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Ray Nagin

July 26, 2003

Mark Miester
tulanian@tulane.edu
Michael DeMocker

The second Battle of New Orleans began on the morning of July 23, 2002. In a series of predawn raids, New Orleans Police arrested 84 people--including cab drivers, auto inspection agency employees and the deputy director of the city utilities department--in a sweeping crackdown on corruption at City Hall. The arrests, on charges of bribery and public malfeasance, made national headlines and sent shock waves through the city.

tulsp03_nagin1_1Until that morning, C. Ray Nagin (B '94), the former cable executive and newly elected mayor of New Orleans, had enjoyed a productive if unspectacular 10 weeks in office. He had spent much of that time assembling an impressive staff--many, like Nagin, drawn from the private sector--but skirmishes with the City Council over salaries left some wondering whether Nagin possessed the political grit to succeed.

The crackdown on corruption demonstrated in dramatic fashion that Ray Nagin fully intended to deliver on his promise to clean up City Hall.

"We are in a battle for the soul of New Orleans," he said at the time. It was a sentiment that struck a chord with many New Orleanians. In February 2002, Nagin shocked observers by surging to a dramatic come-from-behind victory in the New Orleans mayoral primary.

A month later, Nagin, a Democrat in his first bid for public office, soundly defeated the popular police chief Richard Pennington in the runoff, becoming the first New Orleans mayor in 60 years to rise to the post without previously holding an elected office. Far from counting the lack of political experience as a liability, the handsome, dapper Nagin, with sleepy eyes and a disarmingly friendly style, positioned himself as an outsider.

"In order for the city to change and move forward, I think it needed someone like myself to come in as an outsider with a different perspective, a different way of looking at things," Nagin said recently when he sat down for an interview at City Hall. "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. That's basically how we've approached it--as new thinkers, as change agents, as a group trying to make the city better."

For many, Nagin's election was greeted with an enthusiasm that bordered on desperation. Outgoing Mayor Marc Morial was credited with cleaning up the police department, but allegations of corruption, patronage and cronyism tainted his administration. As a successful businessman with a reputation for integrity, consensus building and an easy-going manner, Nagin represents what some feel is the city's last chance to reclaim its status as a great American city.

"Ray has a desire to see New Orleans be a place where his children and other people's children can grow up and prosper," says James J. Reiss Jr., a New Orleans businessman Nagin recruited to chair the Regional Transit Authority. Reiss (B '60) also is a member of the Board of Tulane and chair of the university's business school council.

"Ray is sick of graft, corruption, patronage, slimy politics and the bad image of the city," Riess says. "He's got an altruistic view of city government and a real love for New Orleans. The reason I got involved is I think it's the only time in my adult life where I've seen an opportunity like this to really put this city back in the position of being the jewel of the South. If it doesn't happen now, it will never happen again."

Certain words and descriptions crop up again and again when friends and colleagues talk about Nagin: Smart. Honest. Hard-working. Personable. Great sense of humor. Cool. But most of all, a natural leader. "His leadership ability is what struck me," says David White, a businessman and a co-owner with Nagin of the New Orleans Brass hockey team. "He's very disarming when he meets new people. He's also very intelligent. He had to be very savvy to be where he was at Cox. He's a very effective business person. He's just a real people person."

When NBA star Baron Davis expressed some reluctance about playing basketball in the Big Easy when his team, the Charlotte Hornets, relocated to New Orleans, Nagin invited Davis to dinner at Antoine's to talk about what the city had to offer. Davis signed with the Hornets.

tulsp03_nagin2_1Clarence Ray Nagin Jr. was born at Charity Hospital in New Orleans on June 11, 1956. His family lived on Allen Street in the 7th Ward and then in Treme before moving to the Cutoff section of Algiers when Nagin was a young teenager. His parents still live there.

Nagin's father worked during the day as a fabric cutter at the Haspel Brothers clothing factory and at night as a janitor at City Hall and a mechanic for Borden's Dairy to support Ray and his two sisters. Nagin's mother managed the lunch counter at K-mart.

As a teenager, Nagin attended O. Perry Walker High School, where he excelled at sports. He played basketball and, as a lanky southpaw with a nasty curveball, he won a baseball scholarship to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Eventually, he earned an accounting degree from Tuskegee, becoming the second college graduate in his family. His first job out of school was with General Motors in Detroit, where he worked in the purchasing department. From Detroit, he moved to Los Angeles and, in 1981, to Dallas to take a job with Associates Corp.

In 1982, he married the former Seletha Smith, whom he had met when her family moved across the street from his parents in Algiers. In 1985, Nagin returned to New Orleans as controller of Cox New Orleans, the city's only cable television franchise. Four years later, he was running the system. The New Orleans to which Nagin re-turned was a different city than the one he'd left 10 years earlier. The oil bust had devastated the economy. One after another, energy companies had packed up and moved to Houston or simply closed shop altogether. The 1984 World's Fair had lost millions, pulling many of its local investors into bankruptcy. Crime was on the rise, and tourism--with its low-paying jobs--was becoming the city's economic engine.

"When I came back, I knew that there wasn't a really strong economic base here," Nagin says. "I knew tourism was--and still is--the dominant industry. Besides politics." But fixing the city was somebody else's problem. Nagin was more concerned with fixing Cox New Orleans. The cable franchise, which served 90,000 customers in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Charles parishes, was one of the poorest performers in the company and had earned the reputation as the black sheep of Cox's family. Profits were down, complaints were up and customer growth was stagnant. Through an emphasis on improved customer service and technology upgrades, Nagin transformed the system into one of Cox's best performing units.

He engineered a $500 million upgrade of the system's fiber-optic cable. He expanded the subscriber base by 180,000 customers, upgraded the system to 750 MHz and introduced new services such as digital cable television and telephony. Between 1985 and 2002, he created 800 jobs at Cox. In 1992, he began the negotiations that led to a 15-year franchise renewal agreement for Cox in New Orleans. By the end of his tenure, 85 percent of Cox customers reported being happy with the service.

When Nagin took over in 1989, the number was less than half that. In 1993, faced with an expanding scope of duties, Nagin enrolled in Tulane's executive MBA program, a part-time, intensive program geared to managers.

"I was in the process of taking on much more responsibility than I had had at the time and Cox said, basically, what do you need that will better prepare you for this. I looked around and saw the executive MBA program as being a great way for me to add a couple of tools to my toolbox. It's been invaluable." Byron Adams (B '94), a classmate of Nagin's in the program, remembers the future mayor as funny and friendly but also a natural leader. "When I think of Ray, I think of the 'P train,'" laughs Adams. "We had 'high pass' and 'pass' grades. Ray was like, 'Let's work together and help everybody out. If somebody wants to get a doctorate, tell us now and we'll help you get a high pass. For the rest of us, all we need is a pass.' He called it the 'P train.'"

While his job title at Cox was vice president and general manager, the position also served as Nagin's introduction into politics. As the head of a municipally regulated entity, one that suffered initially from an abysmal reputation, Nagin became acquainted with managing a large enterprise while balancing the concerns of both customers and regulators. And it didn't hurt that the telegenic Nagin hosted a twice-weekly television call-in show for cable customers, making his a more familiar face and personality than most business executives.

tulsp03_nagin3_1In 1998, Nagin moved further into the public eye when he introduced professional hockey to the city with an East Coast Hockey League team, the New Orleans Brass. As spokesman for the group of 12 investors who sought to bring the Brass to the city, Nagin was instrumental in convincing league officials to grant a franchise to New Orleans.

The team turned out to be a surprisingly popular success at the Municipal Auditorium, and that early success helped Nagin's group win the lease to play hockey in the New Orleans Arena, beating out competitors including New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and New Orleans Zephyrs owner Rob Couhig, both of whom sought to bring hockey teams to town.

"Ray is not afraid to take risks, and that was quite a risk," says David White, a partner with Nagin in the Brass. "You start talking about black folks owning a hockey team? In New Orleans? That's a pretty strange situation, but that's what sets Ray apart. He thinks outside traditional boxes." Nagin was earning around $400,000 a year at Cox. He was a part owner of the Brass. He sat on the boards of the United Way and Covenant House. He was president of 100 Black Men, a national organization of African-American businessmen.

In 1995, he earned a Young Leadership Council Diversity and Role Model Award, and in 1998 Gambit Weekly named him New Orleanian of the Year. Still, despite his growing stature in the community, Nagin felt no great compulsion to enter the world of politics. "Running for mayor had been something that people had suggested to me," Nagin says. "I was always resistant, saying there's no way I would get into politics. I'd rather play on the sidelines and be a king maker rather than be the king himself."

In the fall of 2001, however, Nagin had a change of heart. In October, New Orleans voters soundly defeated Mayor Marc Morial's bid to amend the city's charter to enable him to run for a third term. The defeat threw the race wide open, but State Sen. Paulette Irons and City Councilmen Troy Carter and Jim Singleton emerged at the head of the pack. Not long after, Richard Pennington, the popular police superintendent credited with cleaning up the NOPD, threw his hat into the ring.

As the candidates lined up, Nagin watched with a growing sense of disquiet. None appeared to have what he thought it would take to fix New Orleans. "I was looking at the economy," Nagin says. "I saw a few things that we were doing well but there was still so much that needed to be done. I was looking at the candidates and paying attention and I just didn't see, uh, a spark, a different kind of candidate who was focusing on the things that were necessary to make this a better environment for my kids and my grandkids."

One morning, Nagin stopped for a shoeshine from his favorite guy at the New Orleans Hilton. "We were talking about politics. I was giving him my opinion, he was giving me his, and he looked up and said, 'Man, you really ought to run for mayor.' And at that time I said, well, if all these people are asking me, I really should give this some serious thought. That's how it started." Nagin commissioned a poll to gauge public sentiment about the race. The survey confirmed what he already suspected: support for the announced candidates was tepid and voters were more inclined to support a businessman than a career politician.

Nagin asked his friend David White what he thought of the prospect of his running for mayor. "I basically told him I didn't think he understood what he was getting into," White recalls. "I tried to tell him it's going to change your life dramatically. But he felt that because politics was so dominant in New Orleans, a different type of person needed to be in place. And Ray stepped forward as that person." On Dec. 11, 2001, less than two months before the primary, Nagin threw his hat into the ring and announced his candidacy for mayor.

"If we hope to rise above petty politics and bickering, we've got to elect someone who won't bring a lot of baggage and political infighting to the office of mayor," Nagin told a crowd at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. "I suggest to you that I'm the candidate with the best opportunity to achieve that goal because I've operated outside the political mud-wrestling pit."

With funding largely out of his own pocket, Nagin launched a grassroots campaign that stressed an end to corruption and patronage and a focus on economic development. Not long after entering the race, he raised eyebrows by proposing the city sell or lease Louis Armstrong International Aiport to generate revenues for improving roads and infrastructure. While opponents questioned the legality of such a move, Nagin emphasized that it could be accomplished with a little ingenuity, and it was that brand of ingenuity that City Hall desperately needed.

Despite the late start and relative lack of funds, Nagin's message began to catch on. He won endorsements from the Times-Picayune, Gambit Weekly and Louisiana Weekly. A poll in mid-January showed Nagin in fifth place with 5.2 percent of the vote. One week later, he he jumped to third behind Pennington and Irons with 11.9 percent. In the Feb. 2 primary, Nagin shocked observers by not only making the runoff, but by finishing first, winning 29 percent of the vote to Pennington's 23 percent. In the ensuing runoff, Pennington was never able to make a dent in the upstart's lead.

Nagin coasted into office, carrying with him the hopes of a city that had seen the economic vitality of the 1990s pass it by. Nagin showed from the outset that he would be a different kind of mayor. He began by staffing his administration not with political insiders but with talented business people. He recruited Reiss to head the RTA. He asked Entergy New Orleans president Dan Packer (B '98) to chair the New Orleans Aviation Board. He recruited technology guru Greg Meffert (G '90), who had made a fortune starting a dot-com-era software company, to become the city's first chief technology officer.

tulsp03_nagin4He brought former Cox development director Beth James on board to head the city's economic development department. Many followed Nagin's lead and took pay cuts to work for the city. Some, like Reiss, are working for nothing.

"That just demonstrates people are serious," Nagin says, adding, "I guess I set a pretty decent example, and by setting that example they couldn't come in and say, well, you know, I need to make this kind of money because they knew that I was sacrificing to do this. We've attracted a great group of folks."

Besides the promise to clean up corruption and end patronage, what got Nagin elected--what enabled him to win the support of both whites and an emerging black middle class--was his presumed skills at economic development. Cleaning up City Hall, Nagin argues, is the crucial first step in that process.

"Before we can grow the economy, we need to make sure that everybody understands what the rules of engagement are," Nagin says. "That's what our whole pitch in cleaning up corruption is all about. We want to say to the world that we're going to play the game like everybody else around the world. You need to have a level playing field where people can compete. Then you can create an environment for business growth and job creation. That's where we are now."

Once the stigma of graft is lifted, Nagin says a wealth of opportunities will come into focus. The port is a good example. New Orleans leads the nation in the import of coffee, plywood, raw metal, rubber and steel, yet coffee is the only item from that list to be processed in New Orleans. The city has virtually no value-added manufacturing. Raw goods are warehoused in New Orleans and then shipped elsewhere to be processed.

"It's a no-brainer," Nagin says. "Our labor costs can't be significantly higher than what they have in other areas. If the state and the city got together with the right incentive packages, we should be able to do something. "Developers and business people are coming in and saying, you know we always liked New Orleans but we never were comfortable doing business there," Nagin adds. "Now that we've set a different tone for city government, the message has been sent around the country that it's a new day in New Orleans."

Another topic high on Nagin's agenda is the airport. "We call it Louis Armstrong International Airport, but guess what?" Nagin says. "It's not a true international airport. We may have one or two flights flying international and that just makes no sense to me. So I'm trying to push forward to create an environment where we can expand the airport, where we can get more regional cooperation so that we don't have to fight about whether or not to build a north or a south runway. We just get it done. If we do that, I think it could be an economic engine for the region."

In the minds of some, Nagin's emphasis on business and economic development conflicts with the image of New Orleans as a quaint, distinctive town too busy partying to worry about such things. Nagin dismisses the notion that aggressive economic development, particularly with regards to converting blighted properties, runs the risk of turning New Orleans into another Atlanta or Houston, who many see as sprawling metropolitan areas with little character.

"It will never happen," he says. "I know that's the big fear, but it'll never happen. My fear is that we'll become--the Times-Picayune had a great word--an acropolis, in essence, a well-manicured cemetery. We have to preserve the things that are great. Less than 15 percent of all the buildings in the city are historic. Less than 15 percent! So you tell me we can't work with the other 85 percent--or 50 percent--and upgrade them? Sure we can. And that's what we need to do."

Eight months into office, with the highly publicized crackdown on corruption under his belt and his approval rating soaring into the stratosphere, Nagin says the accomplishment he's most proud of is the people with whom he's surrounded himself. "The biggest thing is the level of talent we've brought in to city government," Nagin says. "It's just incredible the stuff that people are doing and working on, and, a lot of it, people haven't seen yet. If we keep everyone focused, it's going to be tremendous."

Nagin has a message for the talented New Orleanians who may have left the city for a better job, a better home, better schools or simply out of frustration with the city's political landscape. "As far having the character and uniqueness New Orleans has, there's no better place in the world than our city," he says.
 
"We're working to create a New Orleans that is not only a good place to eat, to party, to go to a parade, all that good stuff that people think of when they think of New Orleans, but to create a New Orleans that is a great place to live, work, raise a family, and be all you can be. There are a lot of people out there with expertise who have started companies, who are part of major corporations. Just keep watching us and at some point consider coming back to New Orleans to help. Because this city needs to be saved. It needs to be a world-class city because there's none other like it. "There's just none other like it."

Mark Miester is editor of Freeman Magazine and an editor in the Office of University Publications. He is a frequent contributor to Tulanian, and can be reached by e-mail at mark@tulane.edu. Illustrations of old street tiles by Evelyn Menge (N '69, G '72).

 

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