Will Mayor Ray Nagin's halfway mark prove to be a turning point for his political fortunes? That depends on whether the mayor can recapture the kind of magnetism and momentum that carried him into the office in the first place. He looks as though he's going to try.
Nagin's second annual State of the City address hit the right notes, both substantively and rhetorically. He has been battered somewhat in recent months, but hizzoner is nothing if not buoyant. In his address, Nagin again showed some of the fire that he exhibited in his meteoric 2002 campaign. He focused on reducing crime, but he also talked of economic development, improving public education, fighting blighted housing and improving his own communications efforts.
The truth is, Nagin has been a fine mayor. He has done a lot more, substantively, than his critics would like to admit. His biggest mistakes have been rookie political errors -- not having anyone on his staff with seasoned political skills, not paying attention to politics in general, and playing the game badly when he tried. Amazingly, he also has forgotten what got him the job in the first place -- his own effectiveness as a communicator.
Who would have thought that the telegenic Nagin would all but go into hiding as mayor? Sure, he sends out lots of press releases. That's fine for The Times-Picayune, but TV (where most folks still get their news) and the voters need face time. They want to see him. He's done a great job of cleaning up corruption and reducing waste, but voters also want a mayor they can touch. And talk to.
In short, Nagin needs to get his butt out of City Hall and get back in touch with the folks on the street. He needs to start campaigning again. Not necessarily for re-election, but for the continued confidence, trust and support of the people of New Orleans. He needs to hit churches, fairs and festivals, barber shops and local restaurants. If he does that, re-election will take care of itself.
This was something Marc Morial understood intuitively -- that the "campaign" never really ends. It just shifts gears. You go from asking for votes to asking voters to buy into your vision. You never stop pressing the flesh. Every ribbon you cut is a photo op, a chance to get your message out.
Nagin also needs to learn to toot his own horn. During the dog days of his mayoral campaign, when he was stuck in low single digits, pollster Joe Walker looked at his latest survey and said to Nagin, "Ray, I think you can win this -- but it's not a game for the faint of heart." The same applies to governing. If you think all you need to do is show up every day and do a good job -- or even a great job -- and everyone will notice and give you the credit you deserve, you're in the wrong business. Part of the never-ending campaign is the fact that you've got to be a tireless self-promoter. It's not for the faint-hearted -- or the modest. Voters assume that if a politician isn't talking about all that he's doing, then he's not doing much.
That's not to say Nagin should stop worrying about substantive issues and become a poseur, like his predecessor did on many occasions. Rather, he needs to be the quarterback and the head cheerleader all at once. Politics is the only game that lets you do that.
A perfect place to start would be his record on minority business participation in city contracts. In recent months, a group of disaffected black ministers took him to task for not doing enough to help minority firms. In truth, his administration has done more for minority businesses than Marc Morial's administration. Only trouble is, it was a well-kept secret.
Nagin should commission a black-owned CPA firm to audit all city contracts and release an independent report on disadvantaged business participation. The numbers no doubt will give him plenty to brag about in the black community, where his support has softened in the past year. He needs a good message to take with him when he hits the street again. And he's got to be willing to shout it day and night.