To call it in the headlines an unlikely saga from mayor of New Orleans to jailbird is to understate considerably the fall of Ray Nagin.
Adding to Louisiana’s embarrassments in the realm of political corruption, Nagin has reported to a federal prison in Texarkana, Texas. He will likely serve the better part of 10 years, his sentence for selling his mayoral powers for personal gain.
Just a dozen years after Nagin swept into City Hall in a landslide, the promises of a new civic culture in New Orleans turned into dust.
Then, with the advent of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the city’s growing concerns with the old new City Hall became a national and international event, chronicled in the heat of worldwide media attention.
Nagin’s erratic behavior, which was usually behind the scenes before the storms and flooding of 2005, became front and center. Yet Nagin, incredibly, was re-elected — and the taking-care-of-Number-One mayor began to make deals a bad habit.
Testimony at Nagin’s trial revealed that by 2004, the mayor was finding it difficult to make ends meet on his city salary of about $130,000, and he began hitting up his friend and confidant David White for monthly “loans” of several thousand dollars that he never repaid.
Those payments broke no laws. But White eventually cut off the largess, and after Katrina, the mayor’s grasping got more desperate. He began using a city credit card as a personal ATM, paying for family meals, vacations and shopping sprees with taxpayer money. Worse, he took gifts and cash from at least four city vendors in exchange for official favors, and he pressured Home Depot to steer lucrative work to his family’s granite countertop business as the retailer was working out tax breaks and the purchase of streets from the city for a new store.
If his fall was epic, the people of New Orleans and Louisiana are more likely to focus on the consequences of Nagin’s tenure. When a city and a state needed every ounce of reliable leadership that it could find, the second term won on a race-baiting campaign was a lost period. Recovery from the nation’s greatest natural disaster was never going to be easy, but Ray Nagin made it harder, and the people who twice elected him paid the highest price.