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Our Wiser Mayor 

Last week was a good week for Mayor Ray Nagin. It began with the announcement of plans to build a spectacular 20-acre National Jazz Center and park and concluded with Nagin's inauguration for his second term.

There was a lot for hizzoner to feel upbeat about, especially after the past nine months at the helm of America's most embattled city.

Then again, his second term officially began on the first day of hurricane season 2006. There were no storm clouds on the horizon that day, but as June gives way to July and August, the political as well as meteorological storm clouds are sure to gather.

Never one to shrink from controversy, Nagin held his inaugural ceremony in the Morial Convention Center, the site of so much suffering in the days after Katrina. Some no doubt wondered whether that was an appropriate setting, but a stronger argument could be made for doing it exactly as Nagin did. At some point --- and the sooner the better -- New Orleans has to overcome the Katrina stigmata. The image of Nagin, flanked by old foes like Gov. Kathleen Blanco and new allies like Rev. Jesse Jackson, may have been the perfect metaphor for post-Katrina New Orleans, a city in which everything has changed and yet many things remain the same.

Looking ahead, the big question on the minds of Nagin's friends as well as his critics is, which things will change and which ones will stay the same in his second administration?

On election night, perhaps recognizing that the most telling criticism leveled against him during the just-ended campaign was that he ran an amateurish administration that lacked "follow-through" on matters large and small, he pledged to reevaluate all of his staff and make changes. It's been only two weeks since he was re-elected, but so far there have been no changes.

Another area in which Nagin promised change is his historically frigid relationships with other elected officials. Nagin has had two serious political problems over the past four years: first, he has rarely reached out to other politicians who could help him and the city; and second, he almost never listens when others offer good-faith advice.

Perhaps because he came into public office as a quintessential outsider, Nagin has a personal and very visible disdain for other politicians -- notice I said "other" because he cannot escape the label himself, especially not now. You can't get elected and then re-elected mayor of New Orleans without playing the political game. Trouble is, between elections, Nagin's not very good at playing the game.

It's understandable that someone who comes from the private sector would eschew the give-and-take, the easy compromises that some "politicians" make in the name of forging public policy. It speaks well of him that he refuses to compromise his principles. But, at some point, there's a difference between a principled stand and an ego-driven hard-headedness. Sometimes half a loaf really is better. The smart politician recognizes which is which.

One good thing about Nagin that hasn't changed is the fact that he remains a fundamentally honest and thoroughly likable guy. Another of his good qualities -- and this may spring from his "not being a politician" -- is that he has never shown signs of being vindictive. Indeed, he had Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu on the stage at his swearing-in, and Landrieu's sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, gave one of the introductory speeches.

Nagin says he's a wiser mayor now. If that's true, then he recognizes the importance of changing things that need changing -- and keeping things that don't need fixing. In the coming weeks, we'll see exactly how much wisdom he has acquired.

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