Marlyville / Fontainebleau / Broadmoor Preservation
post-Katrina and beyond...









press clipping

Impact of Nagin's gaffe still being weighed
By Jeff Duncan
Staff writer

The impact of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s controversial Martin Luther King Day comments landed squarely on the shoulders of tourism officials Wednesday, one day after the mayor and his staff launched a major damage control effort to temper the firestorm.

As pundits and talk-show hosts parodied Nagin coast to coast, local tourism officials spent the day trying to soothe angry, disillusioned clients while political observers weighed the potential impact the mayor’s comments might have in Washington.

Whether the damage caused to the city and mayor was a temporary setback or a critical blow remains to be seen, business, civic and political leaders said. Nagin spent Tuesday repeatedly apologizing to anyone offended by his remarks, with critics saying he offended just about everyone.

Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Tourism Bureau, said his office had received a handful of cancellations from clients that had booked or were considering events in the city. Others, he said, had deluged his staff with irate e-mails and phone calls. Perry said he and his staff are working to reverse the cancellations.

“In tourism, perception is the driver,” Perry said. “(Nagin’s remarks) have caused a considerable amount of unrest and concern among our national business customers and ripples of anxiety among our leisure community.”

Since Nagin’s prediction that post-Katrina New Orleans would be a “chocolate city at the end of the day” — meaning once again majority African American — and his claim that last summer’s hurricane destruction in the U.S. was the result of God’s will, late-night talk-show hosts and political pundits have lampooned him on TV and in newspaper columns. Cartoons and images of Nagin in a Willy Wonka outfit have circulated on political Web sites and Internet Weblogs. A cottage industry of “Willy Nagin” and “Mr. Goodbar” T-shirts and bumper stickers has sprouted on-line.

“This was damaging locally and nationally, and at a time when New Orleans is desperately in need of assistance and partnership,” Perry said. “It was embarrassing to a lot of people here to be the subject of national jokes.”

Calling it an “all-hands-on-deck” crisis, Perry said his staff has conducted meetings around the clock since Nagin’s comments on the federal holiday honoring King. Staffers have launched a proactive attack using Nagin’s apology in e-mails, letters and phone conversations to minimize the negative impact. He said officials from the mayor’s office have offered to help in the effort.

“We honestly believe we can turn this around with a couple of weeks of very intense marketing,” Perry said. “The main worry is that this could have a ripple effect through our customer base. It’s left people bewildered about the city and its direction.

“The irony is that the tourism industry and all of those that love to come to our city love the multiracial culture and character of New Orleans That literally is the core of our business.”
Washington reacts

Among the Washington political class, opinions were mixed on how the fallout might affect the view of New Orleans. While no one thought Nagin helped the city’s cause, and that his comments reinforced a negative view in the city in some quarters, most believed it wouldn’t be something lawmakers would hold against a community in desperate need of help.

Former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said he didn’t think that Nagin’s comments would cause lasting damage to the state’s effort to get federal hurricane-relief money. He said politicians in Washington aren’t likely to hold the incident against Nagin because they sometimes find themselves in hot water for verbal gaffes. Breaux said he viewed the comments in the context they occurred: Nagin trying to reassure displaced African American New Orleanians that they are welcome and wanted back in the city.

“You are talking to an all-black group on Martin Luther King Day,” Breaux said. “I can see how you could say something like that to bring up the spirits of people who were down.”

Breaux compared it to Sen. Trent Lott’s, R-Miss., rhetorical misstep in 2002 when he praised then-Sen. Strom Thurmond’s long career, which included a 1948 run for president as a member of the segregationist Dixiecrat Party. Lott apologized, but was forced to give up his position as Senate Majority Leader.

When Breaux was reminded of the lasting damage to Lott’s reputation, he noted that with ethical questions hanging over the current Republican leadership in Washington, Lott is mounting a political comeback.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., agreed that Nagin’s comments wouldn’t have a lasting effect. He brushed it off with a quip. “There is dark chocolate and there is white chocolate,” Lieberman said.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., however said that the nationally broadcast comments serve to hurt Louisiana’s reputation at a time when lawmakers in Washington already are skeptical of the state’s leadership. Part of that view stems from a $250 billion wish list bill submitted to Congress in September by Republican Vitter and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Mary Landrieu.

“We heard questions even before this,” Vitter said. “People (in Washington) want assurances that there is leadership here that so federal resources don’t get squandered.”

Washington political analyst Charlie Cook, a Shreveport native, said the negative perception of Louisiana politicians inside the Beltway is real.

“A lot of people in Washington see Louisiana as a Banana Republic and New Orleans as a kind of zoo,” Cook said. “The mayor’s not helping the city when he says things like that. It just reinforces that negative stereotype and really does hurt your cause.”

Tulane University president Scott Cowen, who Nagin handpicked to chair the Bring New Orleans Back Commission’s education subcommittee, said he hoped the mayor’s apology on Tuesday would soften the blow in Washington.

“Unfortunately, the damage has already been done,” said Cowen, when asked if Nagin’s remarks would impact the city’s ability to garner public and private funding. “And it needed to be repaired. The only thing that will repair that is action.

“The community needs to come together and bridge this racial divide and the mayor needs to lead that charge to show the nation that everyone is welcome here regardless of race, class or gender.”

Cowen has worked closely with Nagin for the past three months on the BNOB commission’s education subcommittee and said he doesn’t think the mayor’s remarks were racially motivated.

“But,” Cowen added, “he has a lot to make up for. All of us in leadership positions are under terrible pressure and stress right now and my suspicion is the mayor got caught up in the moment and the setting on Martin Luther King Day. That said, it’s no excuse.”

Others believe the controversy eventually will dissipate and ultimately have little long-term effect.

“I don’t hear a lot of people crying foul in my business,” said Jay Cicero, the president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation. “I’m not expecting it to be something that will have a long-lasting effect on our ability to market the city for major sports events. I don’t think it’s going to have an impact.”

Ben Johnson, the president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, agreed.

“I think he had a Katrina moment,” Johnson said. “If you look at his whole speech, it was clear he was trying to encourage the community to work together. It’s one blip on the radar screen.”

Staff writers Brian Thevenot and Bill Walsh contributed to this report.

Jeff Duncan can be reached at or (504) 826-3452.s