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'State of Emergency'

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Katrina has changed everything. Three months ago, Mayor Ray Nagin looked like a shoo-in for re-election, probably without a major opponent. Now I'm not sure if he could beat my dog Stella. Lucky for Nagin, my dog can't run. She's now domiciled in Pointe Coupee Parish.

Oh, yeah. There's one other thing: It's not certain that the Feb. 4 elections will even be held.

Under state law, Gov. Kathleen Blanco has authority to suspend or delay the citywide elections -- upon certification by Secretary of State Al Ater that a "state of emergency" exists in New Orleans. What qualifies as a "state of emergency"? The statute authorizing the governor to delay elections references "maximum citizen participation" among other factors.

Hurricane Rita and its aftermath led Ater to recommend suspending the Oct. 15 elections in several southwest Louisiana parishes. Blanco agreed and delayed the elections one month. Ater's news release stated that his office "will not be able to have machines, personnel, or electorate in place... ."

Does New Orleans' slow recovery constitute a "state of emergency"? We'll see.

One thing that is clear is that New Orleans faces a "political emergency." Katrina laid bare Nagin's weaknesses as a politician and as a mayor, particularly his inability to seek out good advice -- and then follow it -- and his penchant for talking through his hat without checking his facts. Now even Nagin's friends are saying, "Oh, that's what his critics have been talking about."

For example, his erratic comments in the weeks after Katrina about folks returning to town. First he said to stay away. Then he said to come home. Then he sent people away again when Hurricane Rita threatened -- all within a few days.

That was just one example, possibly undertandable in the heat of battle. His ill-fated idea of a casino district allegedly came after sober reflection.

Worse still, when hundreds of Lakeview residents gathered on Sept. 24 at Heritage Plaza -- 100 yards beyond the 17th Street Canal -- to express concerns about not being allowed back into their neighborhood, Nagin declined their invitation to attend. He said if they wanted to meet with him they would have to do so in New Orleans. DUH! The whole point of the meeting was his refusal to allow them into New Orleans.

Four weeks later, several thousand Lakeview residents gathered in the schoolyard behind St. Dominic's Church, barely a mile and a half from Nagin's home. Again, he snubbed them -- after traveling to Shreveport, Dallas and elsewhere to meet with evacuees and who-knows-else.

On several other occasions, Nagin has told media that he has been forced from his home, or that he has "lost" his home, or that he can't go home. That's news to his neighbors. Several of them tell me Nagin's home stayed high and dry on Park Island.

Does this sound like a guy who's running for re-election ... or running from reality?

I don't enjoy posing that question. This newspaper supported Nagin enthusiastically when he ran nearly four years ago. Our endorsement helped give him the credibility he needed at a pivotal point in the campaign. Like so many others, we saw in him a refreshing change from "business as usual" at City Hall.

To be fair, Nagin has cleaned up a lot of the patronage mess left by his predecessors. He deserves praise for that.

But he hasn't done much else. And he deserves criticism for that.

Moreover, while Katrina raged, he retreated into a self-imposed state of isolation, taking cues from virtually no one, and he froze at a critical moment in the city's history. I have heard this from too many people who were there at the time to overlook or discount such reports. His erratic comments, his failure to reach out to or get in step with other elected officials, and his self-portrayal as "rowing alone" -- it all underscores his isolation and ineffectiveness. At a time when he should be engaged as never before, Ray Nagin has marginalized himself.

Worst of all, he shows no signs of "getting it."

Secretary of State Ater probably has lots of reasons to conclude that a "state of emergency" exists in New Orleans. But I'm not sure delaying the election will do anybody any good.

Just last week, at Nagin's first "town hall meeting," he flippantly answered a critic who called his Bring New Orleans Back Commission a "reelection commission" by saying, "You want the job, man? Maybe we can work something out."

Yeah. Maybe my dog Stella can come home and run after all.

At least she listens.

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