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The Nation

Mayor Going Against the Grain in the Big Easy

Crackdown: C. Ray Nagin's anti-corruption crusade is a public relations coup, but not everyone's on board.

September 29, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — They are calling from all over town to lay their laurels at the mayor's feet. "I'm behind you 100%," gushes the first caller. "Thank you for stepping up to the plate," the next one says reverently. Mayor C. Ray Nagin nods, bald pate gleaming under the studio lights of WWL 870 AM. "Thank you," they say, one after the next.

Ever since Nagin swept from obscurity to celebrity in last winter's elections, he has been the toast of his hometown. He's a natural showman who, with fiery rhetoric and dramatic flourish, rolled into office and set about systematically scrubbing graft from city bureaucracy. The former cable TV executive has vowed to shake the antiquated government into shape and lure big business back to the foundering Big Easy.

"This city is just on fire," radio host David Tyree exclaims. "An earthquake, I don't know what."

Flush with promises to stop the laissez faire palm greasing of prior administrations, Nagin seems too good to be true--and some skeptics say he has yet to follow through.

In New Orleans government, a dynastic dinosaur traditionally run by career civil servants, Nagin is a rarity. As a self-made businessman and political outsider, "He was invisible," University of New Orleans political scientist Susan Howell said. "Nobody knew who he was."

He was born in Charity Hospital, grew up in the scrappy streets of this city's working-class neighborhoods and went to Alabama's Tuskegee University on a scholarship. In last year's campaign, Nagin talked up an anti-corruption platform that attracted white and middle-class black voters alike.

After his spring inauguration, it didn't take long for the commotion to begin. On a dank morning in late July, police stole through the streets before sunrise, banged on doors and rounded up the first of more than 80 suspects in Nagin's much-touted crackdown.

The sting came off in tidy choreography. That morning's newspaper carried the story in awkward verb tense: "In predawn raids, police this morning were scheduled to fan out across New Orleans to arrest city bureaucrats, brake-tag inspectors and illegally licensed cab drivers ... an opening salvo by the Nagin administration in what bodes to be the biggest crackdown on municipal corruption in the modern history of this city." The Times-Picayune was fed the story in advance; Nagin is nothing if not publicity-smart.

Later that morning, Utilities Director Lilliam Regan arrived at her City Hall office to find the door locked. Before the watchful lenses of a bank of television cameras, Regan was fired. Then Brian Cain, head of the Taxicab Bureau, was marched out of City Hall in handcuffs. A few days later, Regan was arrested on charges of malfeasance in office.

The battle cry rang unmistakably. In news conferences, Nagin called it a fight for the heart and soul of New Orleans, the existential struggle of a town mired in poverty and old-time graft.

New Orleans has long been regarded as an anachronistic banana republic where the only way to do business--be it a vehicle inspection, a construction contract or a garbage collection--is to pay a bribe or call in a favor. Whether or not the city lives up to its crooked reputation, conventional wisdom holds that its image alone is enough to drive away business.

Nagin has tapped into a prevailing fear that New Orleans is choking on its own mystique. The population of fewer than 500,000 is dwindling, grown children are forced to find jobs elsewhere and city workers are disgruntled and underpaid, critics point out. In his exuberant speeches, Nagin summoned the phantoms of bills slipped over countertops and wads of cash pressed into waiting palms.

"It was political theater," scoffed Martin E. Regan Jr., Lilliam Regan's husband and lawyer.

Whatever it was, it worked: Eager whistle-blowers jammed the phone lines at the Metropolitan Crime Commission, dumping more than 1,000 tips into the laps of investigators. When Nagin swaggers through a downtown shopping mall, voters crowd around him like children swarming Santa Claus. They shake his hand--and offer to slip him documents that detail some scrap of bygone graft. They have been waiting for years, they tell him.

"Corruption had gone on in the open for so long that there was really a feeling of hopelessness," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the crime commission. "There was a sense that it was so embedded in the culture of the community, there was no way to change it."

But as the dramatic summer cooled down, skeptics began to ask what, exactly, had been accomplished. Aside from Regan, the net had rounded up a motley collection of cabbies, vehicle inspection agents and low-level bureaucrats. They were charged with small-time crookery: extorting cash from drivers whose cars wouldn't have passed inspection, or pocketing a payoff in exchange for a taxi permit. "There was a sense that, God, all we're doing is catching little fish," said John Maginnis, a political commentator in Baton Rouge.

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