Mayor Ray Nagin's upbeat State of the City address last Wednesday proved he has learned how to stage an event and deliver a speech in the last seven years. With only 49 weeks remaining in his term, however, he does not have much time to show something much more important: that he has learned how to follow through on his promises.
If there is one criticism that has dogged Nagin from the earliest days of his administration, it is a pathological lack of follow-through. From his 2002 campaign pledge to "sell" Louis Armstrong International Airport to the public-private partnership for economic development that he unveiled in last year's State of the City address, Nagin's penchant for reneging — or just dropping the ball — has become the stuff of legend.
Last week, he offered up more grandiose promises:
• Buying the Chevron Building on Poydras Street and moving City Hall there;
• Restoring the Iberville public housing complex without tearing it all down;
• Remodeling Municipal Auditorium and flanking it with a cultural sculpture garden;
• Replacing all street lamps in the French Quarter — without tackying up the Quarter's charm — within 60 days; and
• Expanding a program of forgivable loans by the end of summer to help more homeowners who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina rebuild and return.
Not even Superman could get all that done, but if Nagin can complete just the last two of those goals and at least start the others, that would be a significant departure from the last seven years.
On other fronts, Nagin did a good job of reminding everyone that New Orleans has come a long way since Katrina — including some advancements that he termed "Katrina rainbows" — and he rightly challenged New Orleanians to bridge the city's racial divide.
"If you have come here for doom and gloom, you have come to the wrong place," Nagin said. "The naked truth is we are positioned for full recovery."
It's also a naked truth that Nagin promised 2008 would be "the tipping point" in New Orleans' recovery — his version of Dr. Ed Blakely's regrettable "cranes in the sky" promise. Now, apparently, 2009 will be that tipping point. Let's hope so.
Another naked truth is that New Orleans' recovery will take at least 10 years, maybe longer, to complete. Nagin was right to remind us of that, but he totally ignored an equally obvious truth: that his administration is now mired in scandal and federal investigations.
Turning his attention to "people structure" rather than "infrastructure" issues, Nagin evoked his infamous "chocolate city" remark of 2006. "Sometimes you have to give a very scared part of our citizenry comfort by using a P-Funk metaphor to let them know, regardless of what they are reading or hearing in the national news, that they are welcome back to the city they love," he said. "You have to risk being misunderstood to get momentum going."
He went on to urge New Orleanians to "forgive each other and move on," and he offered the closest thing to an apology that anyone is likely to get from him: "I wish nothing but peace and good fortune to everyone. I stand here tonight and say I forgive everyone who has done me any wrong, and I ask that you forgive me if I may have done you any wrong."
On that note, Nagin seems to be coming to grips with the naked truth that the countdown to his exit from office has begun.