That said, there are several good reasons, from Nagin's perspective, for him to run. Obviously, winning the election isn't necessarily among them. To understand why a high-profile politician would mount a campaign that has little chance of success, you have to acknowledge the power of symbolism in politics, particularly among African-American voters.
State Sen. Cleo Fields knew he had almost no chance of winning when he ran for governor in 1995, but he still made the runoff. Fields' campaign made him the most important black political voice in Louisiana for almost a decade. His star faded when the FBI caught him on video taking $20,000 from Edwin Edwards and stuffing it down his trousers, but even today Fields is a force to be reckoned with. He will always be the first African American to make a serious run for governor -- and make it to the runoff. Symbolically, he will always matter.
Congressman Bill Jefferson also started running for governor in 1995. He dropped out and endorsed the younger Fields when it became apparent that Fields' strength in rural parishes eclipsed Jefferson's base in New Orleans. That had to be difficult for Jefferson, because he had paid a lot more dues at that time than had Fields. No doubt he understood the symbolic importance of uniting behind one black candidate, and history will record that he did the noble thing by dropping out.
Four years later, in 1999, Jefferson was the lone major opponent for then-Gov. Mike Foster. As happened in 1995, the race was not close. But the run did solidify Jefferson's credentials as a statewide force and voice for black Louisianans.
Is it Ray Nagin's turn now?
Nagin already has national credentials among black and white voters, thanks to Katrina. In that sense, he doesn't "need" to run for governor to establish himself as a political or even symbolic force in black politics. Regardless of what local voters may think, our mayor is a rock star when he leaves town. That's something Fields and Jefferson never accomplished.
On the other hand, Nagin has almost nothing to lose by running for governor. Sure, his chances of winning are remote, but this isn't just about winning -- at least, not in the traditional, I-got-more-votes-than-you sense. "Winning" in this case may simply be a matter of getting his face and his message statewide (and possibly national) exposure. It may also involve him filling the huge leadership void that currently exists in black political circles statewide. Fields is still smarting from the EWE cash-in-the-pants video, and Jefferson is on the ropes because of his impending federal trial on racketeering charges.
Nagin is the logical one to step up and fill that void. What better way to do it than by running for governor? And, if he can draw enough votes to push Republican Congressman Bobby Jindal to a runoff -- and make that runoff himself -- he'll have "won" already.
Moreover, if Nagin does decide to run, he'll have more than his mug and his ego to offer voters. In addition to the opportunity his candidacy presents to him as a black political leader, he also could use the campaign as a platform for promoting additional state and federal commitments to the recovery of all of south Louisiana, not just New Orleans, and not just southeast Louisiana. There's still a lot of damage in the wake of Hurricane Rita -- "the forgotten storm" -- and Nagin can only gain by championing that cause as well.
There's still another reason for Nagin to run, one that relates to his status as a regional if not national black spokesman. All over Louisiana, black candidates will be seeking legislative seats and a variety of local offices. If a major black candidate is on the ballot for governor, that will give black voters one more reason to vote in October and November -- and that will benefit black and Democratic candidates all over Louisiana at a time when many were on the verge of writing them off in the face of the Jindal juggernaut.
All of this is speculative. To underscore a point I made earlier, Nagin insists that he's focusing on New Orleans and its recovery right now. Who knows? He may even miss the private sector. Besides, after Katrina, Ray Nagin will always matter, too.