If you throw enough jambalaya and daiquiris at a problem, it usually goes away. This afternoon’s free Theresa Andersson concert downtown has the most laid-back vibe of any event I’ve seen in post-Katrina New Orleans. Nobody’s talking about gutting their house. The hurricane chatter is kept at wacky T-shirt level: Katrina and Rita as Girls Gone Wild, FEMA = Fix Everything My Ass.
The one annoyance for concertgoers: Since large concentrations of people are rare these days, politicians are swarming Lafayette Square. Mayoral candidate Ron Forman is making a show of force, pressing the flesh while trailed by a militia of volunteers in gleaming white T-shirts. As this reporter is busy verifying that the dog Forman’s petting is, in fact, a boxer, Nightline’s Chris Bury pops into view instantaneously, like he’s been beamed down from some TV news starship. His first question: “Do you get the sense that there’s a lot of anger in this city?”
A few seconds later, Bury tells Forman that the rap on him is that his supporters are all white and wealthy. This concert isn’t a good place to disprove that allegation. While Forman appears to seek out every person of color in the audience, the vast majority of people out here are white. Most of them seem to know Forman personally. After he shakes one young woman’s hand, she says her dad used to date Forman’s wife. Another says she went to school with his son. One guy used to walk his dogs by Forman’s house every day. Several people say they’d vote for him, if only they lived in Orleans Parish rather than the suburbs.
As I wrote on Tuesday, Forman’s financial backers are the same white business leaders who supported Ray Nagin in 2002. According to today’s Times-Picayune, the Audubon Nature Institute CEO has received $524,050 just from former Nagin supporters. By contrast, the mayor has received only $156,000 in donations this year.
In a field crowded with white challengers, Rev. Tom Watson is the only black candidate within hailing distance in the polls and the money race. Watson, the pastor of Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries, is a longtime Nagin hater. Two years ago, he joined a coalition of black ministers protesting that the Nagin administration neglected New Orleans’ black underclass while overspending on marketing campaigns designed to bring white people back from the suburbs.
On the phone, Watson tells me that, in trying to run government like a business, Nagin alienated everyone around him. In his four years in office, the mayor has had three chief administrative officers and three city attorneys. Watson calls the mayor’s cry that New Orleans must remain a “chocolate city” a desperate ploy by a man who got 90 percent of the white vote in 2002, but whose white constituency has now abandoned him. “He says those comments were supposed to give [black New Orleanians] hope. Policies give people hope.” Watson adds, “He’s double-minded and he’s a liar.”
While the polls show him trailing badly, Watson says they don’t reflect his support among evacuees in Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas. At every debate and public appearance, he addresses his remarks to the “New Orleans diaspora.” Watson says that the city’s black middle class is now largely absent. His doctor has yet to return. His dentist has relocated to Atlanta. The pastor himself moved to Houston for four months, where he held services for up to 100 of his dispersed congregants. He says their biggest concern about coming back was the lack of available housing—he wants to bring in as many trailers and Katrina Cottages as the city can hold.
Watson says that about one-third of the ministry’s 1,200 members have returned to New Orleans. A good number of them—200 or so—are in the crowd for Watson Memorial’s Easter services in Uptown New Orleans. The pastor peppers his sermon on the Resurrection with references to worldly troubles. “Katrina was ugly for most of us,” he says, “but now it’s time to move on.” It’s time to stop being mad about that sofa you lost and the fact that you went to Houston while all your friends went to Dallas. He stops pacing. “Touch your neighbor and say, That’s a Katrina thing.”
The crowd stands and sways as the jubilant gospel choir chants, “I’m grateful, grateful, grateful.” As the early-morning sun gets trapped inside the church, ladies in church clothes start waving fans that say “Take Your Souls to the Polls” on the front and have the Louisiana Voters’ Bill of Rights printed on the back. “They thought most of us were never coming back to New Orleans,” Watson shouts from the pulpit. Then he asks the crowd to yell, “Victory!”