Stephanie Grace: Katrina raised stakes on Nagin legacy

Advocate file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Former Mayor Ray Nagin enters the U.S. Courthouse in New Orleans during a previous court appearance. Show caption
Advocate file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Former Mayor Ray Nagin enters the U.S. Courthouse in New Orleans during a previous court appearance.

In some ways, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s fall from grace is a typical tale.

Politicians succumb to easy, ever-present temptation all the time and all over the place, just as Nagin is accused of doing in the 21-count federal indictment that sets the stage for this week’s trial.

The proximity to great wealth while living on a government salary, the access to levers of power that can steer tremendous riches to others, and a deep sense of entitlement, even jealousy — it’s all turned out to be just too much for more politicians than I could possibly list.

This month’s poster children for official greed, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, trafficked in Oscar de la Renta gowns and Rolex watches, while with Nagin, the currency allegedly included luxury vacations and truckloads of granite (in both cases there was also cold, hard cash). Instead of trading access to the governor for the manufacturer of a dietary supplement and aggressive help promoting his product, as the McDonnells are accused of doing, the former mayor is charged in a series of schemes to grant contracts and other favors, including an executive order that allowed a contractor to bypass city bidding rules and help in killing a requirement that a new Home Depot in struggling Central City employ local workers at good wages. In exchange, the indictment alleges, the company hired the Nagin family business to install countertops for its customers.

The details may differ, but the storyline remains largely the same. Yet while it’s always horribly disappointing to learn that an elected official violated the public trust, Nagin’s alleged transgressions particularly sting.

That may stem in part from the promise of, and enthusiasm surrounding, his initial, surprising rise. The Nagin who materialized from nowhere in 2002 to blow the political establishment away came off as a genuine breath of fresh air, in no small part because he vowed to end sweetheart insider deals, clean up the contracting process and run city government in an above-board, businesslike manner. The details of the indictment paint the picture of a man who became exactly what he once abhorred — or claimed to, anyway. But I’d argue that the deep disappointment has more to do with the seminal event of Nagin’s tenure and the city’s recent history, Hurricane Katrina.

The initial bloom had already faded by the time the monster storm struck and the levees imploded, but until then, the stakes weren’t unusually high. If Nagin failed to follow through on his grand plans, if he backed off his formerly unambiguous commitment to contracting reform, well, people were disappointed but life went on.

After Katrina, of course, everything changed and the city’s very existence was suddenly thrown into doubt. Drifting along was no longer an option. The mayor needed to make tough decisions, to get his act together, to lead.

Nagin, like just about every other public official, struggled to rise to the cataclysmic occasion, but that didn’t stop him from seeking a second term less than a year later. It was during and after this second campaign, I’d argue, where he really broke faith with his constituents.

Much has been written about why New Orleans voters gave Nagin a second term, from his naked racial appeal to opponent Mitch Landrieu’s reluctance to go for the jugular. I always sensed something else was at work: some combination of sympathy, a lingering remnant of that initial affection for him, and a nagging belief that nobody could have done better under impossible circumstances. Nagin seemed to be asking New Orleanians for absolution and a chance to make things right. They gave it to him.

Yet Nagin didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. He couldn’t settle on a rebuilding plan or make other hard calls. He seemed to lose interest, to the point where he even toyed with the idea of running for governor as the recovery stalled and people struggled to get back on their feet.

The acts outlined in the indictment just add insult to injury. It portrays him as a man who spent much of that second term, and expended whatever energy he had left, in pursuit of his own gain rather than his constituents’ considerable needs. The buyers’ remorse that propelled Landrieu to an overwhelming victory once Nagin left office in 2010 was entirely understandable, and predictable.

So yes, the sort of self-dealing that landed Nagin in the feds’ crosshairs happens all the time, and it always matters. This time, it just mattered more.

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