When U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan sentenced former Mayor Ray Nagin to a 10-year prison term, she said that his downfall was already complete: He could never plausibly run for public office again; he owes more than $500,000 in court-ordered restitution; and his reputation as a crook is burnished — the first New Orleans mayor jailed for public corruption.
Add to that a bankruptcy filed by his wife Seletha, who faces foreclosure on the family home outside Dallas. Another indignity came last week, when Nagin admitted that he had only $23.65 in his checking account and his wife earns a mere $360 a month.
The final humiliation comes this week, when the former mayor reports to federal prison in Texarkana, Texas. Nagin, who was convicted on 20 counts of bribery, fraud and money laundering — most of them arising out of his inert post-Katrina "recovery" programs — must serve at least 85 percent of his 10-year sentence.
Berrigan appointed a public defender to handle Nagin's appeal while Nagin does his time. He is given little chance of prevailing.
Nagin's downfall was Shakespearean. In the autumn of 2001, he was the dashing local Cox Cable exec, a rising star in the corporate world and a member of the local business council. He had a posh home on Park Island and hosted a cable TV call-in show.
When he announced his candidacy for mayor in December 2001, he was a long shot, but he soon proved to be the most quotable — and telegenic — candidate in an otherwise undistinguished field. He went from "the cable guy" to the frontrunner in short order, leading the 15-candidate field in the Feb. 2, 2002, primary with more than 28 percent of the vote. In the March 2 runoff, he easily defeated then-Police Chief Richard Pennington, capturing more than 58.7 percent of the vote.
In office, Nagin achieved rock star status. He made no secret of his disdain for politics, which charmed the media and the multitudes after generations of "political" mayors. He literally was cheered wherever he went.
Behind the scenes, however, another arc in the Nagin narrative began to take shape. Even his supporters began to complain of "no follow-through" on major initiatives. His administration made a show of parading lowly cab drivers for the media in a public corruption "sting," but that investigation ultimately yielded little more than headlines.
When Hurricane Katrina struck, Nagin's political isolationism exacted a heavy toll on the mayor and the city. Truth is Nagin disdained politics because he was terrible at it, especially the most important part of it — building and maintaining relationships.
His rock star status peaked shortly after the storm, when he gave voice to our frustrations by calling out President George W. Bush. He won re-election the following spring, mostly because he made himself a symbol of post-Katrina black disenfranchisement. Black voters knew it was a shell game, but they weren't about to give up "The Franchise." He beat Mitch Landrieu in a race about race.
Once re-elected, Nagin's worst attributes came to the fore. The recovery foundered on the shoals of incompetence and corruption. The mayor arrived at City Hall late, took long lunches on the city dime and became increasingly disengaged. Nagin liked being the mayor a lot more than doing the mayor's job, and it showed.
As millions of dollars poured into the city, Nagin began laying the groundwork for his post-mayoral years — taking bribes, hobnobbing with crooked contractors and trying to set up himself and his sons in business. Much like his attempts to govern, Nagin's attempts at larceny were laughably amateurish. His final bow is a 10-year prison stretch.
Some say he's lucky he didn't get 20 years, and there's some truth to that. Still, I haven't met anyone who'd want to trade places with him.