Ray Nagin: Running a Rundown City
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Coming up, we'll hear more about efforts to rebuild after last month's major earthquake in Pakistan.
But first, we turn to recovery efforts here at home. On Capitol Hill today, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is testifying before a House committee charged with giving aid to thousands of New Orleans residents affected by Hurricane Katrina. Back in Louisiana, many of Nagin's constituents are watching the mayor's performance closely. He faces re-election in February and, as Susan Roesgen now reports, it seems like everyone has an opinion.
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SUSAN ROESGEN reporting:
There's a shop on Magazine Street in New Orleans that sells a popular T-shirt. It's a T-shirt that reads `Nagin for president.' Diada Snezek(ph) stopped in the other day to buy two of them.
Ms. DIADA SNEZEK: They're for me and a friend, and we just--while we were away we went to Atlanta, and he seemed to be the only one that actually knew what was going on and we really appreciate it, so we want to show our support.
ROESGEN: Four years ago, Ray Nagin convinced New Orleans voters they needed an outsider, a businessman, not a politician, to pull this funky Southern city into the 21st century and end the perception that you couldn't get a city contract without greasing somebody's palm. Nagin graduated from Tuskegee with a degree in accounting, got his MBA at Tulane and worked his way up to the top job at the local cable company, Cox Communications, when he decided to run for mayor.
Mayor RAY NAGIN (Democrat, New Orleans): I was kind of coasting along at Cox and doing some entrepreneurial things, and my son and I were talking with some of his friends about their future and whether they would come back to New Orleans after they graduated from college, and to a person they said they wouldn't.
ROESGEN: Nagin touched a raw nerve in New Orleans, the fear that the best and brightest were moving away, fed up with poverty, crime and a crumbling school system. Before the hurricane, the mayor could point to some success, a crackdown on corruption in the city's taxicab bureau and a more streamlined City Hall. But poverty and crime remained, and the schools got worse. Then came Katrina, a disaster Nagin says no one could have prepared for.
Mayor NAGIN: I think I did a pretty decent job. If you ask me do I have any regrets or if I could have done anything better, sure. You know, I beat myself up all the time. What could I have done? Could I have called for a mandatory evacuation earlier, even though it was the first one in the city's history? Could I have staged buses outside the city and figured out a way to get drivers? You know, all of those things, you know, going in my mind.
ROESGEN: Nagin gets praise for saying in the city during the storm, although he slept in a penthouse suite in the Hyatt Hotel and not in the sweltering Superdome, which he could see from his window. Now, with the Feds promising billions to rebuild the city, some people wonder if the mayor has a clearly defined plan for spending that money. Jeff Crouere is the host of a political talk show on local radio.
Mr. JEFF CROUERE (Radio Host): Nagin is known for throwing out grand ideas like `Let's sell the airport,' or, `Let's redo City Hall,' and all these great ideas--he never implements them, never follows through on anything, and we need somebody to follow through right now.
ROESGEN: But others think the mayor is doing things right. Nagin lobbied Congress to try and get a guarantee that the levees will be rebuilt stronger than before. He's been holding town meetings to hear residents' concerns in New Orleans and in other cities filled with evacuees. And he formed a 17-member commission to brainstorm ways to rebuild the city. Local millionaire shipbuilder Boise Bollinger is a member of that commission.
Mr. BOISE BOLLINGER (Shipbuilder): I think he's given this commission a fair amount of latitude as far as coming up with a vision. He obviously is on the commission, he is obviously very active in the commission, but he's not trying to run it. At least my experience thus far has been he wants the commission to come up with a plan, one that he'll be glad to embrace, I think, when it's done.
ROESGEN: Another member of the mayor's commission, City Councilman Oliver Thomas, isn't as enthusiastic. Thomas says the mayor's overwhelmed by what's happened and shouldn't be so proud of being a businessman instead of a politician.
Mr. OLIVER THOMAS (City Council, New Orleans): There's a certain amount of experience that comes with dealing with bureaucracy every day, dealing with government every day, dealing with tragedy every day, dealing with crisis every day. And you don't get that in the private sector.
ROESGEN: Lately, Mayor Nagin has begun to talk about himself even less as a politician and more as a man destined to lead the city.
Mayor NAGIN: I'm here for a reason and I think it's bigger than politics, and, you know, it's bigger than Ray Nagin and you need somebody that's not necessarily paying attention to a poll to basically guide them on what decision to make, and you need to be strong enough in yourself that if you're criticized you're OK. And I can sleep at night--every night.
ROESGEN: Nagin says he looks forward to a fight for re-election in February, and he may get one. Councilman Thomas is considering a run and Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, brother of US Senator Mary Landrieu, could be in the race, too. Back at the T-shirt stop on Magazine Street, the `Nagin for president' shirt may be flying off the rack, but it's not the most popular shirt in the store. The mayor is edged out by one that says `Make levees, not war.' For NPR News, I'm Susan Roesgen in New Orleans.
BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.