Re-elect 'our mayor'?
A slice of New Orleans politics in Atlanta
"Re-elect our Mayor Ray Nagin," reads the billboard at a somewhat inconspicuous corner just north of downtown, off Northside Drive.
Below that, in smaller print, are the words, "Let's keep New Orleans moving forward."
It is a billboard you'd expect to see two weeks before a mayoral election. Atlanta just isn't the place you'd expect to see it.
Groups working to assist Atlanta-based Hurricane Katrina evacuees say they've noticed other pro-Nagin billboards in Atlanta. That speaks volumes about the role Katrina evacuees, many of whom are now scattered across the country, will play in the upcoming New Orleans mayoral election.
Seeing as how challenging it has been to locate all of New Orleans' registered voters, it's no wonder that billboards are popping up nearly 500 miles beyond New Orleans' city limits. (Incidentally, the billboard off Northside Drive, which says it was "paid for by Ben Edwards," was not placed there by Nagin's campaign, according to Bill Rouselle, a New Orleans consultant to the campaign. "We appreciate whatever he has done," Rouselle says, "but we don't know who it is.")
To ensure that displaced residents are able to vote, the city of New Orleans sent letters to every registered voter at the address he or she most recently provided to FEMA. The letter explains that displaced voters need to sign an affidavit and fax it back to the city before they can receive an absentee ballot. The deadline for requesting for an absentee ballot is April 18.
Evacuees voting by absentee ballot will be especially important to Nagin, who won the mayoral race four years ago with the support of a largely African-American populace.
Katrina has changed that populace. Most of the citizens displaced by the hurricane were black, and now Nagin finds himself running for re-election in a majority-white city.
Helen Butler, executive director for the People's Agenda, an Atlanta group that has worked to help ensure that Katrina evacuees are given the right to vote in the election, says Katrina evacuees who are first-time voters have it the hardest.
"First-time voters will have to go to New Orleans to actually vote," Butler says. "It's really difficult, and it's creating a lot of problems for people to have their voices heard."
Other groups are working to help Atlanta-based evacuees get back to New Orleans for the election.
On Saturday, Elaine Peters, a registered nurse and Navy veteran, joined a group of nearly 20 displaced New Orleans residents aboard a bus bound for New Orleans. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a national social justice group with a branch in Atlanta, chartered the bus.
Peters says that making the trip to New Orleans for early voting, rather than voting via absentee ballot, was a symbolic gesture.
"A lot of people think that we're not going to come back," Peters says. "But I'm moving back in January, and I feel that if [African-Americans] see that we do have enough people that are interested, it will encourage them to come back, too."
GET INVOLVED: ACORN is planning more trips to bring Katrina evacuees to New Orleans to vote. For more info, call 404-525-1013 or go to www.acorn.org. If you are a displaced New Orleans resident wishing to vote by absentee ballot, call 800-883-2805 or go to sos.louisiana.gov.