“I am sick of this. I’ve been busting my butt to bring this city back. … This is ridiculous. It’s personal, it’s vindictive, the election is over and if you supported someone else, get over it.” — then-mayor Ray Nagin, commenting on his 2006 re-election in a TV interview two years later
We’ve have had to rethink Ray Nagin, and that’s been uncomfortable. The reform candidate from 2002 is now the only mayor in New Orleans history to be convicted of graft. On the stand at his trial Nagin claimed, essentially, that everyone was lying — except him. But unlike the electorates he twice wooed, jurors were unpersuaded by Nagin’s always unique interpretation of reality. He was found guilty on 20 counts of corruption.
We’ve previously reviewed the Nagin era, and how New Orleanians were so slow to shelve their original interpretation of Nagin as a businessman beholden only to the public good. By 2006, to be sure, voters had come to realize he was less-than-advertised. But the harshest rap was that he was ineffectual goofball overwhelmed by disaster. Surely he wasn’t a criminal. He wouldn’t, for example, ignore thousands of New Orleanians in protest over street violence so that he could “surreptitiously [tap] out an e-mail seeking a counter top deal.”
Well, actually, he would. And did. As his demeanor and testimony on the stand demonstrated, Nagin is Nagin. Our perceptions of him changed more than he ever did. His same old “C’mon man” schtick held no charm in 2014. It might be darkly humorous if, in his era, the city wasn’t struggling with life-and-death issues.
Nagin was not only an ineffectual leader, he was a mayor on the take. And he wasn’t even a good businessman, as it turns out. He nearly went broke trying to keep a counter-top business afloat, even after shaking down Home Depot for post-disaster contracts.
After the verdict was read, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, “Hopefully this closes a very kind of ugly chapter in the history of the City of New Orleans.”
Not so fast, Hizzoner. The Great Depression is an ugly chapter in American economic history, but we still study it to learn its painful lessons (and to avoid a repeat). I’m not comparing the Nagin era to that world-historical catastrophe, but it’s still bad enough to be worth extended analysis.
In my next column, I will investigate Nagin’s two greatest accomplishments: his mayoral election wins in 2002 and 2006. In the first he was an unknown who surged to victory, largely fueled by an endorsement from The Times-Picayune. In the second, he prevailed over Landrieu with a twin-pronged effort Stephanie Grace recently termed the “Nagin coalition:”
He appealed to black residents, particularly those displaced by Katrina, who feared a post-storm power and property grab. He also appealed to white Republicans who don’t like Landrieu and his family and didn’t want to cede his senator sister Mary a power base in Louisiana’s most Democratic city.
I’ve devoted a fair amount of time over the past eight years to pondering these elections. Whatever the role of newspaper endorsements and white Republicans, if there was a denominator common to both victories, it was the late Jim Carvin, the genius political campaign consultant who elected every New Orleans mayor for decades. I assumed Nagin was simply smart enough to follow orders.
But what were those orders?
Carvin, I’ve come to see, positioned Nagin to tap into something buried deep in the electorate’s psyche. But what? Racial code? Reformer fairy dust?
Both times Nagin ran against “the politics of the past” — insinuating in 2002* that the Morial administration was corrupt and in 2006* that Landrieu would be a throwback to the era of his father, Moon Landrieu, a time when whites still ruled the roost.
Black voters had conflicted thoughts about the Landrieus, a family in high esteem among them — unless pitted against one of their own. But both lines of attack worked like a sorcerer’s charm on what turned out to be the swing vote in the two elections: white conservatives. The anti-Morial rhetoric played on the stereotype that deemed all black career politicians to be on the take. (So give us a black businessman too naive to steal.) The anti-Landrieu venom reawakened memories of the Great Betrayal: Mayor Moon Landrieu’s willingness to renounce Jim Crow and open City Hall to blacks.
Both times Nagin ran better than expected against large fields, despite having no political machine behind him.
The irony is that the white swing vote, animated by both distaste for black politicians and for the white liberals who made room for them, clinched the election of a criminal who also happened to be an incompetent mayor.
*Correction: The dates of these elections were misstated in an early version of the article. (Feb. 20, 2014)