rights - to have a say in how their city is going to be rebuilt after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

"That's the purpose for coming down here, not to be left out of what's happening in the city," said Wellington Lain, 41, who said he has missed only one election since he was old enough to vote. "It makes me feel as if I still belong."

Saturday's election pitted incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin against 21 challengers, including the state's lieutenant governor, for the responsibility of leading New Orleans reconstruction. To avoid a mayoral runoff May 20, the winner needed more than 50 percent of the vote.

"This is the first battle in a serious and important struggle," Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor at King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta told the travelers before they boarded the buses Friday night.

The election had already been delayed because of the hurricane's damage, and officials arranged for mail-in voting and early voting at satellite locations around the state. Still, many voters wanted to be in their hometown Saturday to personally cast their ballots.

J. Todd Smith and his mother, Paulette, sat near the front of one of the four buses from Atlanta and kept each other company on the long drive. They had evacuated to Houston on the eve of the hurricane, then moved to Atlanta in October.

Through all their moving, they have remained loyal to the Crescent City.

"We're still citizens of New Orleans," said Smith, 24. "We still want to know what's going on there. I still have my driver's license. My license plate still says Louisiana."

Going to the polls reassured him that his opinions still count.

The bus caravan and its 300 passengers arrived at the Greater St. Stephens Full Gospel Baptist Church in New Orleans around 6 a.m. Saturday.

Silvinia Henry told a fellow rider this likely would be her last New Orleans election. The 59-year-old former New Orleans East resident had lived there for more than three decades but isn't sure she'll be able to return.

Still, she wanted to come back and make her voice heard. "I've been living here for so long," she said. "It was a pleasure for me to come back and give my vote."

Lain also said he might not be able to return. At this point, he said, he hopes to re-establish his business in Atlanta.

At Ebenezeer Baptist, Ruth Greene, 87, helped the New Orleans evacuees prepare for their eight-hour trip and remembered her church's activism during the 1950s and 1960s. They could do no less now for her brothers and sisters from New Orleans, she said.

"I may never see the world the way it should be, but I know one day it's gonna come," she said sitting in a pew after a sendoff service for the evacuees. "We sing, we pray, but we've got to do more than that. We got to get up and stand up for what's right."

AT THE POLLS

WHO'S RUNNING: Incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin is challenged by 21 candidates, including Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and business executive Ron Forman. Twenty-three names appear on the ballot, but one candidate dropped out.

BIG ISSUE: The next mayor faces the politically challenging task of leading one of the biggest, most complex urban reconstruction projects in U.S. history.

VOTERS: New Orleans has 297,000 registered voters, but less than half its prehurricane population has returned. About 20,000 cast ballots early.

NEXT STEP: If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held May 20.