Outgoing New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who took office five years after the city's latest near-death experience, often talks about how New Orleans is no longer recovering from Hurricane Katrina, but "creating."
While much of the recovery did take place on his watch, there's something to that. New Orleans emerges at the end of Landrieu's tenure as an at least somewhat different city, still tradition-bound but also less inward-looking and more aware of its place in the modern world. That's the city that's about to choose a new mayor.
Superficially, both runoff candidates represent something new. New Orleanians bypassed the elder statesman in the field, former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, a 67-year old veteran of Dutch Morial's administration. Instead, they skipped to the next generation and sent two 40-somethings, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet, into the Nov. 18 runoff.
And of course, while New Orleanians have elected plenty of women to the City Council and the bench, this is the first time one female candidate, let alone two, will advance to the final round for mayor. Nearly seven in 10 voters who showed up Saturday voted for a woman. In November, it will be 100 percent.
If Cantrell, who finished in first place by a surprisingly wide 39-30 percent margin, triumphs next month, she'd be the first modern-day New Orleans mayor who wasn't raised in the city.
Political analysts have long considered longevity a plus in New Orleans, and Charbonnet, who hails from a Creole family with deep roots, isn't shy about emphasizing hers.
Cantrell is from Los Angeles, came to New Orleans to attend Xavier University and never left. She calls herself a New Orleanian by choice, at a time when there have never been more voters who'd put themselves in that category. She wouldn't be the first nonnative to make a serious run for mayor. Others who've come to the city as adults have tried, but if she wins, it could well signal some changing attitudes.
Same goes for Cantrell's background as a grass-roots neighborhood activist following Katrina.
Yes, Cantrell's been in politics for five years now, but Charbonnet attracted far more establishment backing and campaign contributions. Charbonnet also drew criticism for her attachments, in the form of well-funded attacks from a pair of political action committees, which pushed the idea that she was a figure out of old-school New Orleans politics. In this new era, there's a chance her background could hurt as much as it helps.
The primary results also suggest that New Orleans voters aren't as divided by neighborhood as they once were. While Cantrell dominated the vote above Canal Street, where her council district lies, she made strong inroads into downtown, where Charbonnet was expected to perform particularly well.
On one more measure of modernity, the verdict is still out.
After Katrina, New Orleans saw a wave of citizen involvement, of people engaging as if the city's future depended on it. There's been some concern in this race that the era is ending, and the unimpressive turnout figure of 32 percent does suggest complacency.
But something else striking happened during the primary season. Lots of voters were looking for a way into the process.
I moderated a forum for some neighborhood groups, and the place was packed. Lots more watched or replayed the livestream. These forums happened night after night, and sometimes even back to back. They were staged by groups focused on affordable housing, the cultural economy, the environment and all sorts of other issues. And people showed up and listened.
Did that translate into an enraptured electorate? Not really. But then, the last time the city fell head over heels, it wound up with Ray Nagin.
Voters in the new New Orleans are more wary now, and understandably so. Still, if Cantrell and Charbonnet can figure out how to give them something to get excited about, they just might.