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James Carville for Mayor of New Orleans?

NEW ORLEANS - By most expectations, the New Orleans mayoral race should have had a passel of candidates by now, all elbowing for attention and funds.

Instead, only three candidates have officially announced their intentions to run, and the contest to replace Mayor Ray Nagin is being tagged in local news reports as "the incredible shrinking mayor's race."

In a crucial time in the city's history, as it enters the final phases of rebuilding from the devastating floods of 2005, the lack of mayoral candidates - especially well-known, buzz-generating candidates - is stunning, said Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport-based political analyst and demographer.

"There's no star, there's no exciting candidate, there's no overtly qualified candidate," Stonecipher said. "It's really surprising."

A strong desire to see the city's recovery complete, its crime rate lowered and its battered infrastructure rebuilt is raising interest in the Feb. 6 mayoral primary, said Silas Lee, a Xavier University public policy professor and pollster. In a recent survey, more New Orleans voters said they had a "high interest" in the upcoming mayoral primary than "no interest," he said.

"Whether that translates to turnout remains to be seen," Lee said.

At the center of the mayoral race debate is a clause in the New Orleans home charter that requires candidates live in the city for at least five years. The residency rule is higher than other places, such as Houston (which requires one-year residency), Atlanta (also one year) and Los Angeles (30 days).

"We don't want to be Atlanta, Houston or Denver. We like being our own thing," said Tommy Screen, director of the Institute of Politics at Loyola University in New Orleans. "At some point in the city's past, the five-year requirement was determined to be something the city needed. Understanding the culture here might just take that long."

Critics, including well-known Democratic strategist and prime-time pundit James Carville, say the rule eliminates a pool of qualified candidates who arrived post-Katrina to help rebuild the city. Carville moved to New Orleans last year with his wife and daughters and teaches at Tulane University.

So far, announced candidates include state Sen. Ed Murray, state Rep. Austin Badon and housing advocate James Perry. City Council President Arnie Fielkow, state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu - considered front-runners - have all dropped out of the race.

"There's real work to do here," Carville said in a telephone interview. "You're not just riding along trying to manage the city budget." Last week, Carville announced in an editorial in the weekly Gambit newspaper that he would run for mayor if it were not for the charter rule.

The citizens of New Orleans should decide by vote whether to keep the five-year clause, he said. "I'm not a fan of these requirements," Carville said.

Changing the clause would require a citywide referendum, according to the city charter. It's not something that would likely happen before the qualifying deadline of Dec. 9-11, Screen said.

James Bernazzani, former head of the FBI in New Orleans, was approached last year by supporters who wanted him to run for mayor, he said. But he had moved to New Orleans in 2005, missing the five-year requirement by a few months, he said.

"There are plenty of cities who have been successful with their mayoral candidates that don't have that asinine requirement," said Bernazzani, who now runs the Youth Rescue Initiative, a child advocacy group. "It's a self-inflicted wound."

The next mayor will inherit a city in transition and oversee about $1.5 billion in recovery projects throughout the city, as well as billions of dollars more in infrastructure improvements by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies.

They'll also inherit an electorate that a recent poll by the University of New Orleans shows has lost trust in Nagin's administration. Nagin's popularity is at 24% this year, down from 31% last year, according to the April poll.

Having someone in town for at least five years to learn the complexities of the rebuilding process and regain the community's trust could be a good thing, said Ruthie Frierson, founder and chairwoman of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, a prominent volunteer group.

"You do want someone who's been here for a period of time, who has lived and understood the city," Frierson said. "It's an absolutely critical election."

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