Mayor of New Orleans
Born Clarence Ray Nagin Jr., June 11, 1956, in New Orleans, LA; married Seletha Smith, 1982; children: Jeremy, Jarin (son), Tianna. Education: Tuskegee Institute, B.S., 1978; Tulane University, M.B.A., 1994.
Addresses: Office —New Orleans City Hall, 1300 Perdido St., New Orleans, LA 70112. Website —http://www.cityofno.com. Website —http://www.reelectmayornagin.com.
Worked for General Motors, Detroit, MI, late 1970s; joined Associates Corp., Dallas, TX, 1981; became controller of Cox New Orleans, 1985; became vice-president and general manager for Cox Communications in southeast Louisiana, 1989; elected mayor of New Orleans, 2002; re-elected, 2006.
Awards: Diversity and Role Model Award, Young Leadership Council, 1995.
Ray Nagin will forever be known as the man who was the mayor of New Orleans on the day when Hurricane Katrina flooded and nearly destroyed the city. Born and raised in New Orleans, Nagin became successful in business, then entered politics by running for mayor in 2002, hoping to transform his hometown's often-corrupt government and frail, outdated economy. Because of Katrina, Nagin became known worldwide, and opinions of him ranged as wildly as the surprising comments Nagin often makes. Is he a courageous leader who stayed with his deluged city and sounded the alarm when federal and state officials did not bring relief quickly enough in the tragic days after the hurricane? Or does he deserve at least as much criticism as federal officials do, for not planning better for an emergency evacuation?
The future mayor was born at Charity Hospital in New Orleans to a father who worked as a janitor at New Orleans City Hall by night and a clothing factory by day. His mother managed a lunch counter at a Kmart store. Nagin went to O. Perry Walker High School in the city. He was a good athlete, both in basketball and baseball. He attended the historically black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama on a baseball scholarship. After graduating in 1978, he worked for General Motors in Detroit, and then the company Associates Corp. in Dallas. He married his wife, Seletha, in 1982.
In 1985, Nagin moved back to New Orleans to take a job with the city's cable television franchise, run by the cable giant Cox. By 1989, he was in charge of Cox New Orleans as vice-president and general manager. It was a difficult job. The cable provider, which had 90,000 customers in New Orleans and its suburbs, was plagued by customer complaints, low profits, and very little growth. Nagin made the local franchise into one of Cox's best by improving customer service and updating its technology, spending $500 million on improving its fiber-optic network. He greatly expanded the number of subscribers, customer satisfaction, and the workforce.
Since local government regulates the cable industry and renews the contracts of cable providers, Nagin had to lobby politicians and respond to their concerns. He also became somewhat known in public by hosting a regular call-in show for cable customers. His public profile rose in 1998 when he became one of a dozen investors in a minor-league hockey team that moved to the city, the New Orleans Brass, as well as spokesman for the other investors. In 1998, the local alternative newspaper Gambit Weekly named Nagin its New Orleanian of the Year.
Nagin began thinking about entering politics in the fall of 2001, when New Orleans voters rejected an amendment to the city charter that would have let Mayor Marc Morial run for a third term. The race to succeed Morial in the winter 2002 elections was wide open, and Nagin felt none of the top candidates—two city councilmen, a state senator, and a police chief—were up to the job. He announced his candidacy in December of 2001. "The city needed a different type of leader—someone who had business acumen," he told Autumn C. Giusti of New Orleans Magazine . He said he felt compelled to run after talking to his college-age son and his friends. "They told me they didn't see a future for themselves in New Orleans," he recalled.
During his campaign, Nagin focused on economic development and corruption issues. While other Southern cities, such as Houston and Atlanta, were booming, New Orleans had a stagnant economy, reliant on tourism, the city port, and a declining share of the oil industry. Meanwhile, thanks to the city's history of corruption, many feared that doing business successfully in the city often required personal connections or even bribes.
In mid-January, Nagin attracted only five percent of voters in one poll. But the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Gambit Weekly both endorsed him, and he came in first in the primary. In the March runoff election, he won 59 percent of the vote, beating police chief Richard Pennington. He was the first New Orleans mayor in 66 years who had not held public office before.
Nagin took office in April of 2002 and assembled a staff that included many people from private business. "I surrounded myself with people who think outside the normal box of government, with a few governmental people sprinkled in to kind of make sure we have the experience levels we need," Nagin told Mark Miester of the Tulanian , the Tulane University magazine. "That's basically how we've approached it—as new thinkers, as change agents, as a group trying to make the city better."
In July of 2002, only two months into Nagin's term, he had New Orleans police arrest 84 people on corruption charges, including one of his relatives. "We are in a battle for the soul of New Orleans," he declared after the arrests, according to Miester of the Tulanian . Many of those arrested were cab drivers accused of paying bribes to get permits; others were workers at the city auto inspection stations. The arrests were considered a major symbolic act, a sign that Nagin would make good on his pledge to root out corruption. However, the New Orleans district attorney threw out charges against 53 of those arrested, citing a lack of evidence, and a judge tossed out the case against the deputy director of the city utilities department, the highest-ranking official arrested. Some grumbled that Nagin was going overboard, that others had convinced him that corruption was more widespread than it really was.
However, there was more to Nagin's campaign against corruption and favoritism. An official in the tax-collecting department abruptly resigned under suspicion of favoring certain businesses. Several well-paid public transit officials hired by the previous mayor were forced out. A contract that had proven lucrative for some allies of the former mayor was reorganized. Nagin invited the FBI to look through any city files that might help them, including old city contracts. "The perception that you have to do business under the table—whether it's real or imagined—if you want to do business in New Orleans is fading," Nagin said at his 2002 state of the city speech, according to Brett Martel of the Washington Post .
A poll in late 2002 showed Nagin had an 80 percent approval rating. "He's actually aggressively dismantling a system of grants and contracting that's benefited mayors and their contributors for decades," Susan Howell, a pollster at the University of New Orleans, told Martel of the Washington Post . In a New Orleans Magazine reader poll conducted for the January 2003 issue, Nagin won in the categories of New Orleanian of the Year, Favorite Politician, and the Best News That Happened to the City In '02.
Nagin also balanced the city's budget, which had faced a shortfall when he arrived. He created a "pothole patrol" that filled in 48,000 potholes in city streets during his first year in office. He updated the city's website to make it easy to do everything from applying for permits to paying parking tickets online. However, the city's crime rate remained high, even increasing by some accounts. By early 2004, Nagin's honeymoon was over. Polls and press coverage showed his popularity was declining, especially among the city's black majority. While Nagin appeared to place himself above politics early on, key interest groups felt ignored. Local black ministers felt he was not giving enough public jobs to black-owned businesses. City council members complained that he was not including them in enough decision-making. Nagin began to immerse himself more in politics and schmoozing, courting the support of powerful groups.
In September of 2004, Nagin faced a leadership choice that foreshadowed the Katrina crisis when Hurricane Ivan approached New Orleans. Nagin announced a voluntary evacuation of the city, and hundreds of thousands of people left. Then Ivan turned away. Some New Orleanians, lulled into a false sense of security by many years without facing a major hurricane, ridiculed Nagin for ordering the evacuation. On the other hand, a report in the newspaper New Orleans CityBusiness warned that the city's evacuation plan did not serve many low-income residents well, since some emergency shelters had closed too early and the Superdome, the football stadium, was opened too late as a shelter of last resort. Nagin told the newspaper's Richard A. Webster that a complete mandatory evacuation of the city was impossible because 100,000 of its residents did not own cars. "We can't announce a mandatory evacuation because we can't deliver it," he said. Meanwhile, that summer, local and regional disaster officials staged a simulation of a major hurricane and warned that transportation would be a serious problem if a hurricane hit the city.
During the next 12 months, New Orleans Magazine readers again named Nagin their favorite politician. Nagin asserted at his 2005 state of the city address that New Orleans had attracted $3.2 billion in public and private investment. He announced plans to fight crime by recruiting more officers to the city's undermanned police force, in part by suspending the requirement that officers live in the city. He also proposed taking over about 20 of the city's worst schools.
But the future of New Orleans and its mayor changed completely on August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the city. Two days before the storm, Nagin warned New Orleans residents to board up their homes and evacuate. But he hesitated to make the evacuation mandatory, worried, some say, by the criticism of his evacuation warning before Ivan. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a test. This is the real deal," he announced, according to Mary Foster of the New York Times . The next day, about 24 hours before the storm hit, he did order a mandatory evacuation, the city's first ever. About 80 percent of New Orleans residents, especially those with cars, fled north. Buses shuttled many of those without cars downtown to the Superdome and the city's convention center.
On Monday the 29th, the storm hit, the levees surrounding New Orleans burst, and 80 percent of the city filled with water. Nagin set up a command post in the Hyatt Hotel across from City Hall. Looting spread throughout the city. Three days after the storm, supplies and transportation had still not arrived in the city on a large scale, nor had enough federal troops arrived to restore order. On September 2, the mayor released a statement to reporters warning that the 15,000 to 20,000 people sheltered at the convention center were running out of supplies and living in unsafe, unsanitary conditions. "This is a desperate SOS," he said, according to Peter Carlson of the Washington Post .
Nagin sounded even more desperate in an interview that evening on the local radio station WWLAM, which was soon re-broadcast around the country. He told interviewer Garland Robinette that he had called President George W. Bush and told him to send more help. Federal officials were "thinking small" during an "incredible crisis," he charged. "Don't tell me 40,000 people are coming here," he said. "They're not here. It's too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let's fix the biggest … crisis in the history of this country." During the interview, he began crying. Every day without more help, the mayor declared, "people are dying, and they're dying by the hundreds." In fact, more than a thousand people died in New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina.
The Katrina disaster, and especially the WWL interview, made Nagin a household name around the world. His anger resonated with the many Americans who were shocked that it took the federal government four to five days to provide effective disaster relief in New Orleans. However, Nagin also received strong criticism for his performance during the hurricane crisis. The mayor's critics pointed out that evacuation before a storm is a local and state responsibility. They said Nagin should have worked harder to move poorer residents out of the city. To make the point, television footage showed dozens of school buses, left idle during the evacuation, stuck underwater after the storm. Nagin should have stored more supplies at the Superdome and convention center, critics said. Some questioned why Nagin stayed at the hotel, where communication with officials elsewhere was more difficult, rather than joining other city officials at an evacuation command center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Some accused him of exaggerating the crisis: at one point, he estimated that 10,000 people might have died due to the storm, an inflated number. He, like his top police official and many news reporters, also declared that female refugees at the Superdome had been raped, which was later debunked as a false rumor. Even his decision to focus the police on rescue efforts rather than preventing looting was questioned.
As the crisis gave way to cleanup, more of Nagin's actions became controversial. He announced that people could return to some parts of the city in mid-September, then reversed himself when federal officials warned a second hurricane, Rita, might threaten New Orleans. When many workers of Mexican descent came to New Orleans to help with the recovery, Nagin, who wanted city residents to get clean-up jobs, told a meeting of local businessmen he would help "make sure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers," according to the BBC. Tim Padgett of Time summarized the conflicting opinions of Nagin by describing him as "up-right but erratic."
That was before the mayor made his most infamous comments of all, in January of 2006, at a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday event. He declared, according to Martel of the Washington Post , that Hurricane Katrina was a sign that "God is mad at America" over the war in Iraq and over African Americans committing violence against each other. Addressing the fears that the city might not rebuild its black neighborhoods, he declared, "It's time for us to rebuild New Orleans—the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. This city will be a majority-African-American city. It's the way God wants it to be." The "chocolate New Orleans" comment appeared to be a reference to a 1975 song by the funk band Parliament, "Chocolate City," which celebrated how many American cities had black majorities. Rather than reassure black residents, the speech angered whites, especially his comment about the white Uptown neighborhood: "I don't care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day," he said, according to CNN.com. People in New Orleans and across the country condemned the speech. Nagin apologized for his comments about a vengeful God, saying they were inappropriate. He said he had meant to let black residents know they were still welcome, and had not meant to imply that Uptown residents were racist.
Meanwhile, Nagin also established a working relationship with Bush, despite having criticized him. He later thanked the president for the federal funds sent to help the city recover. Meanwhile, the mayor set a political agenda for the recovery. Since many New Orleans residents never returned after the storm, shrinking the tax base, he promised to lay off hundreds of city employees so that the city government could live within its reduced means. He called for charter schools as substitutes for public schools and promised tax breaks to process the goods that come through the port of New Orleans.
In May of 2006, Nagin announced a new evacuation plan for future hurricanes, which called for mandatory evacuations 30 to 36 hours before Category 1 or 2 hurricanes. He said buses would deliver residents without cars to the convention center, where other buses, owned by local, state and federal governments, would pick them up to take them out of the city. The convention center and Superdome would not be used as shelters of last resort, he said.
Nagin faced a tough fight for re-election in 2006, thanks to his response to the storm and his remarks afterward. The mayor's race attracted several candidates, including Louisiana's governor, Mitch Landrieu, son of New Orleans' last white mayor. Landrieu made it through the primary, and attacked Nagin for not picking up garbage or towing away flooded cars, for not organizing better neighborhood planning, and for losing support for the city with his ill-considered remarks.
Many observers predicted that Nagin would lose because of his perceived mistakes during the Katrina crisis and the change in New Orleans' demographics after the storm (black residents were less likely than white residents to move back). However, in May of 2006, Nagin won re-election with 52 percent of the vote. Rather than blame the death and destruction of Katrina on Nagin, political observers noted, New Orleans residents were more likely to place blame on the federal government for the failure of the levees it had built. Nagin was, one city resident told Cathy Booth Thomas and Russell McCulley of Time , "the captain that stayed with the sinking ship."
Jet , March 18, 2002.
New Orleans City Business , May 3, 2004; September 27, 2004; May 16, 2005.
New Orleans Magazine , January 2003, p. 11; November 2004, p. 72.
New Orleans Times-Picayune , January 17, 2006; May 3, 2006; May 21, 2006.
New York Times , September 21, 2005, p. A17; September 29, 2005, p. A1; May 2, 2006, p. A14; May 21, 2006, p. A1.
New York Times Book Review , p. 1.
Time , October 24, 2005, p. 34; April 10, 2006.
Tulanian , Spring 2003.
U.S. News & World Report , September 21, 2005.
Washington Post , November 9, 2002, p. A3; July 20, 2003, p. A9; August 28, 2005, p. A15; September 2, 2005, p. C1; January 17, 2006, p. A4.
"Assessment: Ray Nagin," Slate, http://www.slate.com/id/2125587/ (August 12, 2006).
"Mayor to feds: 'Get off your asses,'" CNN.com http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/09/02/nagin.transcript (August 12, 2006).
"Nagin apologizes for 'chocolate' city comments," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/01/17/nagin.city/ (August 12, 2006)
"Profile: Ray Nagin" BBC, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4623922.stm (September 24, 2006).