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The Cost of Looking Wrong



In politics, you not only have to be right, you also have to look right. Mayor Ray Nagin is learning that lesson the hard way these days after finally getting rid of embattled Chief Administrative Officer Kimberly Williamson Butler.

Nagin was totally within his rights to terminate Butler, but in the wake of her departure he looks awfully wrong.

Many in and out of City Hall say the mayor should have dismissed Butler months ago. Almost from the beginning, she didn't fit in. Her critics say she was high-handed, independent to the point of not being a team player, and generally not up to the job of being the top person in city government next to the mayor. More specifically, some blame her for jumping the gun on last summer's corruption investigation, which has largely fizzled on the local level (although the FBI continues its widespread investigation of the Morial administration). There was even an allegation of impropriety with regard to Butler allegedly using her position to secure a permit for her church -- a charge she vehemently denies.

To Nagin's credit, he wanted to give Butler every chance to succeed. That's what his years as a private sector CEO taught him to do. He resisted repeated efforts by his other top advisers to get rid of her.

In the end, however, Butler just didn't fit the Nagin mold, and the longer he took to get rid of her the more difficult it became. She was not incapable of making friends and using power. She has staunch allies in the political community, particularly among black clergymen, and sources say she has not hesitated to use them as both a sword and a shield. State Rep. Leonard Lucas, a minister in the 9th Ward, is one of her stalwart defenders.

Now that she's gone, Butler is proving to be as big a problem on the outside as she was on the inside -- but Nagin may be as much to blame as anyone.

When he made the decision that Butler had to go, Nagin opted to give her the chance to resign. That was a smart move. For a brief period, it appeared that things might work out, although she would probably need a bit of a push to leave City Hall. Nagin reportedly offered her a "settlement" of half a year's salary in exchange for a release from any civil liability. This, too, was a wise move -- and not at all unusual.

Unfortunately, Nagin violated one of the cardinal rules of employers at a subsequent news conference: never talk about former employees.

Nagin has a habit of talking off the cuff. It's part of what voters and the media love about him. He is disarmingly candid. Unfortunately for the mayor, he disarmed himself a bit too much in discussing Butler's departure.

He told reporters that Butler's health had suffered under the stress of the job, and that she "was now starting to take blood pressure pills. She was taking up to two a day."

Butler says that's not true. She says her condition is genetic and that she was taking medication before moving to New Orleans in 1999. She says Nagin violated her privacy and lied about her -- all in violation of the proposed "settlement" he had wanted her to sign in connection with her departure from his administration.

If that weren't bad enough, Lucas is now circulating what purports to be emails among top Nagin aides that allegedly refer to Butler in less-than-flattering terms. If the emails are real, they show a petty side of an administration that holds itself forth as totally professional. The stage thus is set for Butler, at a minimum, to play the role of victim. She also may be preparing to file a nasty lawsuit against Nagin.

No doubt Nagin will have lots of ammunition of his own if a suit is filed. But that will only lead to a more protracted, and even more public, "he said, she said" court fight.

In the end, Nagin could wind up paying a lot more than the $75,000 proposed settlement, not so much in cash as in political capital.

All of which goes to prove that the cost of looking wrong can far exceed the value of being right.

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