Some thoughts on the conviction of former Mayor Ray Nagin:
• In 2002, when Nagin was first elected, part of his appeal was that he sold himself as a businessman. That attracted conservative voters who argued that more sound business practices should be incorporated into government. Overlooked though was that Nagin, who at the time was CEO of the local Cox Cable operation, might have been from the business world but he was really more of a branch manager of a monopoly. That is far different than a businessperson who has to survive on his own, make his own payroll and face competition. Michael Bloomberg in New York City is a successful businessman who was also a successful mayor. But business background does not always guarantee success. Indeed some people from the business world may be naïve to the social concerns of government that do not always fit into a profit and loss statement. Nagin, who projected a fresh non-political image, was not what people thought they were getting.
• Not only were voters misled by Nagin, so too were the media, which may account, at least partially, for the electorate’s misdirection. All of the major media that do endorsements selected Nagin. Once he was elected, they were enamored by him, totally buying into Nagin’s “Crackdown on Corruption” campaign. The mayor was portrayed as a new sheriff in town. Nagin’s Chief Administrative Officer Kimberly Williamson Butler stood by the mayor’s side as the two gloated at the cleansing of government. In the end, though, little happened. Most of the arrests were linked to taxi operators but nothing really stuck, though some innocent people were bruised. Nagin and Butler would have a falling out. As revenge, she ran for Clerk of Criminal Court, was elected, proved ineffective – was even arrested for contempt of court – then ran for mayor against Nagin but finished toward the bottom. Years later there would be another crackdown on corruption, only Nagin would be the target.
• Nagin will be remembered for his Chocolate City speech delivered on Martin Luther King Day 2006. Part of the speech was actually good, as the mayor addressed the issue of black-on-black violence, but then the speech, which teetered on being silly if it had not been so offensive, went on to say that the wave of recent hurricanes were due to God being angry over the war in Iraq. Speaking of the town becoming a “chocolate city,” Nagin made reference to the people “Uptown” (code for “white”) not liking to hear that. Curiously, when Nagin ran for reelection in 2006, some of that “Uptown” vote went for him. To hardcore conservatives being stereotyped by the mayor was less offensive than voting for a Landrieu.
• No American mayor ever faced a greater challenge than Nagin did after Katrina. The public would have been willing to cut him some slack, but he was staffed with a largely incompetent administration unable to face the challenge. Some of the charges for which Nagin was convicted preceded Katrina. Had he not run for reelection, the city could have at least had a faster start at rebuilding. He might have survived as a peacetime mayor, but Katrina was war.
Nagin’s attorney says he will appeal. A reversal is unlikely, but if that happens, it will be on a legal technicality (likely having to do with the web commenting scandal) and not on the merits of the case. For that the fact will always be that a jury found him guilty on 20 of 21 charges. There was a sinister turn in the career of a man whose initial election caused so much excitement. Whatever went wrong, he will likely have a lot of time to think about it.