Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Who Is Ray Nagin and What Did He Do Right -- And Wrong?

By Blair Walker, Special to AOL Black Voices

"Now get off your asses and do something, and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country." Ray Nagin, a graduate of Alabama's historically black Tuskegee University, earned an M.B.A. from Tulane University in 1994.

Depending upon whom you ask, Clarence Ray Nagin is a tough- talking hero who appropriately skewered the federal government's tardy response to Hurricane Katrina, or a bumbling greenhorn mayor who failed to properly evacuate New Orleans' poorest residents. Nagin's passionate, salty denouncements of President George W. Bush and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have catapulted the Democratic politician to international prominence.

Toiling in obscurity prior to the massive storm that left scores dead and 80 percent of his city under water, the Tuskegee University graduate's every move and utterance is now dissected by CNN and the New York Times. Even his current residence is fodder for analysis and second-guessing. Supporters say Nagin's insistence on staying in a downtown Hyatt hotel rendered powerless and windowless by Katrina shows his dedication and loyalty to his hometown. It also placed Nagin, 49, strategically within walking distance of a convention center and domed stadium that had sheltered thousands of poor city residents.

Detractors say Nagin's address on the 27th floor of the disabled Hyatt is all about empty symbolism and they castigate him for not relocating 79 miles to Louisiana's capital city of Baton Rogue, where he'd have had access to better communications. Like many of his constituents, Nagin's New Orleans house lies under a sea of toxic green water that workers have just begun to pump from the country’s 35th largest city.

Practically everyone in the Big Easy has a friend or relative whose whereabouts are a mystery, and Nagin is no exception. A cousin, Brad Nagin, is posted on an Internet site for missing residents. As traumatic as Hurricane Katrina has been for C. Ray Nagin and his city, the greatest test of the mayor’s leadership skills is yet to come. He'll have to deal with a death toll Nagin estimates could hit 10,000 once New Orleans is fully drained. Katrina also chased away New Orleans' citizenry and disabled its main economic engine, tourism. Bloggers and conservative newspaper columnists carp that Nagin's post-disaster performance compares unfavorably with that of former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the aftermath 9/11.

However, Giuliani, who benefited from instantaneous and overwhelming federal aid, didn’t have his city transformed into a virtual ghost town and never faced the prospect of having to jump start New York’s economy from a complete standstill. Nagin's greatest managerial success thus far preceded politics, when he was a vice president and general manager for Cox Communications in southeast Louisiana. By emphasizing improved customer service and improved technology, Nagin turned one of Cox's poorest-performing cable television operations into a moneymaker.

Sky-high expectations and controversy are nothing new to Nagin, who also chaired the United Negro Fund’s Walkathon fundraising campaign and was president of 100 Black Men of Metro New Orleans before leading one of the country's most storied, impoverished and dysfunctional cities. A gifted baseball pitcher in high school, Nagin was a standout on Tuskegee’s baseball team, recalls Tuskegee alumni affairs Director Willie Burnett. "We had a successful baseball team those years he was here," Burnett says. "I would say he was a good student. He was even-keeled -- not emotional, but just a level-headed kind of person." "There was something about him, about his perseverance, that would lead one to believe that there were greater things ahead for him," adds Burnett.

Nagin left Tuskegee in 1978 with a B.S. degree in accounting, and earned an M.B.A. from Tulane University in 1994. By 2002, voters in his hometown had grown so disgusted with cronyism and corruption in Louisiana and city government that they were ready to make a political neophyte mayor.

Their feelings were in sync with Nagin's, who felt so strongly about New Orleans' future that he walked away from an annual salary of nearly $400,000 at Cox. A married Republican with three children, Nagin says a conversation with one of his kids made him want to lead New Orleans. If he succeeded, a mountain of headaches and $110,000 per year awaited. "The tipping point for me was talking to my son and his friends about what they were going to do after high school," Nagin told Governing magazine in 2003. "To a person -- there were like five or six of them -- they told me they didn’t see a future in New Orleans or the state."

Largely self-financed, Nagin ran on a platform of revitalizing New Orleans' lackluster economy and obliterating corruption from city politics. His candidacy was strongly backed by New Orleans' paper of record, the Times-Picayune, as well as by an alternative weekly, the Gambit.

Nagin won with 60 percent of the vote in 2002, to the bemusement of political old timers who viewed sleaze and graft as uniquely New Orleans as Mardi Gras. Naysayers figured Nagin, who assumed office with two days worth of cash reserves and a projected city budget deficit of $25 million, had other things to worry about other than corruption. They were wrong. Seventy-five days into his administration Nagin stunned observers by staging Bloody Monday, a showy raid on the city's Taxicab Bureau that resulted in 80 arrests on bribery and related charges. Few convictions resulted, but Nagin's point was made: corruption was no longer to be tolerated.

There were grumbles within the city's black community that most of those nabbed on Bloody Monday were black, and that Nagin had gone after little fish to curry favor with his white supporters.

Nagin has relied on an inner circle drawn from business instead of politics, bringing about frosty relations with state and local politicians. His efforts to wean New Orleans' economy from tourism have met with mixed results.

He will need a seamless alliance of business and political powerbrokers to get New Orleans running again. His success or failure as he works toward that objective will determine his legacy, as well as the fates of more than 400,000 fellow residents. About the Author Blair Walker is a former business writer with USA Today and the author of six books, including the biography 'Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?: How Reginald Lewis Created a Billion-Dollar Business Empire.'

2005-09-07 15:34:51

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