In our opinion, C. Ray Nagin was the worst mayor of our lifetimes. It is entirely possible that Nagin was the worst mayor in New Orleans’ 295-year history, going all the way back to the French and Spanish chief executives whom Danae has been studying recently.
However, being a terrible mayor is not of itself a crime. Later this month, a jury will be convened in federal court to consider whether accepting some $200,000 in cash and gifts, along with several truckloads of free granite, is indeed a federal crime. The jurors will presumably hear Nagin’s Chief Administrative Officer Greg Meffert and big-time vendor Mark St. Pierre, both of whom are currently doing time in the federal pen.
Entirely apart from the criminal allegations, we thought that Nagin was a lazy, low-energy mayor who wasted eight precious years doing very little for New Orleans. Because of Nagin, we think that it will be a while before New Orleans voters seriously consider putting a businessman (or businesswoman) candidate with little or no experience in government in the mayor’s office.
Between us we have some 80 years of watching New Orleans mayors up close. Allan was a reporter and columnist for the Times-Picayune and Danae worked on the staff of the late Dutch Morial. Later, we both worked for Marc Morial when he was in the mayor’s office. In our experience, every mayor of the last 50 years except Nagin has immersed himself in the office, learning in detail what the various city departments did and how they did it. You can sure say that of Mitch.
When Danae worked for Dutch, he was famous for calling his department heads and staff at 5 a.m. to tell them what he wanted done that day and expected you to be at your desk at 7 a.m. and still there at 7 p.m. Weekends, holidays? Forget it if it was campaign season, and it always was campaign season.
Whatever his flaws, faults and foibles, Dutch was a typical New Orleans mayor who loved the city and did his best to make it better. Dutch was in his office seven days a week and cared deeply about the details of governance.
By contrast, Nagin was a lost ball in high weeds. He spent an inordinate amount of time trying to fix himself and his family in the granite business and that led to some of the federal charges leveled against him. Nagin’s apologists would contend that it was Hurricane Katrina that threw him off track and that he was never the same after September 2005. We would respectfully contend that Nagin was a terrible mayor who did very little before Katrina and even less after Katrina. Actually, if you were “in” with Nagin – as many folk were – life could be wonderful, easy, public money flowing your way. And you can’t really say that about Mitch in these financial times.
In a sense, Nagin was the invention of the late, brilliant Jim Carvin, a fantastic political strategist. In 2002, he ran Nagin as the reform-minded businessman who would bring a Fortune 500 approach to city government. In that election, Nagin got more than 80 percent of the white vote. In 2006, after Katrina, Carvin needed a different shtick and that time, he ran Nagin as the son of the African-American community, “our mayor.” In the second go-round, Nagin got more than 80 percent of the black vote. It’s easy to understand that “save Sheriff Gusman – he’s one of us” will be the same voter message Sheriff Marlin Gusman is going to use in his relection campaign. No constituency likes losing the gains they worked so hard to achieve.
That Carvin was a very smart dude. In 2006, Carvin and Nagin still got a lot of help from Uptown Republicans who, at the time, liked to say, “I’d rather four years of Nagin than eight years of (Mitch) Landrieu.” Of course, they got both – four more horrible years from Nagin and very likely eight years of Landrieu. Or at least until Mitch wins the governor’s race. But that’s another story for another day.
One of the most interesting sidebars in the upcoming trial (assuming Nagin doesn’t cop a plea at the last minute, which we know he will not) is whether the feds decide to put businessman George Solomon on the stand to testify against Nagin. Solomon is a very interesting, smart and hardworking guy. He is the son of the late Teddy Solomon, patriarch of the Solomon family, who came to New Orleans in the late 1960s. The family’s roots go back to Lebanon.
Teddy was a business genius who went from drive-in theaters to single-screen indoor theaters and multi-plex stadium type theaters. George has carried on the legacy. He is a respected businessman, a good father and husband who gives to all the right charities.
But after Katrina, a proposed multiplex theater in Eastern New Orleans had fallen through and a man the feds call ‘Businessman A’ needed a mayoral indulgence to cover up alleged delinquent tax fees and overdue loan payments, according to reports about the case. These waivers were allegedly granted by Nagin, after which Businessman A, said to be Solomon, hosted the Nagin family to a holiday in New York City that is alleged to have cost some $23,000.
If the feds put Solomon on the stand, what in the world is he going to say? Will he say he thought that was the way that business had always been done in New Orleans? And really, would he be lying? What will the jury think when Nagin’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, presumably points out that Solomon was not indicted although he apparently gave the Nagin family a free ride in New York as thanks for favors rendered.
Another fascinating point will be whether Nagin takes the stand in his own defense. If so, it will need to be the performance of his life. It will also be an opportunity for Nagin’s attorney, Jenkins, to elevate himself in the criminal defense community. If Nagin beats this rap, Jenkins will deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Jim Carvin.
Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City Councilwoman Stacy Head, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and council candidate Dana Kaplan.