The Trouble with Ray Nagin

New Orleans’ youthful, outspoken mayor grabbed the national spotlight after Hurricane Katrina and government incompetence conspired to destroy his city. Three years and another hurricane later he’s facing a different flood—of crime, corruption, and scandal—and this time there’s no FEMA to blame.

To get to C. Ray Nagin’s office in the boxy modernist City Hall building in downtown New Orleans, one must pass through metal detectors in the lobby, take an elevator to the second floor, walk through a wood-paneled hallway adorned with framed photographs of mayors past, and engage a pair of secretaries who guard the door to a small, sparsely decorated reception area beyond which lie the mayor’s sprawling chambers.

It’s a journey that would have been unremarkable during Nagin’s first term, but now—more than two years into a second term characterized by intense animosity between the mayor on one side and the press and citizens of New Orleans on the other—it feels like a trip to the inside of a cocoon. Nagin’s approval rating hovers in the 30 percent range. His reluctance to appear in public has earned him the nickname “Naygone.“ Earlier this year, he all but stopped granting interviews to the local media, a dramatic departure for the former limelight seeker who famously implored the federal government to “get their asses moving to New Orleans.“

Nagin’s office décor mirrors the city’s culture, a mix of Spanish, French, and African influences: On one wall, there is a bright painting; behind his desk hangs an African quilt featuring jazzy embroidery of musical instruments; leaning against a wall is a photo of Nagin greeting Bush during the Katrina crisis.

The calm in the mayor’s office today—September 11—is deepened by a rare run of political good fortune. On Saturday, August 30, as Hurricane Gustav bore down on his citizens, Nagin had hosted a press conference. “You need to be scared,“ he warned, “and you need to get your butts out of New Orleans right now.“ The Category 4 hurricane, he continued, was going to be “the mother of all storms.“ Because the threat to the city coincided with Katrina’s third anniversary and the eve of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, Nagin was addressing not just his constituents but the nation.

When Gustav made landfall the next morning, however, it was only a Category 2 storm, and it dropped to a Category 1 hours later. New Orleans received just a glancing blow, and Nagin successfully evacuated the city (only about 10,000 residents remained). But many evacuees fumed at the mayor for engaging in pre-storm hyperbole and then instituting a confusing re-entry process; a New Orleans Times-Picayune editorial was headlined NEXT TIME, WE WON’T LEAVE. “I’d do it all over again,“ Nagin says defiantly. “I called for a mandatory evacuation on Sunday at 8 A.M. By Thursday morning at 1 A.M. it was lifted. We emptied an entire city and repopulated it in about four days.“

His spirits are elevated further by the opportunity to respond to Hurricane Ike, churning toward Galveston, Texas, safely far to the west. Rising behind his desk, Nagin declares, “We got evacuees coming to New Orleans!“ He basks in the unlikely moment. “Maaaan, can you believe that? Evacuees coming to New Orleans.“

The mayor’s appearance is striking—tall and broad-shouldered with caramel-hued skin, he has a sparkling, clean-shaven head. He peppers his speech with street talk and preacherly pronouncements that would sound at home at St. Peter Claver, the Catholic church that runs the elementary school he attended, the place where he and his wife, Seletha, go to services many Sundays. He starts and finishes sentences with a slow, syrupy “maaaan“ (e.g., “Maaaan, listen“ or “It is what it is, maaaan“), and he shouts “Lord have mercy!“ when asked about his critics. Nagin admits that he operates in two distinct moods: “cool“ and “excited.“ Today is a cool day.

Born on June 11, 1956, in the city’s Seventh Ward, to a father who swept the floors at City Hall and a homemaker mother, Nagin veers politically between aw-shucks folksiness and a simmering rage that boils over whenever he’s challenged by someone who doesn’t share his worldview. It’s not unusual, of course, for a big-city mayor to body-slam enemies. San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom threatened to blacklist news organizations that were unfriendly to his administration. And Rudy Giuliani made a career out of taking a big stick to his critics. To Nagin, however, his foes are more than misguided—they are impeding the recovery of his hometown.

Since the floodwaters receded, the city has been largely repopulated. But according to a recent report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, it leads the nation in blight (abandoned and ruined buildings), and it has reigned as the murder capital of the United States since 2006. Nevertheless, Nagin is an unabashed booster for his administration’s handling of the recovery. “The negative people,“ he says, “I try not to deal with unless I have to.“

The mayor’s unwillingness to tolerate criticism hardened into a state of willful denial this summer, thanks to a scandal involving a program run by the New Orleans Homeownership Corp. News reports revealing that contractors had charged the city for work they did not do prompted the convening of a grand jury. Nagin doesn’t seem worried about the federal investigation, even though one of the program’s highest-paid contractors—S&A Construction—is run by his brother-in-law, Cedric Smith. He vows that Smith will face justice if he is culpable. “Everybody’s looking at it,“ Nagin says with a smile, “which is great. Because now I’ve got professional investigators versus bloggers.“

Despite the iconic post-Katrina images of New Orleans citizens waving for help from their rooftops, a voluntary-evacuation order by Nagin had cleared most of the city. The mayor has been criticized for waiting too long to issue a mandatory-evacuation order—but that came early on Sunday morning, August 28, 2005, only hours after he had received an urgent call from National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield. “No one in the history of this city had ever declared a mandatory evacuation,“ he says. “We got all but about 40 to 50,000 people out. Could we have done what we did with Gustav? I don’t know. We didn’t have enough time. There was an eight-to-ten-hour window in which we could have ordered it earlier. Would it have made a difference? I don’t know.“

Though criticism of Nagin’s response to Katrina was overshadowed by the mistakes made at the federal level, racial tensions were growing in this majority-black city, fomented by ugly words from Louisiana politicians. “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans,“ Louisiana congressman Richard H. Baker told the Wall Street Journal. “We couldn’t do it, but God did.“ The rhetoric polarized New Orleans on the eve of an election that pitted Nagin against nearly two dozen challengers. The mayor remembers the bitterness vividly. “The powers that be thought this was an opportunity to change the dynamics of this city,“ he says. “It’s amazing how blatant some people were.“

Yet no one was quite as blatant as Nagin himself. On January 16, 2006, Martin Luther King Day, at City Hall, he proclaimed, “This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority-African-American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way.“

With the race for mayor just getting underway, the “chocolate city“ remark was political dynamite. Angry white people blasted him. “It was just a speech to make sure everyone knew that they were welcome back in the city,“ Nagin says. “And Lord have mercy! You’d have thought I had sold somebody’s firstborn.“

The man wasn’t always so polarizing. While running for mayor in 2001, he’d campaigned as a reformer willing to support candidates from both parties. “I’m a lifelong Democrat, but I have supported some Republicans,“ he says. “I’m all about results, man. If somebody can deliver, that’s where I’m gonna go. It’s about who can get the job done.“

Nagin came to politics from the business world—he studied accounting at Tuskegee University, earned an M.B.A. from Tulane University, and for much of the nineties was the general manager of Cox Communications, the third-largest cable-television provider in the United States. At Cox, Nagin was charged with rightsizing failed divisions.

So when he began his first term as mayor, in 2002, he approached the job as an opportunity to transform a city government plagued by dishonesty and cronyism. In his first months in office, he mounted a modest assault on corruption, including a sting that resulted in more than 80 arrests related to a bribery scandal at the Taxicab Bureau and vehicle-inspection stations (one of the people arrested was his cousin Brad Nagin). Nagin also voided city contracts that were inherited from the previous administration and that he deemed sweetheart deals.

Back then, his fight against crookedness brought him an 80 percent approval rating. This meant that during his re-election campaign he knew he could appeal to reform-minded voters. He assembled a coalition of African-American and conservative white citizens and, in April 2006, became mayor for the second time.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,“ Nagin says, “but we were blessed and we won.“

It is just after 8 A.M. on August 29, 2008, the third anniversary of Katrina, and Nagin is standing behind a lectern addressing a small crowd of reporters, City Council members, and New Orleans residents on the grounds of the Charity Hospital Cemetery. Nagin’s speech is part of a ceremony during which seven unidentified people who perished as a result of the storm are to be interred in a mausoleum. The mood is dark but also distracted, as Gustav is making its way toward the Gulf Coast. The mayor, who is dressed casually in a light-blue short-sleeved dress shirt and a dark-blue blazer, seems edgy and irritated. He appears to be focused more on his critics than on the Katrina remembrance. “So when people talk about their love for this great city,“ he says to the crowd, “and then you go to a blog, or you read something and it is divisive, it is hateful, it is mean-spirited, my question to you is how can you love New Orleans if you don’t love all of us?“

“To me, some of those blogs have become the new sheets for racist people,“ Nagin explains when asked why he worked an anti-blog rant into a Katrina memorial. “They’re not marching around with white sheets. They’re on the blogs and in the comments sections.“ But since his re-election, his own comments have sometimes seemed both strange and offensive. In the summer of 2007, Nagin declared that the city’s murder rate, which hit a 10-year high when 26 people were slain that August, “helps keep the New Orleans brand out there.“ He also told a group of Carnival Cruise executives not to worry about crime because “you all don’t look like young African-American males who are involved in drug activity.“ In February, when the mayor and NOPD superintendent Warren Riley posed for photographers at the Superdome with more than $1 million in new crime-fighting equipment, a Times-Picayune photo of the two showed them gleefully toting assault rifles. Nagin insists that when he invoked the murder rate as an element of the New Orleans “brand,“ he meant that the crime might remind the country of the city’s plight at a “time when people were talking about Katrina fatigue.“ He has a more sinister view on the photo taken at the Superdome. “The Times-Picayune takes a picture where I’m moving a gun from one place to the next,“ he explains, “and freezes it on a frame where I’m pointing it at Riley.“

Nagin claims that the media was so biased against him during his re-election campaign that before a televised debate his chair was lowered so he wouldn’t tower over his opponent. “I sit down,“ Nagin remembers, “and my opponent turns to me and says, ‘Man, this chair is kinda high.’ So I’m a little uncomfortable. Then I notice that my knees are up above my butt. Someone had cut the legs on the chair to make me and my opponent’s heads the same height. And this was a major news organization. They cut the chair. They cut the freakin’ chair.“

Nagin likes to portray himself as someone who takes on the white establishment, yet his policy decisions often favor the powerful. His administration spends lavishly on multi-million-dollar contracts for everything from the city’s 311 system to its garbage collection. Last December, it approved the demolition of 4,500 public-housing units. That move, which came in the midst of a housing shortage in New Orleans, was blasted by experts working for the U.N., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and even the New York Times’ architecture critic. Last year, a lawsuit was filed in federal court against the city on behalf of homeowners charging that officials had inflated the damage estimates of nearly 2,000 single-family homes so that they could be razed.

The writer Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, describes actions like those as “disaster capitalism“: profiteering and privatization in the wake of shocks such as 9/11 or Katrina. So when I spot Alan Greenspan’s memoir, The Age of Turbulence, on Nagin’s desk and ask him about it, I’m surprised to learn that he’s not reading it but The Shock Doctrine, which he pulls from his briefcase.

“I understand exactly the premise that they’re presenting,“ Nagin says, holding the book aloft, “that’s for sure. Look, man, after this disaster there is big money! The shock-and-awe piece of what they’re talking about is absolutely correct.“ I ask if he’s read the chapter in which Klein laments that the public sphere in New Orleans is “being erased, with the storm used as the excuse.“ Nagin replies cheerily, “I haven’t gotten that far! I just picked it up.“

This sealing himself off from all that is “negative“ has obscured the mayor’s political gifts: He’s a savvy campaigner and is capable of insightful commentary. For instance, he draws a parallel between New Orleans and the World Trade Center site. “The space of 9/11 is a real tiny part of the city, and seven years later, nothing,“ Nagin says. “And here we got 75 percent of my people back, got my infrastructure in a decent place, and people still criticize the hell out of me. What is that? I don’t know, maybe I need to paint my face like Giuliani or something!“

Life in the bunker has taken its toll: His approval rating remains dismal and friends and allies have turned on him. So it’s no surprise Nagin admits that despite this temporary, post-Gustav political reprieve, there will be no third political act for him. After briefly flirting with the idea of running for governor in the summer of 2007, he abandoned it. Today he says that he just wants to take some time off and figure out what comes next.

“I don’t know, man,“ Nagin says when asked about the end of his tenure. “In 18 months I leave this city in much better shape than I found it, even with Katrina. The only thing I can tell you is that I probably have enough energy to get to the end of my term, and then I’m gonna go take a break. I’ve been going nonstop for nearly seven years. I need a break from politics, that’s for sure. This is the hardest job in America.“

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