When it was announced that Ray Nagin had been indicted for corruption, the response included a lot of “it figures” or “When was the last time a New Orleans mayor wasn’t indicted?”
The answer is Nagin’s predecessor, actually. And his predecessors before that. Which is not to say that there hasn’t been corruption in New Orleans and hasn’t been, but this is actually new.
What I find particularly interesting about the reaction to the story is the extent to which Ray Nagin has been shoehorned into the role of “corrupt, black, inner-city mayor.” It minimally brings to mind party machine politics. For some, it brings to mind maybe a little race-baiting. Or racism on the part of his opposition.
Mayor Nagin, though, was from the start supposed to be different. He didn’t rise through party machinery. He didn’t even rise through government. He was actually supposed to be the “outsider” to come in and clean things up. Prior to Katrina, he had a broad base of support among Democrats and Republicans alike. He endorsed Bobby Jindal (arguably costing Jindal his first gubernatorial bid). There was some talk of the Louisiana GOP trying to recruit Nagin. He stood by and watched his own cousin get indicted in his efforts to clean up New Orleans’s cab system.
Then, of course, Katrina happened. The insufficiency of the city’s response seared him in people’s minds as a certain type of mayor, even though he didn’t really fit the profile. Gradually, he did seem to start growing into the role. He stuck with those that stuck by him, and that included very few people in his previously broad-based coalition. Regardless of who he had previously, he found himself the mayor of an ineffectual city apparatus that couldn’t do its part to respond to a crisis (regardless of the failures at the federal level, there were not only failures at the federal level).
It reminds me a bit of Sarah Palin, in a way. When Palin was picked as McCain’s vice presidential candidate, she wasn’t who she eventually became. But everybody decided that was who she was. The Democrats wanted a right-wing bogeyman. The conservatives wanted someone on the ticket they could believe in. And so, that’s who she became. Eventually, a cartoon of herself. Nagin never became a cartoon, but there was a fair amount of enthusiasm among not just conservatives, but liberals as well, to consider Nagin in a particularly light.
Due to Katrina, Nagin may actually be the last African-American mayor New Orleans has in a while. One wonders if the perception of the mayoralty of New Orleans will change because of that.