NEW ORLEANS — A three-man band played bluesy tunes from a makeshift stage.
A woman conducted business ladling out gumbo at $7 per Styrofoam cup.
A tall man in slacks and comfortable shoes worked the crowd as residents of the Broadmoor neighborhood here held a street party Saturday to cheer themselves up and proclaim that they will rebuild their neighborhood in the center of this hurricane-ravaged city.
“We’re hurting,” the man, Ron Forman, told one couple. “We’re all hurting.”
Forman, a Democrat, is aiming to become the first Jewish mayor of New Orleans in what may be the most important election in the city’s history.
In all, 22 people are challenging Mayor Ray Nagin in the April 22 primary election, which is open to all comers regardless of their political party. Political pros say that Forman is one of two challengers who could unseat Nagin. The polls put him in third place, within striking distance. The top two finishers in the primary will face off May 20 to determine who is elected mayor.
Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had 10,000 Jews; about 7,500 of them have returned after the storm. Forman’s Jewish faith is expected to play little or no role in the campaign, however, in part because he has never worn it on his sleeve.
Instead, all campaign discussion centers on Katrina, which flooded 80% of New Orleans on August 29, left more than 1,000 dead and forever upended the lives of New Orleans’s citizens.
At the time, 58-year-old Forman was the highly regarded president and CEO of Audubon Nature Institute. He revitalized the city’s zoo, built Aquarium of the Americas and opened the institute’s Species Survival Center.
“I had the best job in the city,” Forman said in an interview. He sat at his kitchen table, wearing the perpetual smile that creases his face.
But after Nagin behaved erratically in the hurricane’s aftermath — he cried and swore during televised interviews, lashed out at Governor Kathleen Blanco and President Bush, and made racially divisive comments — friends began imploring Forman to challenge the incumbent.
Signs declaring “Run, Ron, Run” appeared in Forman’s uptown neighborhood.
“People were frustrated; they felt that the city needed new leadership,” Forman said in between campaign stops. “As time went on, people began collecting pledges to show there was support to run. I met with Ray in January. I had supported him [when Nagin was elected in 2002] and [had] been a member of his leadership team. I said: ‘Show me your plan; show me what you’re doing to bring people together. If you show me that, I’ll get behind you 100%.’ I never heard back from him. That was when I decided to run for mayor. It is time for new leadership.”
The decision to run did not come easily for Forman. It meant forsaking the dream job he has held since 1977 — that paid him $400,000 a year, or some three times what the mayor earns. It meant making his first run for elected office. It meant forcing his wife, Sally, to resign from her job (she was Nagin’s communications director).
“If you go through the hurricane and feel the pain of New Orleans and don’t step up to offer your leadership skills, it would not be easy to look at yourself in the mirror,” Forman said. “I’m putting all the chips on the table.”
Forman has a lot of chips to play with in this election. He has raised $1.7 million — more than any other candidate, including Nagin — by tapping into the same network that has contributed millions to upgrade the Audubon Zoo and to create Aquarium of the Americas.
“He dreams and makes his visions become a reality,” said Pete Moss, a supporter and former board member of the Audubon Institute. His family owns a French Quarter antique store. “He inspires you to get involved and give up your time.”
Prominent shipbuilder Boysie Bollinger added, “He’s passionate about making a difference.”
But to make a difference as mayor, Forman must overcome not only Nagin but also the other chief challenger, Mitch Landrieu. Forman has long been close to the Landrieu family: Moon Landrieu, Mitch’s father, served as Forman’s first boss out of college when the elder Landrieu was mayor of New Orleans during the mid-1970s.
Forman has been a political supporter of Moon’s eldest daughter, Mary, who is a United States senator. He also has been close to Mitch. In fact, Forman and Mitch Landrieu encouraged each other to challenge Nagin.
Forman said he entered the race as Landrieu wavered before finally deciding to get in.
New Orleans elections invariably divide on race. In the past the African American candidate was favored, since about 70% of the voters were African American. For example, Donald Mintz, a white, Jewish attorney lost mayoral races in 1990 and 1994 to African American candidates.
But more African Americans than whites have left New Orleans and not returned after Katrina. The electorate may now be racially divided 50-50, although no one is sure because New Orleanians exiled to other cities of Louisiana will be allowed to cast ballots where they live.
Opponents are already playing the race card against Forman.
“He’s the candidate of the white establishment,” said Jim Carvin, Nagin’s campaign consultant.
Other analysts predict that African Americans ultimately will vote en bloc to ensure that New Orleans does not elect its first white mayor since Moon Landrieu.
Nagin won with white support in 2002, but he angered whites when he said in January: “I don’t care what people are saying uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority African American city. It’s the way God wants it to be.”
Asked about Nagin’s comments, Forman damned him with faint praise while avoiding being drawn into a racial debate: “The mayor did the best he could do.”
That kind of deft response shows that while Forman may be a political neophyte, he is not politically naive. His job at the Audubon Institute has required him to work closely with neighborhood leaders, mayors, governors and senators.
He has encountered opposition along the way, but has learned how to build his projects while modifying them to at least partly address neighborhood concerns.
Forman is quick to note that two-thirds of the Audubon Institute’s 750 employees were African American. All but 150 of the 750 employees were laid off after the hurricane, in a scene repeated throughout the city. Not even half of New Orleans’s residents have returned yet. Tens of thousands of homes remain uninhabitable.
Only half of Broadmoor’s residents have returned so far. Many homes had water almost to their ceilings.
Now piles of debris cover the sidewalks as the rebuilding has begun. “Broadmoor Lives” signs dot the neighborhood.
The street party drew a determined, racially mixed crowd.
“This is the kind of thing we need,” a priest named Jerry Kramer told Forman. “It’s great for morale.”
As Forman chatted with a couple, Roy Alberts stood nearby and sized him up.
“He’s the man we need for these times,” said Alberts, who, like many New Orleanians, has been living elsewhere with relatives since the hurricane. “He’s an organizer. He’s persuasive. I used to say: ‘Man, if that guy was mayor.’ We love the Landrieus. But Ron is the guy for the job. We can’t fool around here.”