Stephanie Grace: As trial starts, Nagin’s promise a distant memory

Not long before New Orleans’ 2002 mayoral primary, the phone rang at my desk at the Times-Picayune, where I was working as a City Hall reporter.

On the other end of the line was a woman who didn’t identify herself but reminded me of many I’d met — older, with a clear, wordly voice and impeccable diction. She and her friends were discussing the election at lunch, she explained, and were looking to clear up a disagreement over whether Ray Nagin had studied at Tuskegee or Tulane. Both answers were correct, I told her. Nagin attended Tuskegee as an undergraduate, then earned an MBA at Tulane.

“Such an impressive young man,” she responded, with obvious delight.

Days later, on the afternoon after Nagin’s first-place primary finish, I saw a friend, a 30-ish professional who’d grown up in New Orleans East. Her half-joking assessment of the new frontrunner: “Ray Nagin. What a hottie!”

These spontaneous reactions didn’t come from the business interests or editorialists who helped propel the little-known cable TV executive’s improbable victory a dozen years ago, obviously. These were regular voters who were genuinely excited about what they hoped was about to happen, whose instinctive responses suggested the promise of Nagin’s candidacy had tapped into something both broad, deep and emotional. That same something had jolted bored listeners at a dull candidate forum to attention, when, after listening to his opponents drone on and on, Nagin blurted out that the city should just “sell that sucker” — the “sucker” being Louis Armstrong International Airport — and use the proceeds to modernize New Orleans’ aging infrastructure. The idea turned out to be dead on arrival, but on that day, in that context, nobody was thinking about what couldn’t happen. With just a few words, Nagin had gotten them thinking about what could.

Nagin’s improbable candidacy was just that: A what if? What if things could be different, if New Orleans could throw off its old politics and try something new? What if a charming, creative leader who seemed, at the time, to have a professional, modern, technology-driven outlook could take city government in a different direction? Changing the way the city did business was a big part of that.

It’s easy to forget this far down the road that New Orleans in early 2002 was a weary place. Marc Morial, who was finishing up his second term as mayor, was still popular and had accomplished much in the fight against crime. But there was a distinct air of old-style politics around him, and despite his ability to raise a seven-figure sum from insiders for a 2001 referendum campaign to bypass term limits and seek re-election, voters responded with a resounding, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Months later, Nagin entered what could only be described as a lackluster field. City Councilman Jim Singleton was able but uninspiring, a leading figure in one of the city’s storied political organizations that Nagin would blithely lump together under the “alphabet soup” label. Singleton’s council colleague, Troy Carter, came across as a less commanding knock-off of the outgoing mayor, kind of a Morial-Lite. Richard Pennington, the beloved police chief who’d worked at Morial’s side, struggled to master issues beyond crime and surrounded himself with too much of the old guard, including U.S. Rep. William Jefferson. State Sen. Paulette Irons held promise as the first potential female mayor and an avowed reformer — it was she who first infuriated Morial by vowing to take the for-sale sign off City Hall — but she had her own cronies and got tripped up when it came out that her brother’s violent death, which she’d featured prominently in her campaign, actually happened while he was committing an armed robbery. Irons’ collapse created an opening, and Nagin confidently strode in by picking up the contracting reform mantle.

Early in his tenure, he even seemed to mean what he said. Nagin’s aides — including, ironically, now-convicted tech director Greg Meffert — helped the feds decode several Morial-era deals that led to convictions of his allies. And when Nagin backed off his pledge to put contracting decisions in the hands of outside panels, he and his staff made the disappointing but defensible argument that the mayor should control contracts because the buck stopped with him.

Well, he was right about that last part. Nagin alone is in federal court this week, facing charges that he oversaw a sweeping scheme to collect kickbacks from those with business before the city and the distinct impression that he had become what he once purported to loathe.

As Nagin walked into the courthouse Monday for the start of jury selection, New Orleanians once again saw that familiar smile, heard a bit of the charming laugh. That hope, that optimism, that excitement it once triggered? A long, nearly forgotten, memory.

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