Mayor Ray Nagin came to office in 2002 with no political experience, and that seemed to please voters just fine. From the start of his first campaign, Nagin the telecommunications executive and sports-franchise owner (remember the New Orleans Brass?) promised to use his perspective from the business world to bring change to City Hall.
After two and a half years in office, Nagin says his management style still reflects his business experience, although he’s learned a thing or two about politics along the way.
“I still believe City Hall can run more like a business, but I don’t believe it is a business,” says Nagin. At first, he says, “I didn’t fully understand the intricacies of what was going on inside City Hall. Politics, in my opinion, is like making sausage. You don’t really want to see the process while it’s going on, but you want to enjoy the benefits when it’s finished. That’s definitely true here.”
Nagin says a key to his management style is to hire good people, work with them on the vision for the city and objectives to get there, and then give them the latitude to work effectively. But expect to find a much more hands-on mayor when it comes to issues he deems mission critical, especially economic development.
“I think over time I’ve learned the power of the mayor’s office much more intimately,” Nagin says. “I’ve learned the different levers and pressure points to push when the mayor really needs to get things done.”
Mayor on the Move
Nagin’s office may be in City Hall, but he’s as likely to be working on the road as from his desk. In addition to public appearances around New Orleans – addressing thousands of convention delegates Downtown or touring local businesses along the Industrial Canal – Nagin travels around the state to build regional partnerships and to financial centers such as New York and Chicago to promote the city’s goals.
“Anywhere we can go to sell New Orleans and tell people our story about New Orleans, we want to be there,” he says.
Staying connected while he and his staff travel so much is a big issue, and from the start the Nagin administration has relied on an enhanced technology suite at City Hall to get the job done. Blackberry personal digital assistants are a de rigueur accessory for many staffers, including Nagin himself, who receives electronic updates throughout the day from various departments and reports on every major crime that happens in the city.
Nagin believes the work he is doing now at home and around the country is building the foundations for systemic change in the way New Orleans perceives itself and is seen by others.
“The first four years for us have always been about fundamentals … Basically changing the culture of city government,” he says. “The second four years will hopefully be about institutionalizing change, so it can’t go back to the way it was … My objective is to change the city and put it on a very positive path that will impact it for the next 15 to 20 years.”
Beyond a second term – the maximum allowed for a mayor under the city charter – Nagin is less certain about his own future in politics.
“My commitment to this city was to give eight years of my prime time, and beyond that I don’t know. I love what I’m doing. Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s the greatest job in the world, and 5 percent it’s the biggest pain you could ever imagine. But I have many options [for the future]. I’m really happy about that.”
Most people expect their mayor to be a cheerleader for their city, a proponent for economic growth and a general in the war on crime. In New Orleans, some residents evidently also want the mayor to be Santa Claus or the tooth fairy.
“Most of the kids think I’m rich – they ask me to buy them a Ferrari,” Nagin says when asked how people respond to him in the street. “They have this image that you’re the Wizard of Oz, that you can do anything, you can just change things with the snap of your fingers. So I get some funny requests. One lady asked me to get her teeth fixed.”
It’s been a strange transition for Nagin, 48, who as a political newcomer was relatively unknown before his surprise win over 14 other contenders in the 2002 mayoral race.
Like anonymity, free time is a distant memory for the mayor. Pre-politics, he was an avid golfer, but now that’s out. In the old days, he and his father spent time together fishing, but finding the time now is impossible. A voracious reader, he still manages to pry a book open to relax, though it’s as likely to be a political potboiler as anything else.
“The toughest thing for me is finding life balance,” he says.
Nagin gets some help in this department from Patricia Smith – or Miss Pat, as she’s known around City Hall – his personal assistant, who has worked with him since his days as vice-president of Cox Communications. She weaves dedicated blocks of downtime into his dense schedule, especially family time with his wife, Seletha, and their three children, Jeremy, 20; Jarin, 18; and Tianna, 5. Aside from his young daughter, who seems to be thrilled about everything, Nagin says his family has largely gotten over the initial excitement of his life in the public spotlight, regarding him as the same father or husband with a new job and less free time.
The “Bling-Bling” Lingo
Still, Jeremy and Jarin have made unique contributions to their father’s distinctive political style by keeping him current on popular hip-hop lingo. That’s how the mayor came to apply the phrase “selling wolf tickets” to critics he felt were making empty threats, while describing the “bling-bling yachts” produced by shipbuilder Trinity Yachts as an example of local business success during his 2004 State of the City address.
Being mayor means everyone has something to tell you, Nagin has found, whether it’s a request for an autograph on the street or a piece of advice offered by a stranger in the middle of dinner. Traveling around the country on city business provides some relief, though for true down-time, the mayor’s first-choice destination is the Caribbean and Bermuda.
“If I go out of town, that’s the time I can really relax [because] not that many people know me,” Nagin says. “Then as soon as I hit the airport, I have to mentally adjust and shift. Then I’m back on.”