Ray Nagin, former Mayor of New Orleans

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Ray Nagin
former mayor of New Orleans
By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

28 May 2006: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has emerged from Hurricane Katrina one of the best-known political figures in the US, with a higher international profile than most Congressmen and state governors. Remarks made by Nagin months after the disaster, which decimated Louisiana's largest city, have further generated headlines. The Mayor has also infuriated opponents on both sides of the political divide but is also known as a redoubtable champion of the city. He was re-elected mayor on 20 May 2006.

20 May 2006: Mayor Ray Nagin re-elected
Hurricane Katrina devastates New Orleans

May 2010: Ray Nagin stands down as mayor of New Orleans

March 2010: Profile of New Orleans Mayor Landrieu

Nagin endured a typical childhood among many of the urban poor in New Orleans, born in the city’s Charity Hospital in 1956 to a low-income family. After obtaining a sports scholarship to the African-American Tuskegee University in Alabama, Nagin graduated in accountancy in 1978. He also holds an MBA from Tulane University in New Orleans. Before seeking the mayoralty, Nagin worked in the telecommunications industry, serving as a vice president for Cox Communications.

He did not achieve, or seek, any other public office prior to his election in 2002. More controversially, Nagin had actually been a registered Republican for most of his adult life, switching to the Democrats shortly before seeking office, for which his candidacy was branded as opportunistic in the solidly Democrat city. Nagin was, at that time, a known Bush supporter, having contributed to the president’s campaign. Nagin entered the New Orleans mayoral race a political unknown but emerged through the middle of a crowded field of known Democrats, securing vital cross-party and in-party endorsements for his populist pledges to tackle city hall corruption and run the administration in a more business-like manner.

The pledge to tackle corruption was made good not long after taking office, with a high profile anti-corruption drive that saw city hall officials, even the mayor’s own cousin marched out on television by police immediately proving popular, as well as entire departments suspended. However, his failure to seek consensus on his policy agenda immediately drew criticism from the city council. Even as Mayor, Nagin has enjoyed a fractious relationship with his own political party, frequently clashing with the city council and supporting a Republican for state governor in 2003. In 2004 he reluctantly endorsed John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

In September 2004, the Mayor issued a warning to vacate the city as Hurricane Ivan approached. Although some 600,000 New Orleans residents heeded the mayor’s call, the hurricane did not hit the city. Almost one year later, as weather experts predicted Hurricane Katrina’s imminent devastation of the city’s flood defences and the state governor declared a state of emergency, Nagin was reluctant to order an evacuation. Two days later, the order was issued, the first time in American history since the civil war for a city of this size.

The devastation that befell the city and the death toll has been widely documented. Nagin’s strident criticism of federal and state attempts to provide relief to the devastated city saw the mayor enter highly controversial territory by comparing efforts to the reaction to 9/11 and even invoking the Iraq war in blaming federal ineptitude for the worsening situation. Many media reports at the time however sought to maintain a link between the failure to evacuate the poorest communities and the mayor’s decision to allow the city’s fleet of school buses to be put out of use by the floods.

In the aftermath of the floods, as rebuilding efforts began, the mayor used an address to a public meeting to attack the Mexican immigrants who had come to work as labourers as part of the efforts. In January 2006, Nagin repeated his remarks and called for New Orleans to be a “chocolate city” once more, a reference with what were construed as prejudicial racial undertones. The term ‘Chocolate City’ in fact comes from a 1975 funk song by Parliament, which celebrates black empowerment and lists Afro-American mayors of major US cities. However, Nagin also used the speech to proclaim that Hurricane Katrina was possibly divine retribution on America for the war in Iraq. Though he later apologised for, and attempted to qualify his remarks, many political commentators claimed that the speech had effectively derailed his campaign for re-election in 2006.

The remarks have added an extra racial dimension to Nagin’s image, having overcome perceptions of being a black Republican who switched to the Democrats in order to shore up black support while retaining his middle class voter appeal.  In the delayed 2006 poll, Nagin saw off his opponent Mitch Landrieu, the state’s Lt. Governor, on 52 per cent in the second round.  Landrieu is the son of the city’s last white mayor and while Nagin polled high among the black community many among it slated the election as unfair due to the lack of polling facilities for voters displaced by the hurricane.

Mayor Nagin and his wife Seletha have three children.

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