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Remarks Leave Nagin in a Not-So-Sweet Spot

Comments made by the New Orleans mayor that God punished the area, or that he would build a 'chocolate' city, may harm his reelection bid.

January 22, 2006|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Mayor C. Ray Nagin was mugging for the television cameras Thursday at a local landmark, Loretta's Authentic Pralines, when a journalist jokingly asked him to sample one of the confectioner's chocolate varieties.

"No. I'm staying away from that," Nagin said, smiling and walking quickly past the pralines.

If the mayor appeared to treat a chocolate praline as if it were a ticking time bomb, it was perfectly understandable given the week he was having -- the result of an extraordinarily bad bout of political foot in mouth.

Nagin, a former cable television executive who became this city's mayor in 2002 in his first bid for public office, stirred up a nationwide furor when he suggested Monday in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech that an angry God smote New Orleans with hurricanes in the summer because he was "mad at America."

The Almighty also wanted the rebuilding metropolis to become a "chocolate" city, Nagin added, referring to the funk lyrics of Parliament's George Clinton, whose 1975 album "Chocolate City" contrasts black majorities in urban cores with "vanilla suburbs."

In one burst of oratory, some New Orleans political observers contend, Nagin might have written his mayoral obituary heading into what is expected to be a wide-open election in April.

Reflecting the altered state of the mayoral race, several big names announced after his speech that they were considering candidacies. Among them were Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitchell J. Landrieu (the son of former Mayor Moon Landrieu); veteran New Orleans Councilman Eddie L. Sapir; and Ron Forman, a popular civic leader who serves as president of the nonprofit Audubon Nature Institute.

"It looks like this has some traction," said Silas Lee, a pollster and professor at Xavier University in New Orleans. "Candidates are like sharks: When they smell blood, they will strike. And the sharks are definitely in the water now."

Nagin apologized for his unscripted remarks less than 24 hours after uttering them.

"I don't know how that got jumbled up," he said. "That whole God thing, I don't know how that got mixed up in there."

But professional comedians went to town on the mayor -- as did ordinary pranksters. Within 24 hours, websites had sprung up selling "Mayor Wonka" T-shirts portraying Nagin as the lead character in the 1971 movie "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory." There were mock news reports that Nagin was recruiting an Oompa Loompa workforce to construct his chocolate city.

"Ray Nagin is a praline: brown sugar and nuts," one wag wrote on the Internet discussion boards at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which was deluged with letters and e-mails.

"We are more of a chocolate and vanilla swirl population with nuts on top. Need I say the nuts represent our politicians?" added an e-mail by Louie Bonnecarre of New Orleans. "All the good that has happened recently such as a solid rebuilding plan has been overshadowed by one stupid remark."

Nagin's suggestion that "God is mad at America" garnered national headlines, drawing comparisons to remarks about divine retribution by televangelist Pat Robertson. However, it was the chocolate city reference that generated the most heat in New Orleans.

Nagin supporters were quick to say that although the mayor chose his words poorly, he was delivering a political message supported by most citizens: that there would be a place for all black residents in the rebuilt New Orleans.

Many African American activists and community leaders have denounced a mayoral commission's proposal to give homeowners in flood-torn areas four months to prove the viability of their neighborhoods before possibly being forced to sell to the government. The areas that would have to pass the survival test, which span more than half the city, were predominantly black.

But fellow politicians and community leaders -- including the president of Tulane University and other members of his rebuilding commission -- have not been forgiving. They assert that Nagin made New Orleans look loony at a time when the battered city badly needed to project a positive image.

"It was obviously not helpful," said U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), the sister of Lt. Gov. Landrieu. "However, we have all said things we wished we would not have said. We just have to keep pressing forward."

The biggest backlash, however, may come from New Orleans' business leaders, who embraced Nagin during his first mayoral run but have increasingly grown disillusioned with his seeming tendency to make faux pas.

In October, Nagin caused a stir when he said businesses were probably worried about preventing New Orleans from being "overrun by Mexican workers," remarks that were considered racist by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and other Latino groups.

During his recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech, Nagin also remarked, "I don't care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate."

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