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Campaign becomes vote on character
Nagin, Landrieu share vision for city's recovery
Sunday, May 07, 2006
By Gordon Russell Michelle Krupa and Frank Donze Staff writers

Ask the New Orleans mayoral candidates about their post-Katrina strategies for rebuilding flood-ravaged neighborhoods, sparking business development or reforming City Hall, and the answers are remarkably similar.

But it's another story if the question turns to who has the credentials to lead the massive recovery effort. To hear incumbent Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu tell it, only one man is fit to serve.

The Nagin take goes something like this: Landrieu is a tax-loving, old-school political hack who has promised to begin doling out patronage contracts to his cronies once billions of dollars in federal aid start rolling in this year.

The Landrieu assessment is equally disparaging: Nagin is a loose-lipped embarrassment at every turn whose lone-wolf approach to governing has alienated state and federal government leaders who control the cash needed to rebuild New Orleans.

Thus, with two weeks to go before a runoff that will shape the shattered city's future, the campaign discourse is largely devoid of talk about who has the better plan for Katrina recovery. Instead, character, credibility and courage under fire are the measuring sticks Nagin and Landrieu are asking voters to use May 20.

Despite their critiques of one another, the race so far has been amicable -- notably so, given the Louisiana political tradition.

Nagin and Landrieu tend to go out of their way to mention their mutual friendship and admiration, with compliments frequently flying as the preamble to answers at political debates. But the treacly rhetoric has its limits.

One of Landrieu's catchphrases sums up his perspective: "What was OK before Katrina isn't OK after Katrina." He means that Nagin, who blazed into office in 2002 as a business candidate with no political experience, may have been an adequate, if mediocre, mayor before the legendary storm.

But according to the lieutenant governor, the stakes are far higher now and Nagin simply is in over his head. That's why Landrieu -- who has said he wasn't weighing a bid for mayor before Katrina and openly acknowledged having his eye on the Governor's Mansion in 2007 -- got into the race, he has said.

Nagin, meanwhile, has said it would be foolish to oust the top City Hall executive on the cusp of another hurricane season, which officially begins June 1. Surely voters would not want to risk their safety and property to the political "experiment" of electing Landrieu when they can benefit from the lessons the battle-hardened incumbent learned in Katrina's aftermath, Nagin says.

Observers agree that the choice boils down to quality of leadership, not substance of platform. The crossroads is one to which voters led themselves in the primary, when they discarded candidates who touted more specific and sometimes daring ideas for how to manage the city's recovery, such as cutting off public services to devastated areas east of the Industrial Canal.

"The candidates, it's not like there's a lot of difference between them," University of New Orleans political scientist Susan Howell said.

Their similarities extend beyond platforms. Both hold high office, and though Landrieu is carrying the mantle of change as the challenger, both have been able to use their public positions to their advantage as they approach the runoff.

Nagin has capitalized on worldwide media appearances alongside President Bush and other dignitaries who have visited the city. And Landrieu, whose job focuses principally on the state's tourism industry, has heralded the post-Katrina survival of Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival as his personal tour de force.

Though each touts his own leadership ability, the candidates acknowledge that they lead in very different ways. Nagin wears his impatience with bureaucracy and diplomacy as a badge of honor, at times boldly forging ahead with decisions that are unpopular, such as when he used emergency authority to approve a new landfill in eastern New Orleans.

Landrieu paints himself as a consensus builder whose measured tone and sense of fair play can corral disparate factions into achieving a common goal. As an example, he points to the $7.5 million marketing campaign that joined local celebrities, hotel executives and convention directors in an effort to draw tourists back to the Crescent City.

Who can get it done?

While it would be incorrect to say the runoff campaign lacks substance, the race is clearly not about ideas. Anyone who watched the first debate between Nagin and Landrieu couldn't help but notice that the two men were in virtual agreement over what the city's crucial next steps need to be: secure enough money to provide a minimum level of city services, agitate for better levee protection and get federal grant money into homeowners' hands.

The real question, then, isn't what needs to be done, but how it should be done and who should do it.

Nagin, for one, has said it's unfair that Landrieu has managed to become a serious contender for his job even though he's not proposing to chart a different course for the city's future.

"If your opponent has no unique ideas, no independent thoughts, then it's easy to agree with everything the incumbent says and try to spin this from an issue-oriented discussion to one of personalities," Nagin said in a recent interview. "I just kind of reject that."

But this mayoral election is unlike any in the city's history. Most elections are held amid relative calm, and thus present an opportunity for candidates to focus their attention on their urban ill of choice, such as public safety, the lack of good jobs or the faltering educational system.

Today, the city's problems are numerous, obvious and critical. And although Landrieu doesn't accept Nagin's premise that he has essentially glommed onto the mayor's blueprint without offering his own thinking, he says often that the election is about three things: who can restore the city's credibility, who can bring together different groups of people and who can "get the job done."

Landrieu's "idea," in other words, is to make things work better -- a potentially powerful message in a city where frustration over things not working runs high.

"We're looking for a leader who can help us, who can make it go away, make it all better," Howell said.

For both candidates, then, the challenge is twofold: First, they have to convince voters that the other guy is not the right mayor for these troubled times. And second, each must tout personal achievements that demonstrate his ability to handle the colossal task.

That said, because Nagin is the incumbent, his record appears to be the focus for both candidates -- Nagin touts it, while Landrieu charges that the mayor's missteps have slowed progress. In new advertisements, for instance, Landrieu zeroes in on the thousands of abandoned cars that litter city streets, among other depressing markers of post-Katrina life, and blames Nagin for failing to do anything about the problem.

"It's really a vote on Nagin's leadership," said Ed Renwick, director of Loyola University's Institute of Politics. "That's what led to the big fallout. It's Landrieu's job to show he'd do a better job than Nagin has done. And for Nagin, it's about convincing people he did as well as can be done under the circumstances."

Nagin touts improvements

Not surprisingly, Nagin takes a charitable view of his own record.

Before Katrina struck, he said, the progress his administration made was nothing short of miraculous. He said the city experienced job growth for the first time in decades and that 37,000 people "were removed from the poverty rolls" during his first three years.

Nagin has lauded his administration's technological overhaul of City Hall, noting that residents and businesses can now pay taxes online and seek various kinds of permits. Those reforms, he said, led to an improved business climate that led to job growth.

Among Nagin's other claims to glory: the emergence of the city as an epicenter of filmmaking, the growth in its cruise ship industry and a steady rise in real estate values before the storm.

"I think people will look back on this administration and see the most significant changes in the history of this city," Nagin said. "Right now, a lot of people can't see it, and I understand that."

Whether or not Nagin's pre-Katrina record is as consequential as he says, the storm has obviously focused voters' -- and Landrieu's -- attention on what has happened since August.

Nagin points with pride to the successful and mostly smooth evacuation of 75 percent to 90 percent of the city's population as Katrina headed for landfall, a vast improvement over previous efforts.

Nagin has acknowledged he made some mistakes in the early chaos after the storm, although he has largely blamed state and federal officials for the twin debacles of the Superdome and the Convention Center.

He said his biggest error was believing "the cavalry was coming." Next time, Nagin said, he won't make that mistake, and the evacuation plan he rolled out last week calls for a much different approach to shuttling to safety residents without cars.

When it comes to the process of trying to get the city back on its feet -- the centerpiece of the campaign -- Nagin has touted his creation of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, a panel of civic leaders that designed a blueprint for the future.

Nagin also met with four neighboring parish presidents to come up with a plan for dispensing federal aid to owners of flooded homes. The plan they devised was very similar to the one eventually announced by Gov. Kathleen Blanco's Louisiana Recovery Authority, which will parcel out the federal money.

Daily frustrations

Landrieu's critiques of Nagin have less to do with his overarching vision than with what Landrieu calls a failure to implement it.

For instance, the mayor's rebuilding commission envisioned a four-month neighborhood planning process that was supposed to start in March but has yet to hold its first public planning meeting, mainly due to a lack of money. Without that process, questions about the future and viability of dozens of neighborhoods are difficult to answer.

Landrieu also has focused his attention on the daily frustrations of living in New Orleans since the storm. With every sunrise, it seems, there's a fresh scrap of bad news. The city is running out of cash. The water and sewer systems are plagued with leaks. Trash pickup has been spotty at best.

Meanwhile, the city's efforts to hire a company to rid the streets of flood-ravaged vehicles collapsed amid controversy over pricing, and the decision to piggyback on a state contract went nowhere because that deal became mired in disputes.

Furthermore, Landrieu has criticized the frequent absence of any representative of the Nagin administration during crucial discussions of the city's business by other public bodies.

He said Nagin failed to testify in Baton Rouge in support of unifying southeast Louisiana's numerous levee boards, an issue that became as much about the region's willingness to clean up graft as about infrastructure maintenance.

And Landrieu noted that Nagin's staff was nowhere to be found during a recent Bond Commission meeting centered on tax-free loans available to the city for hurricane recovery.

"Not a person from city was there," he said. "That's malfeasance."

Landrieu also has sought to take the shine off Nagin's pre-Katrina record.

Crime fears have been rising after a spell of shootings interrupted the city's brief interlude of peace following the storm. Landrieu has sought to capitalize on that, saying he'll do a national search for a new police chief and pointing out that the city's murder rate was on the rise before the storm.

As for Nagin's other claims to pre-Katrina success, Landrieu said he has struggled to pinpoint a single public bricks-and-mortar project that the mayor has overseen.

"I can't . . . think of one capital project that his administration has done in the last 3 1/2 years that he started, funded and completed," Landrieu said. "If you think of all the other mayors, you can think of one thing that happened in the first term in office."

According to Landrieu, additional cruise ship berths and the movie-industry boom resulted from private-sector investment combined with infrastructure investments and tax credits ponied up by the state.

"The thing the mayor brags most about, the 'Hollywood South' thing, that is a result of state tax breaks to industry," Landrieu said. "The Warehouse District (revival) is my legislation: targeted tax breaks for homeowners."

Looking at Landrieu

While the election is largely a referendum on Nagin, Landrieu's record is certainly in play as well. By Nagin's account, Landrieu has spent nearly two decades in Baton Rouge -- 16 years in the state House and the past two as the No. 2 elected official -- and has only a thin dossier, with few management credentials, to show for it.

Landrieu, meanwhile, maintains that he was at the forefront of "every" reform that came out of Baton Rouge during the past two decades. Critics might carp, with some justification, that the list would be short one, given the Legislature's reputation. But Landrieu points to a handful of successes.

Principal on his list is the 2003 bill that reformed the juvenile justice system. Spearheaded by Landrieu, the measure eased the state's reliance on incarceration, placed a new focus on rehabilitation programs and other jail alternatives, and paved the way for closure of Tallulah, which was long regarded as the state's worst youth facility.

In a nod to the law's near-term effectiveness, a federal judge last week ended federal oversight of four Louisiana youth jails that once were considered among the worst in the country.

Landrieu also counts himself among a team of "debt hawks" who in the early 1990s helped craft a constitutional amendment that eventually limited debt payments to 6 percent of state general-fund revenue. The percentage at the time was nearly double that, he said.

Voters approved the measure, and according to Landrieu, the state since then has freed up at least $5 billion that would have gone to interest payments to instead support areas such as education and wetlands restoration.

Landrieu refutes Nagin's contention that he is a fiscal liberal who would fix the city's myriad problems by increasing millages. In fact, he says such a term is antiquated and ignores the opportunity of tax policy to "create specific objectives and . . . do it smartly."

"This old mind-numbing game of 'are you a tax-and-spend liberal, or are you a borrow-and-slash conservative?' has no relevance in today's governing," Landrieu said. "And the fact that he's even talking that language means he's outdated and way behind schedule."

Landrieu also has fought Nagin's portrayal of him as an ineffective lawmaker who has neither the talent nor the drive to be appointed to a committee chairmanship. Recalling his duties as a floor leader for every New Orleans mayor, including Nagin, during his state House tenure, Landrieu said he preferred to work the whole House chamber to unite disparate factions.

"I didn't want to be a committee chairman, because a committee chairman has to pledge allegiance to a governor," he said. "A committee chairman gets to be part of a team, and the agenda is dictated by the governor. I was way too independent to be a committee chairman."

More recently, Landrieu said, it was his ability to build consensus from the lieutenant governor's office that allowed him to implement, in about one-fourth the time of the city's ongoing process, the construction of group trailer sites at state parks to house residents still displaced by Katrina.

Landrieu said that -- unlike Nagin's approach, which briefly involved kicking FEMA's trailer program out of town altogether -- he set up a system in which local city or parish council members, along with state representatives, managed site approval and setup. He said the trailers were inhabited in about two months and that major public conflict never arose.

"Does everything have to turn into protests on the steps of City Hall?" Landrieu said, referring to another post-Katrina problem that hit a boiling point in the city: Nagin's approval of a landfill in eastern New Orleans over the objections of residents.

Landrieu said he also has managed to get the ball rolling on an issue that formally isn't even in his court yet. He said state Rep. Karen Carter, D-New Orleans, who staunchly supports his mayoral bid, has filed three bills this session related to plans Landrieu would enact if elected to help cure the city's fiscal woes.

"Talk is cheap, and plans get put on the shelves," he said. "I want to know about implementing plans, and if you look at my career, one of the things you see is me being able to put a lot of different people in a room together and knocking down pretty complicated things and making them happen."

Assuming a new mayor would take office about 10 days after the runoff, Landrieu said, he already has secured promises from the state treasurer and auditor to help his administration vet the city's books if he is elected. And he said he would convene an advisory council of mayors from Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Charleston, S.C.

"That's a novel concept," Landrieu said, taking dead aim at Nagin's go-it-alone approach. "Why don't you ask somebody else who knows more than you for help and acknowledge that you don't know everything and ask people who have been there before?"

Also on that panel, Landrieu said, would be former New Orleans mayors Sidney Barthelemy; his father, Moon Landrieu; and Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League whose City Hall contracting practices are the subject of several federal criminal investigations.

The roster seems to illustrate an image Nagin has painted throughout the campaign: With ominous language, he has predicted that a new Landrieu administration at City Hall would signal a return to "the politics of the past."

Nagin said the phrase refers to the "folk" who are helping his opponent, but he declined to name names, saying only that "they just do business a certain way. And we'll see if it goes back to that."

Asked to elaborate, Nagin said:, "Well, you know, where it's more important who you know than what you know." Pressed for specifics, Nagin again took a pass, saying: "I don't know, you ought to talk to him."

Landrieu responded angrily to the veiled allegations. "I've served for 18 years, and I've never had anyone question my honesty and my integrity and my ethics," he said.

"Is he talking about asking political officials for support? Everybody asks political officials for support," Landrieu added, noting that Nagin has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans; and state Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge.

Jefferson is the target of an ongoing federal probe. Fields, meanwhile, has been a controversial figure in the eyes of many voters since federal investigators released a videotape showing him taking cash from former Gov. Edwin Edwards and stuffing it into his pockets.

The tape became public during Edwards' corruption trial in 2000. Fields, who was not in office when the tape was made, was never accused of a crime.

Landrieu said if Nagin has a "problem with Marc Morial, he should say so publicly and say so clearly. And if he doesn't want the help of the president of the Urban League in terms of helping with other mayors and with national advocacy, he should say so clearly."

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Gordon Russell can be reached at or (504) 826-3347. Michelle Krupa can be reached at or (504) 826-3312. Frank Donze can be reached at or (504) 826-3328.