As New Orleans mayoral campaigns take shape, one of the nation’s most prominent political minds has some advice.

But this time, Louisiana native James Carville is directing his counsel at voters, rather than a particular candidate or consulting client.

“What’s been a problem here in politics is that people would rather get even than get ahead, and what’s happened is neither. What you can do in this next cycle is when candidates come to you, ask how they’re going to bring you forward,” said the political strategist and Tulane professor at a recent public forum. The event was convened by 504ward and EngageNOLA, two nonprofits formed to get young professionals involved in the city’s recovery.

Carville was joined at the event by his wife Mary Matalin – a conservative political strategist who famously serves as his ideological foil. But lately the political power couple has been united in advocating for New Orleans. At this forum, they urged locals to celebrate the city’s cultural richness while also getting serious about problems that have long held the region back.

“Entrepreneurialism is intrinsic here. Creative people – risk-takers – are drawn here, but we make it impossible to start a business,” said Matalin. “Every candidate has to have a plan to improve the delivery system for new businesses.”

Carville and Matalin both stressed local voters’ responsibility for ensuring New Orleans has strong, competent leadership in place to capitalize on big opportunities heading the region’s way in the next few years, including the national exposure of the 2013 Super Bowl and billions of dollars in engineering work promised to rebuild Louisiana’s coast. Carville particularly warned voters to beware of racial pandering in the upcoming elections.

“We’ve had that, we don’t want it and you’d be surprised now much input you can have on this process,” said Carville.

Earlier this year, Carville helped conduct an extensive study of the city’s political landscape. Sponsored by Tulane University and his own research group Democracy Corps, the survey revealed that while some racial divisions exist among voters, New Orleanians overwhelmingly share the same concerns about crime, education, corruption in city government and job growth.

“The racial divide in New Orleans is widely over-hyped. In fact, there’s more cross-racial voting in New Orleans than in most American cities,” said Carville. “Among people who live here, the priorities are strikingly similar.”

EngageNOLA and 504ward plan future networking events and candidate forums as the election season revs up.

– Ian McNulty