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Reinventing Himself?



Mayor Ray Nagin's choice of the Mississippi River as a metaphor for the city's ever-changing course in his State of the City address last week could have applied to Nagin as well. Almost everything about the speech — its tone, his delivery, and the substance of the speech itself — signaled something different about him. I don't know if he intended that to be the case, but something tells me he did.

For 57 minutes, Nagin seemed to be taking to heart some post-Katrina advice he got from Charleston Mayor Joe Riley: "All great cities reinvent themselves after a disaster." Riley, who brought Charleston back after Hurricane Hugo in 1989, is one of the best mayors in America and an apt role model for Nagin during this period of recovery.

So, is Ray Nagin changing course? Is he trying to reinvent himself? Or was this speech, to borrow one of Nagin's terms, just a "blip"?

With fewer than two years remaining in his term, perhaps Nagin is sensing his own political mortality. Some politicians grow morose at the thought, but Nagin seemed to embrace it last week, promising to keep working "until my last day, the last minute, the last second." Listening to him last Wednesday, I found myself saying, "This is the Ray Nagin we elected in 2002 — where has he been?"

A year ago, in his first post-K State of the City address, Nagin dwelled on problems that were wearing him down and blamed others for the city's slow recovery. This year, he accepted responsibility for the nonfunctioning crime cameras, then offered a dreamlike vision of New Orleans' future. He unveiled three specific initiatives to make his vision a reality:

A new, $54 million city-state program of forgivable, "soft second" mortgages for up to 1,000 first-time homebuyers. Nagin wants the money to alleviate the so-called jack-o'-lantern effect in certain neighborhoods, and he promised to have it ready by July.

A public-private partnership, directed by the private sector, to coordinate local economic development efforts. This idea sounds very much like the highly touted Horizon Initiative, which aspires to unite disparate local economic development efforts. He pledged $2 million in the initiative's first year and $1 million a year thereafter.

Ceding control over Louis Armstrong International Airport to the state in exchange for at least $500 million in high-profile infrastructure improvements, each of which would have a huge economic impact. This was the first time Nagin publicly supported the concept of an airport-for-infrastructure swap, although he made it clear he hadn't bought completely into the proposal that local business leaders have advanced.

'We would transfer a significant number of board seats to the state while maintaining meaningful local representation," Nagin said. "In return, the state and city would agree upon a fair valuation of this asset and allocate between $500 million and $1 billion to be invested in city recovery projects."

Nagin's vision of the deal differs in at least one key respect from a bill by House Speaker Jim Tucker of Algiers: instead of a new board to administer the state's millions, Nagin wants his New Orleans Building Corp. to have that honor. That's going to be a sticking point. He effectively wants to keep a big slice of the airport's governance while gaining total control over the money the airport deal would bring. He can't have it both ways. For starters, he has to let the state own the airport.

Something tells me Nagin is hedging his bets on the airport deal, which is too bad. That kind of thinking conjures the "old" Ray Nagin, the one who gets stuck on stuck.

The key to implementing Nagin's vision will be his ability to follow through on his promises. Throughout his tenure, the most consistent criticism of Nagin has been "no follow-through."

We'll know soon enough if Hizzoner's performance last week was just a "blip," or if we're actually seeing a reinvigorated, reinvented Ray Nagin. He was right to call upon New Orleans to reinvent itself. It would be nice if he could do likewise.

Unlike the city, he only has 23 months to make it happen.

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