Gordon Russell’s article in Sunday’s Times-Picayune, is a haunting masterpiece. It describes Ray Nagin’s attempt to live anonymously in Frisco, Texas, for the year prior to his indictment Friday by federal prosecutors. It’s a reminder of how strangely sad the Nagin story is when looked at from a distance.
I think Russell deserves a great deal of credit for this line: “Simply put, the Ray Nagin of 2013 is almost unrecognizable as the man who swept New Orleans off its feet in 2002, aided in part by gushing editorial support from The Times-Picayune.”
But that brings up a question that has bugged me for years. Did we ever truly “recognize” the real Nagin?
I’ve complained about Nagin for years and still don’t have a handle on him. Who is the real Nagin, anyway? A chameleon? A lucky airhead? Unfocused thoroughbred? Clumsy greedhead?
The last time I spoke to Nagin was in 2007. We were celebrating the opening of the Freret Street Market. I wasn’t in a mood to speak with him or with “Recovery Czar” Ed Blakely, who was all smiles that day. But Nagin came up to me and started chatting about the recovery. He told me he thought we were “finally turning the corner.” I murmured in half-hearted agreement. In my mind, though, I could only think of one thing: “Damn this man looks good!”
It was true. Nagin stood tall and filled out a nice white shirt. He looked good—too good, actually.
And it pissed me off. I thought, where does Nagin get off looking so handsome and together only two years after Katrina and the Federal Flood? Shouldn’t he have more lines on his face and bags under his eyes? Gray stubble? A nagging cough? Signs of a skin condition, at least?
I understand that the mayor isn’t supposed to be a schlub in public, but this was ridiculous. He was shining like he’d just enjoyed an early morning workout followed by a shower and a massage. A few months later I spoke with Dangerblond, and she’d recently seen Nagin at a nice restaurant. What did you think, I asked. “He looked great!” she said.
Now, Nagin has been indicted on 21 counts of conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud. Most legal analysts expect him to swallow hard and cut a plea bargain. But it’s hard to say for sure, because we don’t really know Nagin.
Russell’s article touches on many of the ironies that are so abundant as we reflect on the entirety of our Nagin experience.
Remember: Nagin left a job with Cox Cable that paid nearly a half-million dollars a year to run for Mayor. Part of his appeal was that he was a businessman who wanted to help New Orleans become more transparent and efficient. For many, the fact that he was taking a $300,000 pay cut was testament to the purity of his intentions. He largely self-financed his first campaign and touted his accounting skills. White voters overwhelmingly supported him in 2002.
But the accountant and businessman apparently ran into money troubles while in office. He wasn’t able to self-finance his second campaign, and relied on big donations from the likes of former Sewerage and Water Board member Ben Edwards (who is currently serving a 21-year sentence for wire fraud and tax evasion).
In the afterglow of his second electoral victory, I recall him holding up a toy with voice recordings—the “Pocket Nagin,” it was called—and jokingly complaining, “They’re making money off me.”
So the mayor, the one who prided himself on his business experience and accounting skills, may have been the victim of his political “success.” A mayor’s salary proved to be hardship pay for a former Cox vice president, and, if the feds are to be believed, he began lining his pockets. They allege that he began accepting favors and payments from men who wanted city contracts, at least one of whom—as pointed out in a WWL news story by David Hammer and on the American Zombie blog—has connections with a reputed mafia boss.
The businessman reformer who was proudly not part of any of the city’s political machines has become the only ex-mayor of New Orleans ever indicted. And some of the indictments are for taking checks(?!) from men with “connections.”
Now, Nagin, who initially ran for mayor because he didn’t want to see his sons move to Atlanta or Dallas is hiding out in a suburb of … Dallas. With feckless leadership and hare-brained public comments, he found a way to alienate all of the various constituencies who had supported him, so he had no cushy job lined up as he left office. Instead he was reduced to writing a self-published memoir and giving speeches in Manitoba, Canada, about disaster.
Nagin “led” this city in its moment of maximum crisis. But now he’s an unloved stranger in his hometown, a town with a notably strong tolerance for less-than-perfect pols. So far did Nagin fall from public favor that he felt the need to move away from this city of neighborhoods and attempt anonymity in a soulless cluster of cookie-cutter townhouses where he wouldn’t be “recognized.” And now he faces the very real prospect of an even more soulless future: prison.