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Ray Nagin

Clarence Ray Nagin, Jr. (born June 11, 1956) is the mayor of New Orleans. He was first elected on March 2, 2002, to succeed his fellow Democrat, Marc Morial. Nagin gained international attention in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the New Orleans area.

Early life

Nagin was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to a Creole family. He spent his early years in the Seventh Ward, until his family moved to the New Aurora section of Algiers in the early 1970s. He graduated from O. Perry Walker High School in 1974, and received a BS in Accounting from Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1978 and an MBA from Tulane University in 1994. He and his wife, Seletha Smith Nagin, a graduate of the University of New Orleans, have three children; Jeremy, Jarin, and Tianna.

Before his election in 2002, Nagin had never held public office; he was a vice president and general manager at Cox Communications, a cable company and subsidiary of Cox Enterprises. Several news sources, including BBC News and numerous blogs and editorials have stated that Nagin was a registered Republican for most of his adult life, switching to the Democratic Party shortly before seeking office This can be seen through Nagin's campaign contributions to George Bush in 2000. In a January 13, 2006 interview on the Tavis Smiley show, Nagin himself denied these rumors, stating that he "never was a Republican" and that he has been a "life-long Democrat", and several of the news sources reporting that he was a Republican have since issued retractions. He did give contributions periodically to candidates of both parties, including Representative Billy Tauzin in 1999 and 2000, as well as Democratic Senators John Breaux and J. Bennett Johnston, Jr. earlier in the decade.

2002 mayoral election

Nagin entered the race for mayor after other candidates better known on the local political scene had announced their candidacy. Nagin's candidacy was at first considered a long shot, and he was not backed by any of the city's established political organizations. However, many voters favored Nagin's expressions of disgust with traditional Louisiana politics, including promises to fight political corruption and run the city in a more businesslike manner. Shortly before the primary mayoral election, Gambit Weekly endorsed Nagin as a reformer, giving him crucial momentum that would carry through the primary and subsequent runoff.

Then in the first round of the crowded mayoral election in February 2002, Nagin received first place with 29 percent of the vote, against opponents such as Police Chief Richard Pennington, State Senator Paulette Irons, City Councilman Troy Carter and others. In the runoff with Pennington in March 2002, Nagin won with 59 percent of the vote. His campaign was largely self-financed. Nagin received 85% of the white vote and 40% of the black vote.

Nagin's first term

Shortly after taking office, Nagin launched an anti-corruption campaign within city government, including crackdowns on the city's Taxicab Bureau and Utilities Department. Media scenes of corrupt officials being led out of City Hall in handcuffs were received with surprised enthusiasm by much of the public. When an investigation into corruption among city vehicle inspection (locally known as "brake tag" inspection) certification workers suggested that corruption was systemic, Nagin fired the entire department workforce. He declared a month-long hiatus on inspections and a moratorium on ticketing for expired tags while an entirely new force of employees were hired and trained for the city's brake tag inspection stations. Nagin's actions were viewed with surprise, given the state's history of preferential political treatment for people with social or family connections. Indeed, when Nagin was asked what should be done about his cousin, who was implicated in the taxi cab bureau scandals, Nagin said "if he's guilty, arrest him." Nagin's cousin was later arrested.

Nagin often clashed with the New Orleans City Council, and as a result failed to get council support for proposed legislation he favored. He was criticized for often publicly announcing new programs or proposed policies without having them vetted by other city leaders.

As Hurricane Ivan threatened the Gulf of Mexico in September 2004, Nagin urged New Orleanians to be ready for the storm, preferably to evacuate with some "Benjamins" ($100 bills) handy, and urged any who planned to stay to not only stock up on food and water but also to make sure they had "an axe in the attic," a reference to the many people trapped in their attics by rising floodwaters when Hurricane Betsy hit the city in 1965. Nagin issued a call for a voluntary evacuation of the city at 6 p.m. on September 13. Some 600,000 New Orleanians left. Thousands were stuck in highway traffic for 12 or even 24 hours. The hurricane missed the city.

Nagin controversially endorsed conservative Republican Bobby Jindal over conservative Blue Dog Democratic Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Blanco in the 2003 runoff for governor. He only reluctantly endorsed the Democratic candidate, U.S. Senator John Kerry, in the 2004 presidential race.

Hurricane Katrina

On August 26, 2005, the National Hurricane Center predicted for the first time that Hurricane Katrina would become a Category 4 storm, and thus exceed the design limits of the New Orleans levees. That same day, Governor Blanco declared a state of emergency.

On August 26 Mayor Nagin advised New Orleanians to keep a close eye on the storm and prepare for evacuation. He made various statements encouraging people to leave without officially calling for an evacuation throughout Saturday the 27th before issuing a call for voluntary evacuation that evening. He stressed the potential danger posed by Katrina by saying "This is not a test. This is the real deal." He was hesitant to order a mandatory evacuation because of concerns about the city's liability for closing hotels and other businesses. Nagin continued to announce that the city attorney was reviewing the information regarding this issue and once he had reviewed the city attorney's opinion he would make a decision whether to give the order to evacuate the city.

On Sunday morning August 28, Katrina became a Category 4 hurricane, and, with fewer than 24 hours left before the storm's landfall, Nagin declared a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, the first in the city's history, and the first for a U.S. city of this size since the American Civil War. From dawn Sunday morning onward New Orleans radio and television repeatedly broadcast Nagin's pleas for everybody to leave town as quickly and safely as possible. He declared the Superdome as a shelter of last resort for those who couldn't leave. Nagin and Blanco urged the citizens who sought shelter at the Superdome to bring enough food and water for at least 3 days. The two leaders also urged the people to treat their stay in the dome as a camping trip. State governor-controlled National Guard troops were stationed inside the Superdome to screen evacuees for weapons and feed the citizens gathered there yet the situation within the Superdome became very difficult for evacuees.

Katrina shifted eastward approximately from its expected landfall point, which was to be a direct hit on the city of New Orleans, only a couple of hours prior to making landfall, reducing the anticipated wind damage to the city. Several levees and flood walls were breached a few hours after landfall, and within 24 hours up to 80% of the city was flooded. An estimated 90,000 were still in the city when the hurricane made landfall on August 29, causing severe damage to most of New Orleans. See: Effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. Some have criticized Nagin's lack of leadership and believe it resulted in increased hardship for many of New Orleans' poorer citizens.

Criticism of relief efforts

On September 1, 2005, Nagin held a high-profile interview on the relief situation with Garland Robinette, on radio station WWL in which he bluntly criticized the delays in aid to the city. He expressed anger with what he saw as the slow federal and state response, imploring citizens to request that President Bush and Louisiana Governor Blanco send the required resources. "I don't want to see anybody do anymore goddamn press conferences," he said. "Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don't do another press conference until the resources are in this city". He compared the reaction to Hurricane Katrina with the swift national reaction to 9/11 and the war in Iraq. He concluded the interview by telling Bush and the federal government, "Now get off your asses and let's do something, and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.

As part of what was apparently a larger effort to assign responsibility for the inadequate response, Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security, explained on September 4 that "the way that emergency operations act under the law is, the responsibility and the power, the authority, to order an evacuation rests with state and local officials. The federal government comes in and supports those officials.

On September 4, President Bush responded to Nagin's criticism by focusing on the failings of state and local authorities, stating that the disaster's magnitude "created tremendous problems that have strained state and local capabilities. The result is that many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans. And that is unacceptable.

Other local politicians criticized the way the federal government handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Parish Presidents Junior Rodriguez from St. Bernard, Benny Rousselle from Plaquemines and Aaron Broussard from Jefferson are among the most notable ones.

Confiscation of firearms

In 2005, groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) successfully sued Nagin and others in order to stop gun seizures in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The organizations have (as of March 2006) also filed documents seeking to hold Nagin and others in contempt of court for violating the consent order. The case is “National Rifle Association of America, Inc., et al. v. C. Ray Nagin et al.”.

Controversy

Some newspaper editorial writers have criticized Nagin for not handling evacuation procedures properly and, in particular, for allowing hundreds of New Orleans' buses — which might have been used for evacuating poor or elderly people — to sit idle in parking lots that were part of the first sections of the city flooded. In the September 1 interview, he said driving school buses had been proposed, and that he wanted every Greyhound bus line moving to New Orleans. On a September 11 appearance on Meet the Press, Nagin said the buses sat unused because there was no one to drive them.

After Katrina: Continued controversy

At a town hall meeting in October 2005, Nagin said: "I can see in your eyes, you want to know, 'How do I take advantage of this incredible opportunity? How do I make sure New Orleans is not overrun with Mexican workers,'" referring to the influx of Mexican laborers coming to New Orleans to help rebuild the city. Hispanic groups, including the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, criticized Nagin's statement as prejudiced, although those attending the town hall meeting reportedly applauded — many in the area believed the jobs should instead go to local workers displaced by the hurricane.

Elections for Mayor and City Council members had been scheduled for February 2006, but these were postponed due to the devastation after Katrina and the many New Orleanians still living out of the city.

In an interview with Public Radio International's Tavis Smiley originally broadcast on January 13, 2006, Nagin said that he has never been a Republican and is a "life-long Democrat." Also in that interview, Nagin used the phrase "chocolate city" in reference to New Orleans' future demographics, a term that would become troublesome for him just a few days later. The idea for a "Chocolate City" reportedly originated with the popular 1970s-era musical band Parliament. A book by historian Douglas Brinkley titled The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast assails Nagin for his response to Hurricane Katrina. The book relies on people closely involved in the disaster relief effort to provide insight into Nagin's behavior the days and weeks following the catastrophic event. For example, Kathleen Blanco is quoted describing Nagin as "a total void" and "falling apart". For his part, Nagin has questioned the timing of the book's release, coming less than 2 weeks prior to the Mayor's runoff election, and has called the book "a political hit."

The Martin Luther King Day / "Chocolate City" speech

At a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration in New Orleans on January 16, 2006, the mayor gave a speech that created new controversy, with comments that many observers felt increased racial divides and neighborhood antagonisms within the city. Nagin's statements of knowing the will of God was objected to by some.

Nagin repeated the "Chocolate City" metaphor and proclaimed that New Orleans will be "chocolate again." This was seized upon and parodied by some commentators, cartoons, and merchandising. Various designs of T-shirts with satirical depictions of Nagin as Willy Wonka were sold in the city and on the Internet.

Other parts of the speech were reportedly more disturbing to some New Orleanians than the "chocolate" reference. Nagin had also said, "I don't care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are." Some people took "Uptown" as a coded reference to wealthy whites, such as those who live in the old mansions on Saint Charles Avenue or around Audubon Park. However, Uptown New Orleans is one of the most ethnically and economically diverse sections of the Metro area. Many of Nagin's original supporters live Uptown.

As Uptown contains the largest section of unflooded high ground in the city's East Bank, at the time of the speech Uptown had the city's largest concentration of locals back in their homes, businesses back open, and displaced New Orleanians from other more severely damaged parts of town living there. Locals protested the Mayor's comment about not caring about an important section of his city.

Nagin also stated that New Orleans "will be a majority African-American city. It's the way God wants it to be. As most New Orleanians knew the city had been majority African American for decades before Katrina, certain people found the implication of Nagin claiming to know God's will more troubling than the suggested return of pre-Katrina demographics.

In the same speech, Nagin further stirred controversy by claiming that "God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, and it's destroyed and put stress on this country....Surely he doesn't approve of us being in Iraq under false pretenses. But surely he is upset at black America also. We're not taking care of ourselves." Nagin then went on to relate an imagined conversation with the deceased Rev. Martin Luther King regarding both the response to Katrina and the modern problems of black America which he believes offended God.

The speech generated an intense reaction, most of it negative. A Times-Picayune commentator suggested that Nagin had just ruined his own chances at re-election.

Nagin later apologized for his remarks, and offered a different explanation of his "chocolate city" metaphor, saying "How do you make chocolate? You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk and it becomes a delicious drink. That's the chocolate I'm talking about. Nagin said that his remarks were meant to be a call for African Americans to once again return to New Orleans despite the supposed belief that many of the people Uptown did not want them back.

The Mayor apologized for the suggestion that people Uptown (a mixed neighborhood) were racist, noting the importance of that section of town in the city's recovery. He particularly stated regret for the statements about God. "I don't know what happened there," he said. "I don't know how that got jumbled up. That whole God thing, I don't know how that got mixed up in there." Nagin concluded "I need to be more aware and sensitive of what I'm saying [...] Anyone I've offended, I hope you forgive me.

2006 mayoral election

The elections for mayor and city council scheduled for early 2006 were postponed by the State due to the disruption in the aftermath of Katrina, and were rescheduled for 22 April 2006. Campaigning began to heat up in February 2006. In the April 2006 New Orleans mayoral election, Nagin faced a record 23 challengers, most prominently sitting Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu and Audubon Institute head Ron Forman, along with other candidates. In the early days of the campaign, Nagin spoke in Houston at an NAACP gathering of members of the New Orleans diaspora who were forced to flee in the wake of Katrina. He further inflamed tempers when he said, "There was all this talk about this being an opportunity to change New Orleans forever and maybe everybody shouldn’t come back, and maybe this is an opportunity to kind of change New Orleans and go back to what it used to be. I have 23 candidates running for mayor and very few of them look like us." Some have perceived these comments to be a divisive follow-up to his "Chocolate City" remarks, while others point out that the fact the majority of candidates in a field of 23 were white was unprecedented in recent New Orleans politics, and a possible sign of the demographic shift in a city that was over two-thirds black before Katrina. Many of Nagin's supporters say that it is his "sharp" tongue that allows him to be such a great politician. J.C. Ferguson, commissioner of electrics for many of Mississippi's hardest hit areas and political supporter of Nagin commented, "Ray Nagin says things that most political figures think, but dare to say. His record as mayor, and immense leadership shown during Hurricane Katrina will prove him successful in this election."

Many activist groups bussed in African-American voters, who were still living outside of New Orleans six months after the storm, to participate in the election. Political analysts believed that this may have been responsible for Nagin's eventual win and was met with heavy protest by citizens who had actually returned to the city in attempts to rebuild. In the election of 22 April, Nagin was the front runner with 38% of the vote. Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu came in second with 29%. Nagin and Landrieu faced each other in a run off election on May 20th, 2006. Final results showed that Nagin defeated Landrieu 52 (about 59 thousand votes) to 48 (about 55 thousand) percent. Nagin also won with a dramatic shift in the racial breakdown of his voter base; in this election he received the support of about 80% of black voters and 20% of white voters, a reversal of his support base in the 2002 election.

Nagin's second term

2006

Nagin's second term began on June 1, 2006. Nagin has made few public appearances in New Orleans since the May election. He campaigned on a promise to develop a "100 day plan" to rebuild New Orleans, but as of the end of the 100 days no concrete plan had been released. After the end of the 100 days, some commentators criticized Nagin for what they perceived as a lack of explanation of the details of this plan and a lack of activity in putting this plan forward. Nagin administration spokesperson Rob Couhig backed away from the promise, stating that it was not meant as a "time period," but as a short-range campaign to improve quality-of-life issues. In 2006, Nagin was also criticized for devoting time to an extensive national speaking tour while being rarely seen in New Orleans. Nagin's administration countered this criticism by stating that the speaking tour is necessary in order to correct an inaccurate perception of the situation in New Orleans.

Ground Zero controversy

In an interview with Byron Pitts on CBS's 60 Minutes (aired August 27, 2006), Nagin responded to criticisms regarding his leadership during the aftermath of Katrina and the fact that much of New Orleans is still in ruins almost a year afterward. Nagin made a reference to New York City's World Trade Center site, saying,
"That’s all right. You guys in New York can’t get a hole in the ground fixed and it’s five years later. So let’s be fair."

Earlier on the day of the 60 Minutes broadcast, Nagin appeared on NBC's Meet The Press and offered clarification on his comments.

"I meant no disrespect for anyone. I have seen death, I’ve seen the destruction, and I was just using it as a comparison to show how difficult it is for people to rebuild after a major disaster."

When asked by Tim Russert if he wished that he'd chosen other words, Nagin replied,

"I wish I would have basically said that it was an undeveloped site, which it is."

The next day, Governor Kathleen Blanco "distanced herself from...Nagin's disparaging comment" by issuing a statement thanking the people of New York for assistance after Katrina:

"Please know that our great State recognizes New York's special position as one of the World's greatest cities and we admire its people. We love visiting New York and we know you love coming to New Orleans, so please plan to come again soon and we will welcome you with our unique brand of hospitality."

In December 2006, Nagin appointed Ed Blakely to oversee New Orleans’s post-Katrina recovery plan. Blakely was initially met with widespread praise for exhibiting a decisiveness and candour many saw as lacking in Nagin. More recently, Blakely has also attracted controversy of his own for comments he made about the political, economic, and racial climate of New Orleans.

2007

Since January 2007, public perception of a drastic increase in the city’s violent crime rate has led to many criticisms of Nagin’s leadership. These criticisms reached a crescendo following the high-profile murders of filmmaker Helen Hill and musician and teacher Dinerral Shavers a week apart in January 2007. Several thousand protesters marched on City Hall on January 11, 2007, demanding action concerning crime and criticizing Nagin. Nagin attended the march, and was publicly denounced by several speakers at a podium a few feet away from the mayor. A year after his election, Nagin continued to be criticized for a perceived lack of vision and decisiveness, and an inability to communicate his plans and policies. On March 15, 2007, Nagin spoke on the state of New Orleans to a group of black journalists at the National Newspaper Publishers Association convention in Washington, DC. In his speech, which focused on the problems of New Orleans since Katrina, he implied the existence of a conspiracy by an unspecified ‘they,’ who “are studying this model of natural disasters, dispersing the community and changing the electoral process in that community.” This speech, along with earlier public comments on issues of race, has caused many commentators to accuse Nagin of pandering and of exacerbating racial divisions in the city. Meanwhile, some black commentators, including SOUL founder Don Hubbard, have argued that Nagin has forsaken his African-American roots in favor of ties to the white business community; citing his refusal to help former residents of public housing to return to the city, and his favoring of ‘market solutions’ over government programs to improve the conditions in New Orleans. Others see Nagin as part of the same New Orleans business elite which ignores the city’s poor. Recently, Nagin reignited complaints about his leadership when he said news of two killings, while sad, "keeps the New Orleans brand out there.

In May Councilwoman Stacy Head gave Nagin's economic development efforts, headed by Donna Addkison, a grade of "F minus" and Donald Vallee, the head of a local landlords association, labeled the administration's housing officials "the most dysfunctional group of people I have seen at City Hall". Speaking to Addkison, while at the meeting, Vallee declared "You have done a horrible job of managing this department." Addkison resigned her post effective August 10, 2007.

In October 2007, Nagin endorsed New Orleans businessman John Georges in his unsuccessful bid for governor. Georges lost in the primaries to Congressman Bobby Jindal, who Nagin endorsed in his first bid for governor; Georges' only parish-win came in Orleans.

2008

On February 21, 2008, Nagin became agitated and emotional on the air during an early morning interview with reporters Eric Paulsen and Sally Ann Roberts on CBS affiliate WWL-TV and threatened to "coldcock" anyone who comes up to him without warning, citing perceived threats to himself and his family. After WWL publicized a story to be run later that evening analyzing the Mayor's official (2007) schedule which his office provided in response to a public records request, Nagin bitterly complained that this release established "patterns" for him, ostensibly making him a target. Nagin claimed that local talk radio shows and Aryan hate blogs are out to get him and he also stated the desire to meet the WWL News Director "one on one" in the parking lot, claimed that all of the news media in New Orleans are after him, that influential supporters of his previous political opponent, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu are "relentlessly trying to undermine me and destroy me" and that "this has crossed the line- this is personal".

Hurricane Gustav

On August 30, 2008, Nagin ordered the evacuation of New Orleans before the arrival of Hurricane Gustav which he referred to as "the mother of all storms" and the "storm of the century." Mayor Nagin received advisory from local officials regarding the citizens feeling complacent about evacuating. He spoke so strongly about the storm to avoid a repeat of Katrina. However some critics feel that this shows his lack of leadership skills by blowing up Hurricane Gustav and creating fear when the Governors of the Gulf Coast states along with other officials had made sure that everyone will be prepared in the event of another strong hurricane such as Gustav. In the end, Hurricane Gustav made landfall west of New Orleans and was downgraded to Category 2 as it hit land.

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