For years, business people have wanted to see a real business leader run for mayor. Now they're about to get their wish, and it will be interesting to see how they respond.
Ray Nagin, regional president of Cox Communications and a member of the Business Council of New Orleans, will announce his candidacy for mayor on Dec. 11 -- the day before qualifying opens.
So what made Nagin, who also owns a chunk of the New Orleans Brass hockey team, decide to run?
"The people of the city talked me into it," says Nagin, 45. "In every circle that I move in, over the past few months, people have asked me to take a look at it. ... The key issue is economic development, and a business person is best able to handle that issue."
Although Nagin lacks universal name recognition, he's not unknown. He appears regularly on Cox Cable in a live call-in show, and he has a ton of credibility in business and civic circles. He literally turned Cox's fortunes around after he took over as its local president a decade ago, and he got the company involved in high-profile charities. At the same time, he brought the company credibility at City Hall, which regulates Cox's rates. That experience gave him a taste of local politics, so he's not a complete newcomer to the game. He tasted state politics, too, when he convinced Gov. Mike Foster to let the Brass have first dibs on the Arena over a team proposed by Saints owner Tom Benson.
Let me add a disclaimer right here: in 1994 and 1995, I was an associate at the Gordon, Arata law firm, which litigates for Cox Cable. I worked on several cases for Cox in federal court and got to know Nagin very well. I admit to having a high regard for him, but it's an opinion shared by many who know him. I haven't done any work for Cox or Nagin since 1995, and the fees I generated as an attorney went to the firm, not to me.
Nagin's greatest asset is his standing among business people and his ability to get things done. He has the added plus of being a straight shooter. Ask him a direct question, he'll give you a no-nonsense answer.
"My message is simple," he says. "I am totally independent. No political organization is backing me, and it's unlikely I will get any. I am running for mayor based on what the people want in a mayor, and I'm not looking for anything more than that."
Nagin will compete with Police Chief Richard Pennington for support among business folks and voters seeking a new face. He stresses that he's "a New Orleanian through and through. I was born in Charity Hospital, educated in Catholic elementary schools and both Catholic and public high schools (St. Aug and O. Perry Walker).
"This is my city," he adds. "I love it, and it pains me to see it in the position that it's in right now."
And what position is that?
"We're struggling economically. We're losing companies, losing jobs, and not keeping pace with our peer cities around the country. ... In a poll that I saw, more than 50 percent of African-Americans said they are looking for a business-oriented candidate to focus on jobs and economic development. I will do that."
Nagin's chief weakness is the fact that he's not well known. Moreover, he'll have less than two months to establish credibility among voters -- with the holidays coming right after his formal announcement.
Although business folks admire the way he turned around Cox Cable, voters may not appreciate that accomplishment. As one political consultant for an opposing candidate told John Maginnis, "We're just going to refer to him as Mr. Cox Cable."
Meanwhile, Nagin promises that his candidacy will "test the theory" that business folks seriously want a business candidate for mayor. He's optimistic.
"Are the people really ready for the paradigm to change?" he asks. "It appears that they are."