Dennis Persica column for Jan. 24, 2013

BY DENNIS PERSICA

Special to The Advocate

Dennis Persica
Dennis Persica

A few hours before he was indicted by a federal grand jury on Friday, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin retransmitted a comment sent out earlier by a fellow Texan, televangelist Joel Osteen, on the Twitter social media service. “You are closest to your victory when you face the greatest opposition,” the message said.

If Nagin really felt that way, then he must have been running a victory lap around his living room once the indictment came in, the “opposition” having ratcheted up a few notches, moving his “victory” ever closer. The 21-count indictment accuses the former mayor of using his public office “to provide favorable treatment that benefited the business and financial interests of individuals providing him with bribery/kickback payoffs.”

What a fall.

Back in 2002, Nagin seemed like the perfect choice for the let’s-run-government-like-a-business crowd. He had been an executive with Cox, the cable company, and was part owner of the New Orleans Brass hockey team. He was a Republican who had turned Democrat.

The first time he ran for mayor, Nagin garnered a rare front-page endorsement from The Times-Picayune. The last time the paper had done that was when it touted Buddy Roemer for governor and helped move Roemer’s political stock up in the political markets. It did the same for Nagin, who vaulted to the top of a 15-candidate field in the mayoral primary. He won the runoff a month later, defeating Mayor Marc Morial’s police superintendent, Richard Pennington.

Roemer didn’t win a second term, but Nagin did, even though voters already were starting to sour on him by the time of that election, a half-year after Katrina struck.

Those who say government should be run like a business seem to ignore the fact that sometimes businesses fail, or that their chief executives need to be fired. Or both. Businesses also have to produce a product to sell and try to make a profit doing so. Governments, on the other hand, aren’t supposed to make a profit, but there are many ways for the people who run government to profit — and all of them are illegal.

Nagin himself seemed to have sensed the opportunity that lay ahead of him as he made the switch from private enterprise to the government sector.

“Politics in New Orleans is the dominant industry,” he once told an Australian radio interviewer. “So I decided to get in.”

For a man who had touted his business experience, Nagin was a stunning failure as the city’s chief executive. After a lull in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, crime spiked again on his watch, so badly in fact that citizens begged the Louisiana National Guard to continue its occupation of the city. The promise of a high-technology future for the city was never met, and nobody can convincingly say what Nagin’s recovery czar, Ed Blakely, did to earn his salary here.

Meanwhile, corruption ran wild at City Hall, as evidenced by the various guilty pleas in federal court related to the city’s business. According to the feds, the corruption reached all the way to Nagin’s office.

Nagin lives in Frisco, Texas, now, just north of Dallas. He’s written a book about his time as mayor, and he has taken an interest in Twitter.

But now it looks like the ex-mayor will be making a few return trips to his hometown, visiting the federal courthouse on Poydras Street just a few blocks from City Hall, the scene of his greatest failures.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.