Mayor Ray Nagin will have a lot on his political plate this election season. He can't afford to spill any of it.
The heady days after Nagin's landslide victory in the 2002 mayoral election have given way to some grim realities. The new mayor's non-politician status was among his chief assets when he ran for the office, but doing the job requires different skill sets than campaigning for the job. He has had to learn that you can't take the politics out of politics, although he appears determined to test that reality regularly.
In recent elections, Nagin has not had much success at convincing voters to elect candidates he supports. He backed two losers in last year's race for governor, and his choice for district attorney didn't even make the runoff. Worse yet, his endorsement of Republican Bobby Jindal in the governor's race cost him dearly among Democrats, particularly African-Americans.
This election season offers one last chance for Nagin to get his politics straight before he enters his own re-election campaign. Between Sept. 18 and Nov. 2, voters will elect school board members, a president, a U.S. senator, several members of Congress, and a new criminal sheriff.
Nagin is in sync with Democrats nationally. He's backing John Kerry for president and will support one of the major Democrats for U.S. Senate. Locally, things are less certain. The race for criminal sheriff will be the highest-profile local contest -- and the trickiest for Nagin. Many of hizzoner's supporters have lined up behind former deputy police chief Warren Riley, and word has it that Nagin will join them.
But District D Councilman Marlin Gusman's decision to seek the sheriff's job presents Nagin with an opportunity as well as a threat. Gusman is by far the biggest name in the contest. He has had a rocky relationship with Nagin as a councilman, but his race for sheriff gives the mayor a chance to turn a foe in to an ally -- and to get a friendlier face on the Council if Gusman wins. If Nagin opposes Gusman, it would set their political differences in stone. It also could spell big trouble for Nagin if Gusman wins the sheriff's race, because it would give Nagin an adversary with a citywide base and more than 1,000 political jobs at his disposal.
As if that weren't enough, Nagin last week added another variable to the equation when he dropped a $250 million bond issue and property tax referendum into the City Council's hopper.
The relative lateness of the bond issue/tax proposition (it came less than three months before the Nov. 2 election) will raise some eyebrows in the wake of Nagin's comments about the recently shelved proposal to overhaul the governing structure of the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD). Nagin, in a visceral email, blasted the NORD proposal as "half-baked" after proponents worked two years on it. So how much groundwork has Nagin done on his $250 million bond issue? What broad-based community task force determined the needs to be met? What kind of support does he have in the business, civic, and political communities for a tax increase, which comes amid widespread reports of vast disparities in local residential assessments?
Chief Administrative Officer Charles Rice is the mayor's point man on the bond issue and tax increase. He says the proposal will need 8.5 to 10 mills in property taxes -- on top of the current tax rate of 171 mills. Rice also said the mayor has talked with local business and civic leaders about leading the charge for the proposition. He expects to roll out a broad-based campaign by Labor Day.
If the proposition passes, it will generate $163 million for street repairs. The remaining $87 million will go toward fixing up playgrounds, parks, libraries and other public buildings. Nagin has a good record on street repairs, and no one can dispute the need for improving parks, playgrounds and libraries. But Nagin will have to balance all of those needs against voters' anti-tax sentiments -- and his own political agenda -- between now and Nov. 2. He can't afford any missteps.