On Monday night, right after Katrina hit, Mayor Ray Nagin went on television to tell his battered constituents that “the city of New Orleans is in a state of devastation.” Speaking softly, and often directly into the camera, Nagin said the only good news he had was that “at some point in time, the federal government will be coming in here en masse.” Days passed, looting started, the feds didn’t come, and Nagin cracked. In a radio interview Thursday night, he ranted passionately for 14 minutes that the feds had done little to stop thousands of deaths: “Don’t tell me 40,000 people are coming here! They’re not here! It’s too doggone late. Now get off your asses and let’s do something, and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country!” Nagin didn’t stop until he broke down in tears.
This is the story of Nagin’s term: ambitious plans derailed by the dismal reality of his often-ungovernable city. In the days prior to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, the 49-year-old mayor ordered New Orleans’ first-ever mandatory evacuation. He told those in the most flood-prone areas to leave early, and he set up shuttles to get the 100,000 or so residents without cars to shelters. He announced that the potentially catastrophic hurricane represented “an opportunity for us to come together in a way we’ve never done before.” Instead, Katrina’s aftermath turned into a typical—if unimaginably and hellaciously tragic—scene from New Orleans politics, with the requisite allegations that the rudderless, incompetent city government can’t deal with the city’s intrinsic geographic, economic, and racial problems.
Nagin swept into office in 2002 as a businessman and political outsider who promised to reform New Orleans government’s notorious corruption and opacity. A graduate of the New Orleans public school system and the son of a sometime City Hall custodian, Nagin rose to become a top executive at Cox Communications. Before his 2002 mayoral run, Nagin’s greatest local claim to fame was as the co-host of a long-running television show in which Cox’s cable subscribers called in to gripe about the channel lineup.
Just as he talked down angry cable customers with his smooth baritone, Nagin charmed New Orleans voters with his plain-spokenness and wit. During one mayoral debate, he suggested that one way to solve the city’s budget woes would be to divest Louis Armstrong International Airport—or, as he put it, “Man, I think we need to sell that sucker.” (He also won over voters with his physical charms. Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose reported that Rose’s female acquaintances called the chrome-domed mayor a “hottie” and “the beautiful man.”)
Nagin, the reformer, defeated the law-and-order candidate, former New Orleans Police Chief Richard Pennington. He quickly got to the reforming. Two months after he took office, 84 warrants were issued in an attempt to snuff out bribes in the city’s taxicab licensing and vehicle inspection systems. Among the arrested taxi drivers was the mayor’s cousin. Nagin’s clean sweep got glowing mentions in the national press, and the Times-Picayune called it “the biggest crackdown on municipal corruption in the modern history of the city.” His approval rating shot up to 80 percent.
The newsmaking purges soon tailed off, though, and the already completed corruption-snuffing started to look a lot less impressive. The bribery investigation netted mostly small fish, what the Los Angeles Times described as “a motley collection of cabbies, vehicle inspection agents and low-level bureaucrats.” The district attorney declined to prosecute 53 cabbies due to lack of evidence. The highest-ranking official arrested, the city’s utilities director, got off when a judge ruled that her crimes were on the level of waiving a taxi-registration fee for an amputee.
In the black community, the fizzling of these early successes did less to hurt Nagin’s reputation than the perception that he was disloyal—to the cousin he had arrested, to the administration of his popular predecessor Marc Morial (which he frequently insinuated, perhaps appropriately, was complicit in City Hall corruption), and to the city’s African-American population as a whole. After Morial’s brother’s house was raided as part of a corruption probe, a leading black preacher called Nagin a “white man in black skin.” It didn’t matter that, according to the Times-Picayune, he had done a demonstrably better job than Morial in giving government contracts to minority-owned businesses.
Nagin lacked the communication skills to promote his legitimate accomplishments. He also oversold his blue-sky ideas. During his first term, Nagin has pledged at various times to build a new City Hall, take over the city’s failing public schools, streamline government by merging agencies, reduce the number of mayoral appointees, and sell the city’s airport to private investors. None of these proposals has come to fruition. Meanwhile, the city’s major structural problems—poverty, unemployment, crime—have only gotten worse.
On Tuesday night, as the city started to lose all hope, Nagin lamented that water from Lake Pontchartrain continued to flow into the city because promised attempts to repair the busted 17th Street Canal with giant sandbags never materialized. He should’ve known that stopping the flood wouldn’t work. That plan was like so many that came before it: an innovative but impossible solution to an intractable problem.