It’s a Shame About Ray: The Weird and Forgotten Politics of New Orleans’ Disgraced Ex-Mayor

Forgot about Ray.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

A couple of readers have written in to shame me for not covering the conviction of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a Democrat, on 20 corruption charges. Example:

It’s been over a year since Slate’s last mention of Ray Nagin. I guess being a political reporter at Slate. means you’re mostly “political”, and less “reporter.”

Zing. Actually, my colleague Josh Vorhees handled the main story, and I didn’t see much of a hook for a Nagin item. The mayor was a national figure, briefly, after he failed spectacularly during the greatest crisis of his term. He won re-election over a white candidate, Mitch Landrieu, in 2006. After he left office, Landrieu easily won the election to replace him—and Landrieu was re-elected this week.

Still: When a Democrat goes down in a sex scandal or a criminal investigation, there’s always some yowling on the conservative Internet (or talk radio) that the media won’t use his party label. Why are we covering for the Democrats? In Nagin’s case, it’s totally accurate to call him a Democrat—he won twice on the ticket. Republicans have not won the mayor’s office in New Orleans since Northern troops were occupying the South so, without reading minds, I assume a lot of photo/wire editors think readers will guess that the black mayor of New Orleans was a Democrat. They shouldn’t assume. Good point! Refs, worked.

But Nagin had such a strange and checkered political career. In 2001 he was a Republican businessman. In 2002 he was a Democrat running for the only political office he ever held. In 2003, after he asked GOP gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal what he could do for New Orleans and got a detailed response, he was that rarest of birds: a black Democratic mayor endorsing a Republican. (Jindal lost that race, narrowly.)

In 2006, Nagin was still a Democrat—and apparently, screwed. A largely white group of contenders filed to challenge him in the all-party “jungle primary.” The winners of the first round, as I said above, were Nagin and Landrieu. The fourth-place finisher was Rob Couhig, a Republican businessman whom I remember because his ads were so weird.

Couhig never expected to win, but when he lost, he endorsed … Nagin. Yes. The guy he’d mocked with the sound of a cuckoo clock in that TV ad. The guy who’d attempted to shore up the black vote by promising that New Orleans would remain “a chocolate city.” In the runoff, Nagin was the conservative, relatively speaking, while Landrieu was the liberal and ambitious lifelong Democrat, son of a previous mayor, brother of the state’s last Democratic senator. People watching the race absent-mindedly were shocked when Nagin, eight months after Hurricane Katrina, won the runoff by taking 80 percent of the black vote and 20 percent of the white vote. Republicans—just enough of them—held their noses and voted for the guy who wasn’t a predictable Democrat.

So, yes: Nagin was the Democratic mayor of New Orleans. He stayed mayor because he knew how to get Republicans to see him as a lesser evil. That looks somewhat less perspicacious right now.