The fact that former Mayor Ray Nagin goes to trial on federal corruption charges the same week that New Orleans voters go to the polls to elect a mayor, a sheriff and City Council members reminds me of the memorable words of Michael Corleone near the end of The Godfather: "Today I settled all family business."
This week, New Orleans will settle a lot of its family business:
• A jury of 12 men and women from across southeast Louisiana will be chosen to decide whether Nagin took bribes in exchange for awarding post-Hurricane Katrina recovery contracts to crooked "businessmen" — several of whom will testify against the former mayor after having pleaded guilty to similar charges.
• New Orleans voters will decide if Mitch Landrieu's accomplishments in his first term as mayor outweigh his stylistic shortcomings (read: he can be a real SOB sometimes) — or if the city's political Old Guard (namely, the black political organizations that Nagin derisively called "the alphabet soup") will once again flex its long-lost electoral muscle.
• Those same voters will decide whether to return Sheriff Marlin Gusman to office so that he can continue to preside over America's worst jail — or replace him with former Sheriff Charles Foti Jr., the man who turned the city jail into a sprawling political empire and, in the process, set the stage for Gusman's spectacular failure. (Talk about a Morton's Fork.)
Ironies abound here.
Let's start with the fact that Nagin goes to trial the same week Landrieu hopes to solidify his hold on city politics — and let's not forget that Nagin beat Landrieu in the racially polarized election of 2006, the first after Katrina. Assuming the feds' case against Nagin is as airtight as their 21-count indictment against him appears to be, and assuming Landrieu's encouraging poll numbers hold up on Election Day, Landrieu could have the last laugh.
Then there's the fact that the black political organizations that have lined up behind Landrieu's current opponent, former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, first came to prominence in 1969 — when they lined up behind Landrieu's father, Moon Landrieu, and made him New Orleans' first post-Voting Rights Act mayor. As mayor, Moon Landrieu opened City Hall to black New Orleanians by giving good jobs in his administration to many of the leaders of those political groups, thereby giving them a real foothold not only at City Hall but also across the city's political landscape.
Now, 44 years later, those same organizations hope to regain their lost power by toppling Moon Landrieu's son from the mayor's chair. It's doubly ironic that it was Nagin's election in 2002 that put the final (or so we thought) nail in the organizations' political coffin. Nagin won the mayor's race that year without any of the groups' support in the primary. (One group, BOLD, endorsed Nagin in the runoff, when his election was all but assured — and yet Nagin's first political move after winning the election was to cut loose one of BOLD's leaders, former Councilman Jim Singleton.) Now Nagin appears to be headed for the pokey while the organizations are poised to make one last run at City Hall.
It's interesting but not necessarily ironic to recall that the black political organizations' political stock in trade during their heyday was elevating African-American turnout by appealing to black racial and political unity on behalf of anointed candidates. In the current race for mayor, Bagneris has declined to use race-based appeals; his message is all about substantive differences with Landrieu over policies and alleged failures of the current administration.
Those who know Bagneris well aren't surprised at that. As a judge, he has a well-deserved reputation for fairness, level-headedness and integrity. If he pulls off an upset and beats Landrieu, his victory will say as much about his appeal (and his abilities) as a candidate as about the Old Guard's ability to pull off one last coup.
No matter what the outcomes of the hottest elections this Saturday — and of Nagin's trial — the coming week (or two) will bring closure on several fronts ... and settle all manner of New Orleans family business.