Thursday, April 29, 2010

CITY WITHOUT FEAR: New Orleans After Ray Nagin

Finally, and mercifully, New Orleanians can take a full breath as Mayor Ray Nagin is out of office. Find me a New Orleanian who says otherwise and I will show you someone who simply hasn’t been paying attention to the neglectful, laissez-faire, disinterested, uninvolved, apathetic two-term mayor. We are almost five years on from the great wave Katrina and subsequent crumbling of aged, ill-conceived levees. Although our city is remarkably resilient, and its people doggedly determined, these past five years could have been the most progressive in our 300-plus year history, had there been fierce and skilled leadership. There was not.

A few years before Katrina, one night I was at a gathering at an uptown New Orleans home, at which the Mayor was the honored guest. When he rose to speak I noticed several impressive things: First, he was impeccably dressed and groomed. But more importantly, he was articulate, full of enthusiasm for our city and determined to rid City Hall of its heritage of corruption. He spoke convincingly, and he was clearly comfortable in front of the news camera in the room.

Therein lies the problem with Ray Nagin: he is a nattily turned out chameleon who can tailor his suits and his words for whatever crowd happens to be present. Five months after Katrina, it was a very different Ray Nagin who stood on the steps of Gallier Hall on the holiday honoring Martin Luther King, and said this:
"We ask black people: it's time. It's time for us to come together. It's time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. And I don't care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day.”
That day he spoke with a twinge of dialect, and his earlier all-inclusive civic spirit had clearly dissipated. That was the day Nagin unwittingly wrote his own mayoral legacy. And that was the day the Mayor of New Orleans became a national punchline.

Every New Orleans citizen suffered for that and still does. You will please pardon the analogy, but the citizenry of New Orleans is a rich gumbo pot. Everybody gets to jump in. Yes, we are racially divided in a big way, but we are not a black city or a white city or a Creole city. We are richly diverse. Nagin did not understand the importance of honoring our diversity.

Some would say that is the least of our complaints about Ray Nagin. More importantly, after our 2005 tragedy, the mayor needed to firmly and decisively step up. He did not. He whined, bitched and complained about what victims we were. In doing so, he weakened us and victimized us. Had he been a savvy negotiator with the Feds, a good collaborator with Senator Mary Landrieu and Senator David Vitter, and one whose ego was less important than his dedication to the citizenry, the last five years could have put us on the fast track toward rebuilding the city.

That very citizenry voted him back in office for a second term, largely because many New Orleanians felt it was not a good time to shift gears to a new administration. We were in the middle of FEMA battles, Senate hearings, Katrina-related lawsuits, insurance companies trying to lowball the worst hit areas and more. It seemed logical to many citizens to maintain continuity. A new mayor, many reasoned, would set us back to square one. Nagin won the race (against Mitch Landrieu, our new mayor), and then essentially retired. We saw very little of him, we heard even less about his questionable whereabouts and by a year or two after the storm, we knew we were on our own.

In his last year in office, Nagin took up such causes as attempting to buy a downtown office building (right) to which he wished to move City Hall. The multi-million dollar enterprise was nixed by a city council that knew Nagin was not a reliable arbiter of the city’s welfare or budget. While Ninth Ward citizens continued to live elsewhere as their section of the city rotted, Nagin concerned himself with unrelated issues. For one, when an ordinance came up that would make it impossible for vendors with a history of corrupt practices to do business with the city, Nagin tried to veto it, essentially condoning criminal behavior. Once again, the city council had to step in and exercise its common sense.

Nagin operates independently, rather than cooperatively with individuals and groups that could advance the city's needs. Chief among his adversarial relationships is that with the media. Here is a typical example of how the mayor conducts himself with the press:

So, let’s review: Here is what we New Orleanians are left with as Ray Nagin smugly talks of moving into “disaster consulting.” A drive through the lower Ninth Ward reveals blocks that look much like they did the day after Hurricane Katrina. The local school public system is so fractured and disabled that some former board members are in jail, and some schools were taken over the by State. A large percentage of downtown office space sits empty. We have a police department that is slowly revealing itself to be ill-trained, poorly managed and corrupt. Because of the Danziger Bridge debacle, the Department of Justice is insinuating itself into local law enforcement. This, just as the local murder rate is spiking again and other crimes are on the increase. As Nagin strolls out of office, the city is seven months behind and $8 million in debt to the major contractor handling big recovery projects.

And here comes Mitch Landrieu. As mayor, we wonder if Landrieu will be able to offer hope to those who were displaced by the storm and never got to come back. Will the city’s business climate become more welcoming to the rest of the world, and will we finally have more industry than tourism and shipping? We wonder if the combination of a new police chief and Federal intervention will result in less crime, and we sure hope the extreme racial divide will narrow. One thing we have learned is not to place all of our dreams in the hands of the city leader. We learned we have to jump in and participate in the decision making process and monitor the administration’s performance. Most of all, we learned how resilient we are in the face of massive tragedy and governmental incompetence. We’re still standing. We don’t identify our city any more as “post-Katrina New Orleans.” Nagin was the last symbolic element of that, and now we’re moving on. We now view ourselves as a top-tier destination city in the country. Pack your bags and say goodnight, Ray.

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