Voters in New Orleans' largest City Council district will decide Saturday whether to return James Gray to the District E council seat or elect Cyndi Nguyen, who would be the first Vietnamese council member.

Gray, a 71-year-old retired lawyer, has held the seat since 2012. Nguyen, who is 47 and a community organizer, has run for office before but never won. Both are Democrats.

Gray led the five-person field in the Oct. 14 primary with 38 percent of the vote. Nguyen finished second with 26 percent. 

District E includes most of New Orleans East and all of the Lower 9th Ward, making it the largest council district but also one whose residents often feel neglected. Crime, blight and a lack of retail development have plagued the areas, especially after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Gray acknowledges the frustration of many residents in the district but says things have begun moving in the right direction during his years in office.

"If you look at the progress over the last four years, you would be happy," he said. But, he noted, the overall progress over the past decade has not been great.

"I'm unhappy with where we are. I would like to be further down the road," he said.

Gray said being a lawyer and the son of a contractor gives him a unique skill set to help spur development in New Orleans East and the Lower 9th.


"I can sit in a room with construction people and make suggestions to them," he said, citing his work helping to resolve a dispute over a gas station at the site of the old Plaza shopping center and other projects.

Although being forced into a runoff is never good for an incumbent, Gray seems well positioned going into the runoff. The third- and fifth-place finishers in the primary, Alicia Plummer Clivens and Cederick Favaroth, have endorsed him, and Gray said many supporters of fourth-place finisher Dawn Hebert support him, though Hebert has not endorsed him.

During October, Gray spent nearly 10 times as much as Nguyen, though she has outraised him since then, according to campaign finance reports.

Gray downplayed his financial advantage, however. "There have been cases where it has not made much difference," he said.

Nguyen is banking on being one of those cases.

"I think this race is clearly not about how much resources I have," she said. Rather, she said, the key issue is being responsive to the community, something she said Gray hasn't been. 


"The City Council is about being a public servant," she said. "If you are not in tune and participating in community meetings, this is not a position for you."

Nguyen returned to New Orleans — where she grew up until leaving just before high school — nearly two decades ago, she said. But it's her time away from the city that she said gives her a unique perspective on how New Orleans can improve.

"I came back as a different person, one who has seen that anything is possible," she said. 

Nguyen said her themes during the runoff campaign have been the same as those during the primary. 

The city must do more to fix the East's problems with blight and lack of economic opportunity, she said. There particularly needs to be a focus on youth programs.

"We have to focus on creating the space to give young people opportunities," she said. She pointed to her efforts with Vietnam Initiatives in Economic Training, or VIET, a community organization. She also worked to bring a Head Start program back to the Michoud area and founded a summer day camp that has grown from 25 kids per summer to 250.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.