Friday, November 14, 2008

In Defense of Mayor Nagin (Part II)

I wrote part I over the summer.

Today I wrote another.

Let me preface it with a call for the immediate resignation or dismissal of Sanitation Director Veronica White.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin sure was dealt a tough hand when Katrina came. At the point the storm came 2005, he was well into the third year of his first term. His administration had earned a reputation for adequacy. Unfortunately, Mayor Nagin had not pressed for updated hurricane evacuation plans as aggressively as he should have. A strong municipal game plan became that much more necessary when President Bush left FEMA in the stead of political hacks. We were on our own without viable hurricane preparations and were finally facing the worst-case scenario storm that we’d always been told would come. As the federal rescue failed to materialize, while Michael Brown was eating steak dinners in Baton Rouge, Mayor Nagin was left on his own. Our government failed us and our Mayor was put in an impossible situation. Certainly, he had not done enough to revamp our evacuation procedures but the newly minted Department of Homeland Security was created to help coordinate that very effort, especially at the nation’s most vulnerable locales. The DHS failed New Orleans and it failed the nation. Instead of revamping our country’s disaster response mechanisms, President Bush had merely assembled a leach-like bureaucracy from which to reward political patrons with jobs and contracts. Our country was no more prepared for a catastrophic hurricane than it was for a terrorist attack, disease outbreak or earthquake. And Ray Nagin was left holding the bag.

It wasn’t fair. It was too much for one man. For New Orleans, Mayor Nagin was the town crier, the constable, and the bucket brigade. For the President, his henchman Karl Rove, and the rest of the right-wing machine, he was the fall guy.

I will never ever forgive those people for what they did to this city. I will never forgive George Bush or Karl Rove or the conservative court jesters that left this city to drown or advocated we abandon it forever when it didn’t.

But I forgave Ray Nagin.

I forgave him because even though he didn’t do enough, he was asked to do it all. I forgave him because he yelled and cursed and cried while Bush, Brown, and Chertoff patted each other on the back. I forgave him because I thought he would never forgive them. I forgave Ray Nagin because I thought he’d never forget what they did to our city and I thought he’d keep yelling and cursing and crying until they made it up to us. I respected C. Ray Nagin enough as a man to believe that if he didn’t have the decency to do right by us as a matter of service, we’d at least benefit from the revenge campaign.

But since then…

Since then, Mayor C. Ray Nagin has worked to earn my utmost contempt. His second term in office has been a disaster of epic proportions, a criminal enterprise, a human rights violation for which Ray Nagin can never earn forgiveness. Ever. Let alone respect.

And he has crafted a city in his own image:

A city incapable of delivering basic public services to its citizens, a city unwilling to expand economic opportunity for those most routinely left behind. Mayor Nagin squandered every last ounce of international goodwill and sympathy with a recovery agenda that favors every whim of big business and every impulse of his well-heeled friends.

Instead of working toward a compromise plan to rehabilitate our public housing stock, Ray Nagin laughed his way to the wrecking ball as his city burst at the seems with the same racist rhetoric of so many public service debates of years past. Instead of embracing the permanent supportive housing initiatives that prove to be the best means of reducing homelessness in cities all across the nation, Mayor Nagin and his police chief Warren Riley used entrapment tactics and insidious loitering laws to arrest them or herd them into camp-like barracks. That episode got so bad that the Bush administration had to send down representatives to talk Ray Nagin into a more humanitarian approach.

Instead of using this cities recovery funds, Katrina reparations belonging to victims of the Federal Flood, Mayor Nagin and his incompetent planning stooge Ed Blakely hatched ridiculous development schemes that don’t come close to addressing our emergency recovery priorities. Take our community block grant development funds: What could have gone toward needed infrastructure improvements at target zone sites around O.C. Haley Boulevard or St. Claude Avenue were instead allocated in huge sums toward a river redevelopment scheme being planned for the distant future. What could have been used to reopen Charity Hospital was instead allocated in vast amounts to demolishing a recovering Mid-City neighborhood for a new LSU/VA hospital that won’t materialize for years to come. When basic municipal functions like the police, the fire department, EMS, and the DA office are struggling to find enough support to staff their temporary offices, the Mayor heralds plans for golf courses, tennis courts, and condominiums. He touts the return of the tourists as the benchmark for which we are too judge our own quality of life.

His actions as Mayor, his policies, have squandered our national goodwill. New Orleans is seen as a money pit and Mayor Nagin is viewed as a laughingstock. While the media’s treatment of certain ill-conceived remarks has not helped, those do not constitute the substance of the Nagin administration’s well-deserved reputation. Rather, it is his reactionary ideas, his lack of vision, and above all, the lack of results.

Though African Americans no longer constitute the overwhelming majority of the city’s population, it can be safely said that the African American community has been most victimized by Mayor Nagin’s wrongheaded recovery policy. This is what is so disconcerting about his most recent invocation of race in defense of his administrations incompetence, and really his repeated use of this defense mechanism throughout his term. What happened this week at City Council is clear. Our city’s sanitation department is dysfunctional on a number of counts. Sanitation Director Veronica White has locked us into some exploitative trash service contracts with the Mayor’s closest political friends and donors at a time where every saved penny is needed for other public service emergencies. Her stewardship over demolition contracts have made her an integral cog in the broken machine that is this city’s blight removal program. Instead of leaning on delinquent slumlords, the city has improperly subjected scores of salvageable homes to the wrecking ball. The city now stands to lose millions more in lawsuits from wronged property owners. But when Stacy Head has the audacity to question Veronica White about her job, all of a sudden she’s being inappropriately racial and profane.

It is like the time last year that Council called hearings into the ‘unlimited bulky waste’ provision that was retroactively stripped from the sanitation contracts. Instead of correcting the mistake and saving the city millions of dollars, Mayor Nagin encouraged his administration to defend the contractors on racial grounds. When it was discovered that the quasi-governmental nonprofit had essentially embezzled millions of dollars in CDBG money, Mayor Nagin maliciously attacked the citizens that had brought the issue to light as enemies of the recovery. He purposely lumps liberal bloggers with the unfiltered anonymous conservative and racist talk radio leftovers on as the new Ku Klux Klan. Now he accuses Stacy Head of race-baiting because she dared to suggest that Veronica White was wasting millions more of the citizens’ dollars.

It is patterned behavior. The Mayor categorizes all of his critics, be they from the right or the left, as racially motivated. It is a mechanism he has employed time and again to avoid providing justification for his administration’s policies or avoids holding his underlings accountable for their failings. Critics are not looking for criminal activity to throw people in jail and claim victory. We just need our government to do better for us. When watchdogs discover waste, when they call attention to instances of incompetence, it is because they want you to correct them and move on. Instead, the Mayor refuses to acknowledge that problems exist, erects a smoke and mirrors campaign to obscure the information available, or accuses detractors of racism. Instead of embracing efforts to improve the function of government, the Mayor’s defensive posturing only magnifies the appearance of criminal impropriety.

In a sense, I understand where it comes from. African Americans fought too long and hard to earn their fair share of power in this historically racist city. That African Americans sometimes feel defensive about criticisms lobbed at high profile black officials is understandable given historical context and more recent efforts to use planning to eradicate communities deemed inviable and invaluable. When African American leaders use race as a political bludgeon, it effectively evokes not just the dark chapters of the past but also the sinister efforts of parts of the white establishment in the present-day.

The ‘chocolate city’ speech resounded in this city because African American communities were truly fighting to stay on the map. Now, C. Ray Nagin can no longer credibly sound that alarm because he has switched teams. Instead of fighting for the greater African American community he promised to represent, he has embraced the plan B agenda of the very same interests that originally sought to avoid rebuilding poor neighborhoods all together. We’ve become all too familiar with what that Plan B looks like. In it, Mayor Nagin clings desperately to the loyalty of political patronage while the people of this city, and African Americans disproportionately, are deprived of basic public services, intermediate opportunity, and advanced vision for this city's ultimate revenge: A full, just, and equitable recovery.


Schroeder said...

I remain bitter for having defended that bastard after Katrina. His actions since then have been thoroughly, unredeemably contemptible. I hate the man with every fiber of my existence. He has no moral right whatsoever to run this city.

One correction -- check you facts.

"African Americans no longer constitute the overwhelming majority of the city’s population"

I believe you will find that African-Americans may not comprise two-thirds of the city, but I think the number is still around 60 percent -- a decisive majority.

E said...

Right, I should have parsed that out a little bit better. I was merely trying to point out that the city went from 70% to much closer to 50-50. Or 60%, if that's correct.

E said...

I should have italicized 'overwhelming.' It's not too late. I'm going to now.

jeffrey said...

The one problem I have with this post is that, while you accurately characterize the post-Flood Nagin administration as "a criminal enterprise, a human rights violation for which Ray Nagin can never earn forgiveness," you blunt a significant point by characterizing his first term as "earned a reputation for adequacy"

Now I understand that even that is not exactly a statement of praise but it still serves the typical "Nagin-went-crazy-after-the-storm" myth which masks the real problem here.

The lesson we should all learn from the Nagin experience is the exact same lesson the country has learned from the Bush years. And that is when you elect a laissez-faire, "business-friendly" candidate who runs on a platform of privatizing public services, this is the kind of government you can expect from such a person. Uninterested crony-disaster-capitalism.

It didn't just happen out of the blue. These things are directly related... and kind of central to the story.

jeffrey said...

Sorry if that comment isn't entirely coherent.... there are a lot of screaming children in here.

E said...

I thought about that line for awhile. I never agreed with his approach to urban policy. And I do think the 'Nagin went crazy post K' meme can be misleading. But I don't think his first term approaches catastrophic. It was functional, even if the policies sucked and even if there was a lot of waste and corruption even then.

Put it this way, would you have considered Ray Nagin to be the worst Mayor in New Orleans history in July of 05? I wouldn't have.

But now...

jeffrey said...

Would you consider Bush the worst President ever had there been no 9/11?

E said...

Not really the same kind of question because I'm not saying that Nagin would or wouldn't have gotten precipitously worse even had there not been a Hurricane Katrina. I'm just wondering what your judgment was before the storm not what it would have been if there had never been a storm.

Karen said...

The Mayor's attempts to silence dissent is only made more tragic by people attempting to explain away his behavior as madness.

I am not saying that you do that just to point out that it is his plan to create a wall of critical silence.

jeffrey said...

My opinion of him hasn't really changed much regardless of the storm. I found myself writing a lot more about him after the storm... but that's more a function of the local news being a bigger part of the daily blogging since then. Here's what I said about him in 2003 when I first mentioned the Jindal exorcism.

I'm not at all surprised that he picked up the Nagin endorsement. Nagin shares much of Jindal's phoniness and anti-working class agenda.

E said...


That is absolutely right. It's intentional.


I guess that's about right but I stand by the use of the word 'adequacy.'

Anonymous said...

I considered Bush to be the worst president in American history after troops were sent to Iraq. The months after 9-11 and before the Iraq war talk began to be discussed in a public manner by our leaders and best-known pundits, etc.--that's the only time I found myself rooting for G.W.

As in, "He might be the best president, but by God he's the only president we've got." Unlike Ted Striker in "Airplane!" however, he didn't leave me wanting to give him advice about municipal bonds and such. After the Iraq talk began in earnest, in other words, I wanted him to be gone. It's been a long wait, and things have only grown worse, in far too many ways.

I think G.W. and Nagin were almost fated to meet and be involved in such a very public disaster, by the way. Nagin acts just like re being defensive and acting like he's tired of his job, instead being ready to move on. Read the "Details" article and tell me if you don't get the same impression, if you hadn't already.

bayoustjohndavid said...

Had it not been for Katrina, the city would be much more racially divided than it is today. At least, that's one plausible scenario. Before Katrina, I paid much more attention to national politics than local politics, but when I read old articles, I can't help but conclude that Nagin's reformer image started to fall apart in six months prior to Katrina. Look at any of the old articles at the Nagin Files or read this old Gambit column to see what I'm talking about. The press was willing to assume that Nagin had been hoodwinked by Charles Rice (who left shortly before Katrina), so the corruption probably wouldn't have become obvious until a second term, but it would have become undeniable. I can just imagine the comments we would have seen on when Nagin the reformer turned out to be a fraud.

BTW, it's incorrect to say that Nagin wasn't prepared for Katrina. He started baking the pie before the storm made landfall:

The day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Mayor Ray Nagin signed a contract potentially worth tens of millions of dollars with Omni Pinnacle of Slidell.

Of course, that was Charles Rice's new firm.

Clifton said...

Ray Nagin is incompetent and he needs to be replaced but not enough attention is given to the fact that he is really not doing anything that hasn't been done in city government since the beginning. This is the way New Orleans has always worked and the next mayor will be doing the same things unless there are some new ethics rules or a change in the city charter. This city was built on taking care of friends and allies. I think the support in the black community for ineffective leadership is overstated. I think the black community has given up on local government. The Lewis/Clarkson runoff for the at large council seat was a good example of that. How you change things when over half of the population isn't involved is beyond me.

Here's the strange thing about this whole scenario. Before Katrina the black community didn't really trust or care for Ray Nagin that much. We didn't really make him mayor the first time. He was so embraced by the business and white community that before the storm there wasn't any real challenge to his second term. He's really been no different in his second term than he was before. I never voted for him. I was certain Richard Pennington was the right man for the job.

E said...

"I think the black community has given up on local government."

Cliff, I think most everyone has given up on local gov't, unfortunately.

But you're right.