Stephanie Grace: Prospects for a “Nagin coalition”

It’s hard to find anyone in New Orleans politics these days with a kind word to say about former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s tenure. Opinions are likely to harden more later in the month, when Nagin’s federal bribery trial will force the city to revisit that singularly depressing chapter in civic life.

But give Nagin this much. He may have been a flop, and perhaps a crook, at City Hall. But on the campaign trail, he was something of a savant. His unlikely 2006 re-election, against then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, amounted to an impressive political high-wire act.

Up against a well-funded, establishment-backed opponent who happened to be a member of the state’s leading Democratic family, the son of the first mayor to integrate city government and a talented politician in his own right, Nagin pieced together the unlikeliest of coalitions.

He appealed to black residents, particularly those displaced by Katrina, who feared a post-storm power and property grab. He also appealed to white Republicans who don’t like Landrieu and his family and didn’t want to cede his senator sister Mary a power base in Louisiana’s most Democratic city.

Although the two groups had practically nothing in common other than an adversary, Nagin managed to craft a message that appealed to both and alienated neither.

His embrace of the free market sent a message to displaced residents that he wouldn’t declare some areas off-limits for redevelopment and to philosophical conservatives that he wouldn’t govern with a heavy hand (as lagniappe, it also allowed him to sidestep some difficult policy choices).

His slogan, a call for voters to re-elect “our mayor,” resonated with those who believed in protecting the hard-won franchise, yet was ambiguous enough to allow to him fend off charges that he was playing the race card. He ceded the center but shrunk it enough to squeeze Landrieu out.

So why bring all this up eight years later?

Because now it’s Landrieu’s turn to stand for re-election. And because his chief challenger’s best hope is to reassemble that old Nagin coalition.

Former Judge Michael Bagneris, who retired from the bench to mount a last-minute challenge to the mayor, would never say so. He certainly doesn’t want any association with Nagin, and more importantly, he can’t afford to let the presence of one group deter the other.

But just about every political analyst believes he needs to peel voters from both ends of the spectrum, from those who don’t think Landrieu is doing enough to bring jobs, reduce crime and rebuild infrastructure, and from those who want to damage the Landrieu brand, particularly as Mary Landrieu gets ready to face yet another tough challenge and Mitch ponders his future beyond City Hall — even if it means, paradoxically, tapping into unspoken resentment over Moon Landrieu’s decades-old integration effort on behalf of a black candidate.

Bagneris’ rhetoric has centered on crime and economics, on the theory that some voters feel left out of the rosy recovery picture he accuses Landrieu of painting. Faced with Landrieu’s successful drive to eliminate 10,000 blighted properties in his first term — an impressive figure by any objective measure — Bagneris challenged the numbers without offering evidence, offered an alternative plan and downplayed the overall impact of the effort.

“From my perspective, all I know is I drive around the city and it is still riddled with blight eyesores,” he said, in a clear effort to connect with those who still see the glass half-empty.

Bagneris hasn’t sent many overt signals to conservatives, but he hasn’t really needed to. Mary Landrieu’s already active campaign and the mayor’s own endorsement from President Barack Obama, along with Bagneris’ very presence in the race, say it all.

The big question is whether it’s enough to once again topple Landrieu.

Eight years ago, it took an ingenious strategy, perfect execution and a unique set of circumstances to pull the strange Nagin coalition together.

But four years later, in what came off as a collective act of voters’ remorse, Landrieu not only won in a landslide but performed equally well among white and black voters.

Bagneris’ best hope hinges on the theory that, once again, New Orleans voters are ready for a wholesale reversal.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.