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Ray Nagin's War

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The truce reached last week between Mayor Ray Nagin and the New Orleans City Council over council access to administration department heads avoided a nasty public fight, but the détente likely will not end the Cold War between City Hall's superpowers.

The two sides seem to have genuine disdain for one another. Nagin feels the council is playing childish political games. Most council members feel the mayor is disengaged, to put it mildly, from his day job and too obtuse -- and conceited -- to recognize that he doesn't run the city by himself.

Truce or no truce, there is little trust between Nagin and the Council. In fact, there's little trust between Nagin and most other elected officials. That's Nagin's political style, if you can call his approach to politics a style.

Truth is Nagin understands almost nothing about politics. He's a great campaigner, but he doesn't seem to understand that politics requires more than just winning elections. At some point, the election ends and you have to govern.

Trained as an accountant who looks at numbers on a page in search of a precise bottom line, Nagin has no feel for the nuances of politics. On the few occasions when he has had to make "political" decisions, he has made a mess of it. In the 2002 district attorney's race, his candidate ran third. In the 2003 statewide elections, he backed two losing candidates for governor. His relationships with most state lawmakers are either nonexistent or strained.

Ironically, Nagin can be absolutely charming with a crowd. So why is he so awful at one-on-one relationships with other politicians? Perhaps it's because there's no room in his world for any other egos but his. To be fair, all politicians have big egos; the successful ones know how to keep theirs in check. Checking his ego is not on Nagin's to-do list, however. It's always about C. Ray, all the time.

That wouldn't be so bad if he had the political chops to back up his swagger. Dutch Morial's enemies called him arrogant, but Morial was a brilliant political tactician who knew how to wield power. Cross him and you paid for it. And talk about understanding the nuances of the game -- Morial was trained in military counter-intelligence. When it came to politics, the man did not sleep.

Morial also was confident enough to surround himself with people who were as politically astute as he was. His chief administrative officer, the late Reynard Rochon, was also his top political adviser. Nagin, by contrast, doesn't seek or take political advice, not even from the few friends of his who actually understand the game. Morial mistrusted other politicians, but that's because he understood the game so well. Nagin mistrusts others because he doesn't understand the game at all. In fact, he seems almost clinically insecure about other politicians.

Morial comes to mind because in 1983, after he survived a bruising re-election campaign, he went after local black lawmakers who opposed his re-election a year earlier. In what was perhaps his greatest show of political muscle, he unseated two veteran state representatives and one state senator -- beating them with then-unknowns who brought little more to the table than Morial's endorsement.

This year, having survived his own tough re-election campaign, Nagin reportedly has put candidates in races against several local lawmakers who backed Mitch Landrieu for mayor last year -- Reps. Karen Carter and Cedric Richmond, and Sen. Ann Duplessis. It will be interesting to see how the mayor, who supposedly hates politics, wages political war against people who live for the fight.

His decision to take on veteran local legislators at a time when term limits are decimating the political clout of other parishes also shows how little Nagin understands the Legislature -- and possibly how little he cares about the city and its recovery in comparison to his own ego satisfaction. Each of the lawmakers he is opposing is in line for an important committee chairmanship when the 2008 Legislature convenes. They will be in positions to direct many millions to the city for its recovery. Indeed, they helped bring home many millions this year, no thanks to Nagin.

The mayor's decision to go to war against some local lawmakers may also explain why he made peace with the City Council. Even with his limited grasp of politics, Nagin apparently understands that he can't take on the whole world at once.

Nagin understands almost nothing about politics. He's a - great campaigner, but he doesn't seem to understand that - politics requires more than just winning elections.
  • Nagin understands almost nothing about politics. He's a great campaigner, but he doesn't seem to understand that politics requires more than just winning elections.

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