In The News › Ray Nagin: Renegade must now run on his own record

Apr 8, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Ray Nagin: Renegade must now run on his own record

Ray Nagin: Renegade must now run on his record
Saturday, April 08, 2006
By Gordon Russell
Staff writer

Four months ago, as squabbling led by the City Council about the placement of group sites for
FEMA trailers simmered to a boil, Mayor Ray Nagin took charge. The message was clear: I’m the
mayor, I’ll decide where the trailers go and I won’t let a slew of pandering politicians delay things
any longer.

The moment was vintage Nagin: blunt, businesslike and disdainful of political gamesmanship. To
some, the episode was a welcome reminder of why the former cable TV executive glided to a
decisive victory after an upstart candidacy four years ago.

But during the next few weeks, the Churchillian moment devolved into a scene from “Hamlet.”
Nagin agreed to consult with council members before approving new sites, then vetoed a council
ordinance that required him to seek their input. Frustrated with what he saw as the council’s
intransigence, Nagin released a list of trailer park sites, but then backtracked in the face of
predictable neighborhood opposition.

The bickering got so intense that Gov. Kathleen Blanco interceded, but even then, the mixed
messages continued, the latest installment being Nagin’s call this week for a halt to all
construction of group trailer sites. FEMA had ignored his request to take an Algiers site off the list
that he had earlier approved, Nagin charged — coming full circle to an alliance with the council he
had opposed for many weeks on this very issue.

In many ways, the trailer park dustup encapsulates the qualities that have come to define Nagin’s
tenure.

During his four years in office, Nagin generally has won high marks for doing some of the things
he promised as a candidate: running a mostly scandal-free administration, introducing more
advanced technology to City Hall, trying to make the city friendlier to business.

His desire to shake up the city’s byzantine political fiefdoms also has won him many fans. But in
many cases, the straight talk has not been matched by an ability to move the ball across the goal
line.

It’s that failure that has led many of his erstwhile backers, including onetime members of his inner
circle and former staffers, to support other candidates in the April 22 primary. But if some of
Nagin’s 2002 constituency, which included nearly every white voter in the city, has moved on,
polls suggest he has gained support among the city’s black voters, fewer than half of whom
supported his first bid for mayor.

Streamlining City Hall

Though Nagin is in a fight to save his job, he hasn’t lost all the political capital that swept him into
City Hall.

He’s likable and appears to bear few grudges. And his reputation for integrity and ethics has
mostly survived the tumult of Hurricane Katrina.

Sherry Landry, who served as Nagin’s city attorney for more than two years before leaving for
private practice in November, noted that mayors can “steer” lawyers into making the decisions
they want.

“Often, there’s one direction that is better supported by the law, but you might stretch to fit another
direction,” Landry said. “Whenever we would have one of those situations, he would always say,
‘What’s the right thing to do? Sherry, do that.’ “

While much of New Orleans’ business community — which once embraced Nagin as a savior —
has abandoned him, some business leaders say Nagin deserves credit for changing some of City
Hall’s antiquated practices.

Nagin was the first mayor to hire a chief technology officer, Greg Meffert, and while Meffert’s
roughshod ways haven’t always been popular, the city’s Web site has been overhauled and now
lets citizens go online to pay parking tickets and property taxes and apply for building permits.
Meffert also took the unprecedented step of posting the tax rolls on the Internet, a move that has
fostered spirited public debate about the inequity of the city’s assessment practices.

John Kallenborn, the New Orleans president of Chase Bank and a member of the Dock Board,
who said he cannot endorse any candidate for mayor, said he is “amazed at how much more
efficiently city government works now.”

For one, Nagin reworked the city’s system of depositing tax revenue, putting the money in a
“lockbox” account within 24 hours, that has earned the city up to $400,000 per year in extra
interest, helping maintain a positive cash flow. Kallenborn’s bank is one of two involved in the
deal.

Kallenborn also noted that other streamlining steps Nagin has taken — in particular, suspending
civil service rules to lay off nearly half the city staff last fall — were politically difficult, but fiscally
responsible.

Learning curve

As is often the case with private-sector candidates who promise to “run government like a
business,” Nagin has found that doing so is easier said than done. For one thing, it requires
exacting diplomatic skills many executives don’t possess.

Such skills can be learned, however, and many Nagin detractors, while giving him a pass for early
missteps, complain that at the close of his first term, the mayor still has difficulty working with
others.

Nagin has never been able to persuade a majority of the seven-member City Council to support
him on a regular basis, and even those often on his side — Oliver Thomas, Jacquelyn Brechtel
Clarkson, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Jay Batt — have complained that he’s a poor communicator.

“I came into this job highly supportive of the mayor and wanted to remain supportive,” said
Clarkson, who is seeking to trade her District C seat for an at-large berth on the council and has
not endorsed a mayoral candidate. “But some members of his administration have been very hard
to work with. When we get to work with him directly, it works out well.”

Nagin’s relationship with Blanco, who will control much of the flow of federal money into New
Orleans, also has been strained, going back to Nagin’s endorsement of Republican Bobby Jindal
over Blanco, a fellow Democrat, in the 2003 gubernatorial election.

And his administration has had trouble with the Legislature as well.

“I think his intentions were good, but he didn’t pull it all together,” said former state Sen. Lambert
Boissiere Jr., a Nagin floor leader in Baton Rouge who is now a city constable. “It’s hard to be a
mayor when you come from the private sector. In the private sector, you’re the boss. Legislators
are all independent contractors. You’ve got to get in there and work with them.”

Boissiere, who has not endorsed anyone in the mayor’s race, said relations have gradually
improved, but legislators continue to complain that the administration lacks both strong leadership
and a game plan in Baton Rouge.

“I liked his progressive agenda, his focus on infrastructure as an economic development tool,”
said state Rep. Karen Carter, an early Nagin supporter who’s now backing Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu
for mayor. “It was also just refreshing to have someone from outside government offer some
creative ideas.”

But most of Nagin’s big ideas — ranging from the sale of Louis Armstrong International Airport, to
the remaking of the Union Passenger Terminal into a transportation hub, to the development of
the Mississippi River waterfront, to the creation of a new civic complex — have languished, and
that comes as a disappointment to Carter. She noted, however, that, after two years of haggling,
the Nagin administration recently inked a deal with the Dock Board that could clear the way for
riverfront development.

“Over the last four years, I’ve looked for evidence of all of the stuff that was touted on the front
end, to no avail,” Carter said. “He’s trying to run government in an apolitical way. But you can’t
take the politics out of policy.”

Big ideas

Some of Nagin’s boldest ideas may have died under the weight of their own ambition. In other
cases, Nagin has been stymied by his inability to outmaneuver members of the city’s political class
who have worked behind the scenes to undermine him.

But in some cases, he appears to have put little effort into his own initiatives. The airport-sale
idea, which some saw as visionary, was quietly dropped after a cursory study. Nagin nearly
released a plan for a new civic complex, then held off after aides said the idea needed reworking.
It never resurfaced.

A month after Katrina hit, Nagin announced a plan for the hasty revival of the city’s downtown
district: casinos in every major hotel. But in part because Nagin had not laid the political
groundwork for what would have been a radical reshaping of the city’s business and tourism
environment, the idea never got off the ground.

Even with the full force of the mayor’s office behind them, some of those grand visions were
unlikely to be realized. But some observers, including former aides and supporters, are more
disillusioned with Nagin’s failure to pick the low-hanging fruit.

For instance, his administration was only weeks old when it presided over a much-publicized raid
of the city’s Taxicab Bureau and the arrest of a handful of city employees and dozens of
cabdrivers accused of gaming the permit system. Few of the arrests resulted in convictions,
though, and promises of landing bigger fish fell flat.

More tellingly, Nagin allowed the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel on taxicab reform that
he convened after the raids to gather dust.

In a similar vein, Nagin has done little to systematically reform the city’s contracting practices, a
central plank of his 2002 platform. He was the only leading candidate that year to sign a pledge
promulgated by the Bureau of Governmental Research that would have turned over the awarding
of professional services contracts to panels comprised of university presidents and fellow
professionals.

But he then disavowed that pledge, saying he had come up with his own reform proposal within
his first few months in office. That deadline came and went, and finally, just before Katrina hit,
Nagin announced a new process for ranking bids that would involve a panel of city administrators
and one private citizen. The final selection would be left to the mayor.

While Nagin touted the new plan as the fulfillment of his pledge, a clearly disappointed Janet
Howard, president of the Bureau for Governmental Research, said the change had “no
resemblance” to the original plan.

Though Nagin has done little to institutionalize reform, most observers agree that the nexus
between campaign contributions and sweetheart contracts that was the hallmark of previous
administrations has been far less of a problem under Nagin’s watch.

Yet, Nagin has had his share of minor embarrassments, ranging from the purchase of bombproof
trash cans from a company affiliated with the brother of then-top aide Charles Rice to the city’s
recent selection of a company to remove abandoned cars that would charge the city more than
twice as much as other bidders.

Delegating authority

To a degree, the contracting missteps haven’t tarnished Nagin because they appear in most cases
to have emanated from his staff.

That’s not surprising, given Nagin’s management style. Whereas predecessors such as former
Mayor Marc Morial were famously hands-on, Nagin ceded much of his power to his aides.
Delegating has had mixed results. Where Nagin has made good hires and appointments, the
results have been impressive. For instance, Regional Transit Authority insiders give high marks to
Jimmy Reiss, the business turnaround specialist Nagin named to overhaul the agency. Reiss
recently donated $5,000 to one of Nagin’s challengers, Audubon Nature Institute CEO Ron
Forman.

But many Nagin hires have come under fire — none more heavily than Kimberly Williamson Butler,
the chief administrative officer he forced out after a year. Nagin’s criticism of Butler’s performance
was corroborated in the public mind when she botched an election the next year as the clerk of
criminal court. More recently, she spent three days in jail after disobeying orders from a panel of
judges, then filed papers to run for mayor.

If Butler’s departure from the Nagin administration attracted the most publicity, a spate of other
aides have followed her out the door. Among the high-profile departures: Garey Forster, Nagin’s
first director of intergovernmental relations; Landry, the city attorney; Rice, the first city attorney
and the second CAO; Beth James, the economic development director; John Shires, the public
works director; Police Superintendent Eddie Compass; and Patrick Evans, the first
communications director, among others.

Nagin says the steady stream of departures owes largely to his habit of choosing aides from the
corporate world, where short stints are commonplace. He said he’s not concerned with the
turnover, and said his current staff is as good as any he’s had — although he promises that he will
re-evaluate employees in key positions if he wins a second term.

Storm performance

Before Katrina leveled New Orleans, Nagin had a virtual lock on re-election. Now, he faces 22
challengers, some of them well-financed.

In the early days after the storm, it appeared the election might revolve around Nagin’s Katrina
performance. While Nagin rightly touted the city’s evacuation as the most successful in history, he
was criticized in Congress and at home for not making it mandatory earlier and for not having a
better strategy for dealing with people without cars.

But as the initial horror of the storm has receded, many observers seem inclined to give Nagin at
least a passing grade for doing his best in an impossible crisis.

Among them is Paul Morton, bishop of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, the city’s
largest congregation, and one of Nagin’s most vociferous critics during his first three years in
office. Early on, Morton excoriated Nagin for signing the BGR pledge, which he called a “slave
contract” that would exclude black people from city work, and later called Nagin a “white man in
black skin.”

These days, Morton bristles at the national media’s unfavorable comparison of Nagin’s post-
Katrina performance with then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s actions in the wake of the
Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I think they’re being unfair,” Morton said. “You can’t compare him with Rudy Giuliani, who had
three blocks (ruined). Nagin had 80 percent of the city under water.”

As the scenes of privation at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the Superdome fade
from memory, the campaign has come to center more on who can provide the best vision for
getting the city back on its feet and who has the leadership skills to make it happen.

Nagin points with pride to his quarterbacking of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, the 17-
member blue-ribbon group he convened in the wake of the storm to come up with a new blueprint
for the city. The story of the BNOB panel, much like the trailer wars, highlights some of Nagin’s
best and worst qualities.

Rather than stacking the deck with yes-men, Nagin chose a scrupulously biracial group without
much attention to their political loyalties — in fact, several of the group’s members are backing
other candidates in the primary.

The BNOB Commission produced what many consider a solid body of work, addressing
everything from land use to the city’s failed school system. And it did not shy away from
controversy, openly discussing the possibility of prohibiting development in certain areas.
In the end, the body recommended a more measured approach, asking Nagin to call for a
moratorium on building permits in flooded areas while the viability of those neighborhoods was
determined through an inclusive planning process.

But in typical fashion, Nagin deep-sixed the moratorium — easily the most controversial
recommendation of the panel, and likely its most substantive as well — allowing rebuilding to
proceed everywhere. The planning process, meanwhile, has yet to get off the ground. Nagin
defends the decision, saying denying building permits would have halted progress.

Critics have expressed concern the approach will lead to a haphazard recovery with widespread
blight in some areas, a fear heightened by last week’s announcement that the levees in parts of
town — the Lower 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans, in particular — cannot be guaranteed as
safe unless Congress authorizes hundreds of millions of dollars in additional money.

Race issues

Talk of reducing the city’s footprint inevitably took on a racial cast, because many of the city’s
hardest-hit areas had predominantly black populations.

By dumping the building-permit moratorium, Nagin managed to quell fears among some African-
American leaders that a move was afoot to reshape the city’s demographics by keeping some of
its poorest residents from returning. He struck a similar chord with his awkward Martin Luther King
Jr. Day speech, in which he promised that New Orleans would again be a “chocolate” city.

Both that speech and Nagin’s reluctance to play the heavy in rebuilding decisions have led some
of his fellow candidates, in particular lawyer Rob Couhig, to complain that he is pandering: reaping
short-term political gains at the expense of the city’s long-term best interests.

The hits Nagin has taken in some quarters seem only to have bolstered his support in the African-
American community.

Morton, once Nagin’s loudest critic, has sounded more and more like a fan, musing openly that
many black voters are likely to choose Nagin out of racial solidarity even if they’re not enamored of
him. But for every recent convert, Nagin seems to have lost a onetime fan.

Nagin seems vaguely amused by the shifting tides, which he attributes more to the city’s
unhealthy obsession with race than to his own behavior.

“In this town, if I’m doing something that’s perceived to be pro-white, somebody has a problem
with it,” he said. “If I’m doing something that’s perceived to be pro-black or pro-Hispanic or pro-
Asian, someone’s else is going to have a problem with it.

“I’m not any different than I was (four years ago). I’m the same Ray Nagin. I’m just trying to do
what’s right.”
. . . . . . .
Gordon Russell can be reached at grussell@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3347.

Apr 8, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

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