Mayor-elect Ray Nagin is about to take office riding a wave of personal popularity and public optimism. All over town, there's a feeling that New Orleans might actually change the way it does business.
Nagin's up-front role in helping the Hornets exceed National Basketball Association-mandated season ticket benchmarks likewise confirmed his credentials as a pro-business mayor who knows what it takes -- and is willing to do what it takes -- to help bring businesses and jobs here.
If there's anything that might give our new mayor pause, it's the high expectations that many citizens have of him. He said on election night that he would need at least 18 months to produce signs of a turnaround. He wisely asked for voters' patience. He no doubt fears they will expect miracles.
In truth, voters do not expect miracles. They do, however, expect elected officials -- particularly chief executives -- to keep what I call their "defining promises." Here's what I mean:
When candidates for mayor, governor or president run for office, they make lots of promises to lots of people. In virtually all cases, one or two of those promises really click with voters. Those promises are the ones that actually motivate people to go to the polls and vote for the winning candidate. In effect, they define that person's candidacy. They are the reason(s) he or she wins the election.
The wise candidate recognizes those promises for what they are -- and keeps them at all costs. Because the mayor, governor or president who keeps his defining promises inevitably gets re-elected. Conversely, those who fail to keep their defining promises inevitably lose their bids for re-election.
A few examples will prove my point.
· In 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton said, "It's the economy, stupid." He was right. After his election, he reappointed Alan Greenspan as Fed chairman. Greenspan took it from there, the stock market cooperated, and Slick Willie survived Paula Jones, Travelgate, Whitewater, Monica, Newt Gingrich, the Arkansas Project, Rush Limbaugh and everything else that was thrown at him -- including impeachment. Why? Because voters never deserted him. Why didn't they desert him? Because he kept his defining promise to keep the economy going strong.
· In 1994, Marc Morial was elected mayor of New Orleans after promising to hire a reform police chief, get rid of crooked and brutal cops, and bring the crime rate down. He brought in Richard Pennington, who reformed NOPD, fired or ran off more than 200 bad cops, and cut the murder rate in half. Morial coasted to re-election in 1998. Never mind that patronage continued unabated (or even that it reached new heights -- or depths -- of arrogance). Morial kept his defining promise, and he leaves office one of the most popular mayors in local history.
· In 1988, then-Vice President George Bush (The Elder) mouthed a fatal promise: "Read my lips. No new taxes." Less than two years later, he signed a tax hike that congressional Democrats muscled through. The taxes helped soften the Reagan Era deficits, but they violated Bush's defining promise. He lost to Clinton in 1992.
The lesson for Nagin is simple: keep your defining promises to bring good jobs to town and to clean up the process of awarding contracts. The Hornets were a good start. Another good move would be turning Armstrong International Airport from a patronage trough into a performing asset (as promised on the campaign trail).
If Nagin sends a message, grounded in reality, that things really are changing in New Orleans -- even if it takes a while -- then voters' great expectations will be amply fulfilled.