Louisiana Spotlight: The bizarre career of Ray Nagin

By KEVIN McGILL

Associated Press

Kevin McGill, Associated Press staff, in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Kevin McGill, Associated Press staff, in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

It was July 2002 and Ray Nagin, the newly elected mayor of New Orleans, was discussing his administration’s crackdown on corruption in the city’s automobile inspection and taxi permit programs.

“This is a battle,” Nagin said. “This is a battle for the soul of New Orleans, as far as I’m concerned.”

Exactly when he switched sides is unclear.

What is clear as a result of his corruption conviction last week is that the guy who came in promising to clean up corruption was only halfway through his first term when his administration gave a no-bid contract to a technology vendor who later paid for his trips to Hawaii and Jamaica. Also clear: The guy who won re-election by portraying himself as a champion of the city’s displaced and downtrodden after Hurricane Katrina seems to have increased his desire for graft during the recovery.

New Orleans’ image as a city where who you know was more important than what you know changed not a bit under “reformer” Ray Nagin. Ask the executives of Home Depot who, according to testimony and emails, were nervous about the possibility of dealing with him — or not dealing with him — as they worked to open a store in a blighted neighborhood. “These people are shake-down artists,” one of them wrote.

Jurors who watched Nagin on the witness stand saw an hours long edited down version of what residents of New Orleans saw over eight years. Nagin went from being the smiling, charming embodiment of confidence and competence to a defensive, dodgy politician, flippantly dismissive of critics and short on plausible explanations.

The longer version had more twists: Nagin enters as a genial, up-and-coming businessman, elected on a promise to clean up city government. But, after catastrophe strikes the city, he becomes a buffoon, ill-prepared and profanely calling out the federal government for its failures. He puts his foot in his mouth regularly, saying, “New Orleans will be chocolate again” and that a burgeoning violent crime problem “keeps the New Orleans brand out there.”

Half-baked recovery ideas like opening more casinos on Canal Street or bottling and selling the city’s drinking water go nowhere.

Having won his first election by courting business-minded reformers and carrying the white vote, he wins re-election in 2006 by playing on the fears of black voters who worry, with some justification, that they are being left out of a sluggish recovery and muscled out of city politics. But he exits City Hall in 2010 under a cloud of suspicion and amid bipartisan and biracial discontent. He was term limited but that hardly mattered with his approval ratings tanking.

That Nagin was ill-suited to deal with catastrophe was no surprise, said Ed Chervenak, political science professor at the University of New Orleans.

“He didn’t really like being mayor. He didn’t like to work,” recalled Chervenak. “He enjoyed the ceremonial part of being mayor.”

And the perks. Like a city credit card with which he purchased expensive meals for his family after having laid off thousands of city employees.

Ironies and hypocrisies mounted fast in Nagin-land: the reform mayor eating on the city tab after putting workers on the street. The anti-corruption warrior making national retailers apprehensive about shakedowns. The business-friendly mayor who made sure city contractors were friendly to his family business.

But, of all the nasty ironies in the short, bizarre political career of Ray Nagin, the biggest may be that the man who entered city government as a fresh face made the city tired of fresh faces. Of all the candidates who ran to succeed him in 2010, none was more steeped in politics than Mitch Landrieu.

Landrieu won in a landslide that year. And he won in another one four years later — as Ray Nagin prepared to face the vote of a jury.

Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter based in New Orleans.