Nagin aglow as he began second term in 2006. Photo by jeff schwartz, creative commons license

As details emerge about a multi-track federal investigation into former Mayor Ray Nagin’s personal dealings with city contractors, The Times-Picayune recently reminded us that Nagin was viewed as a “colossal disappointment” by the end of his second term. Because Nagin will be in the news over the coming months, we should take a fresh look at his time in office, along with his successful political campaigns. Perhaps we’ll find that some of the disappointment we feel with Nagin includes a fair amount of disappointment with ourselves.

My first conversation about Nagin occurred 10 years ago, on Super Bowl Sunday 2002. The day prior, the former Cox Communications vice president had cruised into the mayoral runoff with NOPD Chief Richard Pennington. Despite all the distractions over the preceding weeks (winter holidays, Carnival, the Super Bowl run-up, plus 14 other candidates in the race) Nagin surged from 5 percent in the polls in mid-January to first place by Groundhog Day. It seemed like an election-year miracle. Nagin was a political unknown who largely self-financed this first run for office.

The odds were long, but ace political guru Jim Carvin must have advised Nagin to shape his candidacy so as to attract newspaper endorsements. To that end,  Nagin ran a disciplined race as a nonpolitical businessman. He would rebrand New Orleans and usher in a new era of transparency and efficiency, devoid of cronyism, he vowed.

“I don’t owe anything to a BOLD or a SOUL or a COUP or a LIFE, all that alphabet-soup stuff,” Nagin crowed from the hustings, making reference to the city’s political clubs. “I tell people, `Don’t give me any money if you think you’re going to get something for it.’ I’m independent.”

Newspaper editors swooned.

The Super Bowl was in the Superdome in 2002, so the city’s weekend Carnival parades were re-scheduled. Not so the Hyacinthians parade in Houma. My friend Jon and I found ourselves stuck there while our lovely brides adorned Hyacinthian floats, their krewe having seen no good reason to accommodate some pigskin superfest 50 miles away.

Suddenly, a mere hour before kickoff, Jon got a call from a friend holding two Super Bowl tickets — for us! Luxury box seats! Did we want them? He needed an answer immediately.

Eyes alight, Jon and I grinned tightly and indulged the same fantasy: Could we possibly ditch our wives on their big day for an impromptu Super Bowl extravaganza? Could it possibly be worth the hell we’d know later, if we up and left them for a football game? After all, opportunities like this don’t come around twice in a lifetime. Wouldn’t it be an offense to Fortuna if we didn’t take advantage of it?

Our better angels prevailed, and we declined the offer. The sparkling moment faded, and we tried to rationalize our decision. Traffic would be awful. We’d probably miss most of the first half, anyway. Besides, neither of us had a rooting interest in the contest. The St. Louis Rams were 14-point favorites; what were the chances they could lose a thriller to those flukes, the New England Patriots?

Glum observations exchanged, Jon changed the subject.

“Who’d you vote for yesterday?”

“Nagin,” I answered.  “From what I read, he sounds OK.”

Jon was skeptical: “How much of a businessman do you need to be to run a monopoly?”

I didn’t have an answer for that one.

When Nagin announced his surprise entry into the mayor’s race, he said he was inspired to run because he worried that his son would graduate from college and settle in Atlanta or Houston, rather than return home.

It was a seductive pitch, addressing the fear of “brain drain” in Louisiana. Nonetheless, Nagin’s supporters were pessimistic about his chances. As a T-P story from January 12, 2002, reported:

“Had Ray Nagin started this eight months ago, it would have been very interesting,” Stan ”Pampy” Barre said. “I gave him money because he’s my business partner and friend. But he got started late, and I just don’t see this happening.”

But Nagin, perhaps prompted by Carvin, was one of the few candidates to sign a pledge by the Bureau of Governmental Research to overhaul the old contracting process. Nagin agreed to replace a board of mayoral appointees with, as the T-P described it, “independent selection committees to evaluate bidders for the lucrative work.”

Nagin soon crawfished on the pledge, but not before timely newspaper endorsements vaulted him into contention. As the T-P wrote on the eve of the mayoral primary:

Mr. Nagin, who has run Cox Communications, is a natural leader, a businessman, a self-made success.

He thinks on his feet. He is focused and innovative. He understands how to present himself to other business executives, the kind who might consider investing in New Orleans. He has no tolerance for inefficiency. He’s a stranger to the can’t-doism that holds our city back. He loves New Orleans and wants to run City Hall, enough to give up a better-paying job.

Not since Buddy Roemer’s successful run for governor had a candidate in Louisiana benefited so decisively from newspaper endorsements. Crudely speaking, the T-P’s prominent endorsement of Nagin carried weight with the white “swing vote” that year.

And once the hype was in place, it took a long time to fade. During the runoff, when it was revealed that Nagin was not a certified public accountant, as he had claimed, the kerfuffle quickly blew over. When Nagin crawfished away from his BGR pledge (before reneging on it altogether), it was treated as a minor blemish, rather than betrayal of the key position that had earned him the newspaper endorsements that boosted him into the runoffs.

There’s no doubt the Nagin campaign was helped by a drab slate of rivals. Pennington had a fine record as police chief but was a poor politician. He was flat on the stump and made negative claims against Nagin without backing them up. These flailings undercut Pennington’s more effective ploys — such as vowong to give up his $50,000 a year police pension and challenging Nagin to join him in releasing his tax returns. According to the Feb. 8, 2002, T-P coverage, Nagin – declining to release his complete returns — responded to the challenge as follows (my emphasis):

“Here is a guy who has been on public assistance his entire life,” Nagin said, referring to Pennington ’s 33-year career in law enforcement. “What is he going to show?”

The more urgent question, in retrospect, is: What was Nagin so reluctant to show? A sizable portion of chronic newspaper readers, me included, voted for him anyway in 2002. Twice. When he won the runoff, he said: “I don’t have a Superman undershirt on underneath this coat.” At the time, I took that confession as an encouraging sign.

For the next three-and-a-half years, Nagin basically floated new ideas in lieu of concrete accomplishments. Even his early “anti-corruption” measures, much celebrated at the time, were less than they first appeared. The T-P re-evaluated them in 2004:

Not long after Nagin took office, he kicked off a high-profile crackdown on corruption, highlighted by the arrests of about 12 city employees.

The purge fizzled in some respects. Harry Connick, who was district attorney at the time, refused to charge the majority of those arrested, saying the evidence was weak. Also, further arrests that police officials had predicted – of bribe-soliciting building officials, for instance – never occurred.

No matter, Nagin was on to other brainstorms, such as demonstrating his “independence” by crossing party lines to endorse Bobby Jindal’s failing bid for governor in 2003. That seemed to get more ink than the fact that the city’s permit system hadn’t been effectively streamlined; nor had the airport been sold and the money reinvested in schools (as Nagin hoped). Crime was edging higher, too.

The biggest accomplishments Nagin could point to were a new city website, courtesy of Tech Czar Greg Meffert (which helpfully included a list of the city’s horrendously skewed property assessments) and a $260 million infrastructure bond that Nagin helped pass.

Returning home from a vacay in the Caribbean in January 2004, I witnessed a planeload of New Orleanians applaud Nagin and his family as they boarded a jet in Miami. It made me proud.

But by any standard, Nagin’s first term was mediocre, even assuming it was corruption-free – which the bribery prosecutions of Meffert and city tech vendor Mark St. Pierre would later show it wasn’t.

Then, in the final months of that first term, the city drowned in the Federal Flood and … well, we assume we know the rest. Nagin’s leadership became erratic, even paranoid. He slandered the stricken city by spreading unfounded rumors about mass rape and throat slittings on national TV. The famous WWL radio rant in which he howled at state and federal officials to “get off their asses” was better received, but the good will was then undone by the infamous “Chocolate City”  blunder during an MLK Day speech. Chocolate or otherwise the icing seemed to be on the cake. Nagin, it appeared, would be a one-termer.

To the rescue, the masterful Carvin, quarterbacking a focused and disciplined re-election campaign. Electing his opponent, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, would be a return to “the politics of the past,” Nagin/Carvin charged.

Confident they’d win anyway, Landrieu’s team played it too safe. Perhaps out of embarrassment over its hyped-up 2002 Nagin endorsement, this time around the T-P gave the nod to Nagin’s rival, but in relatively tepid terms. No front-page call to action (as if the stakes were so much lower in 2006 than in 2002).

Meanwhile, in the heat of the runoff, Nagin flew to Chicago for a fund-raiser. Initial reports said the gig yielded upwards of $500,000; months later the Nagin campaign claimed only $6,000 was raised. That’s an absurdly low figure, and the whole fund-raiser – its participants and purposes – deserves further scrutiny.

The myth is that everything fell off the tracks for Nagin after Katrina. Fox 8’s Chris Rose propagates the myth in a regrettable piece:

“Nagin’s petulant indifference to the city’s rebirth was his biggest crime in my book.

The Feds are now looking into different criminal allegations: perks, graft, freebies and general misuse of public – and private – funds, goods and services.

They’re one in the same. Nagin’s overnight transformation from congenial, self-anointed reformer to … to, what – celebrity? kook? powerbroker? – was what turned him away from New Orleans and into himself at a most inauspicious time.

It’s a popular myth, the idea that Nagin was a good mayor who cracked after Katrina. But it’s false. The T-P’s Jarvis DeBerry recently wrote more wisely:

We’ve known about The Home Depot contract since it was reported in this newspaper in April 2008, and for almost the same amount of time we’ve known about the 2004 Hawaiian vacation City Hall vendor Mark St. Pierre funded for the Nagins. That last revelation shattered all the arguments that Nagin was an OK mayor until Katrina.

Correct! Nagin’s friends were bearing gifts in the antediluvian days, as well. The only thing I would add to DeBerry’s statement is that the readers of Jason Berry’s American Zombie blog were hip to the Maui vacay in summer of 2006, which is significantly prior to April 2008.

BayouStJohnDavid, who writes the Moldy City blog, had warned us for years about getting caught up in Nagin’s lackadaisical air and silly comments, such as the flap over whether he voted with much regularity. Whether intentionally or not, Nagin’s behavior invited pundits to make fun of his clowning rather than entertain the notion that he might be corrupt. In 2007 David wrote (my emphasis):

The secretiveness and outright dishonesty that led to the bloated sanitation contracts seem to be fading from public memory. Oddly enough, the mayor’s dishonesty about his own voting habits is helping to protect his reputation for integrity. Nagin might be upset about the recent media questioning, but he shouldn’t be. Much better, from the mayor’s point-of-view, that reporters ask [about] his voting habits [rather] than ask about why the “champion of transparency” kept the details of the garbage collection contracts secret for so long. Even though the mayor was caught in a blatant lie, he’s not being portrayed as a corrupt politician who gives rich contracts to cronies then makes up numbers and makes up facts to hide the truth; he’s just coming across as our loose cannon mayor who blurts things out without thinking. I suspect that it even gives some people the impression that he’s too stupid to be a crook.

And that dynamic — with the press and bloggers hyping  Nagin’s wackiness while dismissing possible nefariousness — persisted. For example, do you remember the pricey “bomb-proof” garbage cans purchased from a firm that dealt with the mayor’s chief administrative officer? Of course not. Now, do you remember that “chocolate city” line? Of course you do.

For years, David noted, Nagin was not untouched by ghosts from his past, such as business partner Barre. Again, from a Moldy City post (my emphasis):

[Nagin] did start his real estate company with a business partner whom he later re-appointed to the Aviation Board, and the marble business with his sons before Katrina, but he still refuses to answers questions about those businesses.

We’re in for a year of new disclosures about Nagin. The T-P’s David Hammer broke the story, when he reported the feds were investigating “free equipment or materials [provided] to the Nagin family’s now-defunct [marble countertop installation] firm.” That was news to me. Fox 8 reporter Lee Zurik is also connecting the dots, citing inside sources who say former deputy city attorney Bob Ellis could become a key part of the feds’ investigation into Nagin. Recently, Clancy Dubos helpfully reminded us to add the missing computer emails into the mix. (Again, don’t forget the 2006 Chicago fundraiser!)

In a 2010 post that wasn’t published by The Lens, I wrote that the aftermath of 8/29/05 perhaps revealed Nagin more than it changed him:

The most charitable interpretation is that Nagin was a horrible judge of skill and character and competently managed one thing after Katrina: extending his time in office into eight long, long years. There are other interpretations of Nagin’s time in office, though, which suggest self-serving criminality rather than mere incompetence. These interpretations have aged well since the Federal Flood, and I think they’ll continue to do so.

Not that incompetence was hard to come by: Nagin dumped the recovery work on a blowhard named Ed Blakely, then, as crime spiraled out of control, became “distracted” with personal business. As T-P columnist James Gill expertly summarizes:

Now that he is out of office and Stone Age has gone the way of the dinosaurs, the truth is coming out. Nagin ran the show to such an extent that, when citizens alarmed by a rash of murders gathered at City Hall early in 2007, their impassioned speeches did not merit his full attention.

It is hard to pinpoint the nadir of the Nagin mayoralty, but this may have been it. Nagin sat there surreptitiously tapping out an e-mail seeking a counter top deal with the owner of a kitchen supply company, who was trying to brush him off.

Being “colossally disappointed” isn’t a crime. There’s not always time for due diligence during a short election season. And it’s difficult to stifle the hope that a relatively unknown candidate (especially one doing all the right things in a campaign) might be the solution to all our pressing problems. “The choice is clear,” the T-P editorial said in 2002.

Hindsight shows that the choice is rarely as clear as the endorsements make it, but even during moments of intense excitement, there’s always time for second thoughts. And even if those second thoughts don’t change our votes, they can keep us from sliding into facile interpretations of what is happening.

If Jon and I had taken the plunge, and accepted those Super Bowl tickets, we would’ve had interesting neighbors along the luxury box row. As the T-P reported:

[At the Super Bowl] Nagin sat with restaurateur and campaign treasurer David White in a luxury box belonging to businessman John Georges, his and White’s partner as co-owners of the New Orleans Brass minor-league hockey team. Pennington sat in a suite with U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, his campaign chairman, and other supporters.

So let’s rethink things. Nagin was a disappointment. But not for the reasons we thought. The reality is that the “non-politician” in 2002 was actually the smoothest politician of them all. He was great at campaigns – but poor at leadership and, it appears, poor at (non-monopoly) business, as well.

Maybe Nagin really did become mayor to, in part, afford his family better opportunities in New Orleans. Maybe when he reneged on the BGR pledge that led to the endorsements that led to his re-election, we should’ve been extremely suspicious; instead we gave him a pass. Obviously, there’s not always an electoral solution to our problems. It’s impossible to know how things would have turned out, but clearly we should have more fully explored our growing disappointment with Nagin before re-electing him in 2006, not afterwards.

As bad as it might get for Nagin, the bigger disappointment would be if we didn’t learn something about ourselves in the coming months – about how we bought into hasty myths about Nagin in 2002 (“Nagin is a clean businessman”) and then simply adjusted the myth to accommodate new facts (“Nagin’s silly, but not corrupt”) rather than rethink our entire interpretation of the former mayor as doubts began to grow.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...