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Ray of Hope 

New Mayor Ray Nagin's entrepreneurial sense of optimism is contagious. But can he stay focused in the face of many challenges?

For Mayor-elect Ray Nagin, the latest University of New Orleans "Quality of Life" survey confirms his highest hopes and his deepest fears: voters are more optimistic than ever about the future of New Orleans, but that optimism has produced expectations that may outstrip anyone's ability to deliver. As one Nagin advisor groused privately, "I don't think Jesus could produce all the miracles people expect right now."

In a nutshell, that's Nagin's biggest challenge: meeting extremely high voter expectations.

"The burden is huge. I will not discount that at all," Nagin says. "There are lots of expectations in this city. ... We have unleashed this tremendous optimism in this city that people have been thirsting for for a long time. I don't know what to do about that other than to stay consistent and to stay focused on the key issues."

Ah, there's the rub: staying focused. That's the bugaboo that has plagued mayors since Bienville, because too many mayors have learned too late that priorities can shift in the face of crises.

Outgoing Mayor Marc Morial agreed that the biggest challenge Nagin faces is to focus. "Focus on key areas," Morial advises. "And don't get waylaid."

'Trying to Get a Handle'

To a large extent, Nagin has only himself to blame for voters' high expectations. His campaign embodied an entrepreneurial sense of boundless optimism. He welcomed the opportunity to raise the bar and "change the paradigm." Nagin promised to change New Orleans' image by changing the way it does business, particularly in the areas of patronage and permitting, and thereby produce "jobs for New Orleans."

Improving the economy is a tall order under any circumstances. It will be even tougher under a city budget that some say is about to run $40 million or more in the red.

"The budget is the big issue, trying to get a handle on what our financial condition is," Nagin admits. "It's anything from a break-even situation to a $40 million to $50 million shortfall. We need to get that under control first."

That won't be easy. In the past, some mayors spent their first year or two grappling with budgetary problems -- to the point of losing their ... focus.

"I think that's all part of the process," Nagin says of the potential for distraction. "I don't come into this thinking that running the city is going to be a cakewalk. I expect to have some pretty significant challenges. It's just part of the management process of moving the city forward."

Nagin says he's not worried about the high expectations, either. "I believe that as long as we show a track record of success and start to build upon successes, I think people will be okay. Now, if we come out of the chute and don't do much of anything, and if we give the perception that we're the same old stuff, people will have a major problem with that."

Nagin thus realizes he has to do something right away -- even though, on election night and afterwards, he warned that it would take up to 18 months to deliver on his major promises. So what can he do immediately?

An admitted techno-geek, Nagin says look for big changes quickly in his "technology piece."

"Pretty soon you'll be able to file for permits online and get them filled. For folks that are not as comfortable with technology, we hope to have a close relationship with the library system so that people can go there and access the Internet and take care of business."

That's a nice touch, but more folks interface with potholes on a daily basis than with PCs. The UNO survey also showed that street repairs earned the lowest marks from voters in New Orleans.

"We're going to try and really focus in on the pothole issue based on the availability of dollars, which is something people are saying they want and would appreciate us getting done," Nagin says.

But that brings up the budget issue again.

Focus, Ray. Focus.

"Potholes are going to be an interesting challenge, to determine exactly how much money we have left to spend on potholes," Nagin admits. "That's the budget concern all over again. The good news is that I think we can do some things to enhance the existing revenue streams that we have. I'm not convinced that we're collecting all the revenue that we could be."

One bit of good news: Morial is leaving millions of dollars unspent from a pair of bond issues -- and most of the unspent money is dedicated to street work. The trick for Nagin will be to steer as much of it as possible, as quickly as possible, to repairs and major street improvements.

To do that, he'll need help from the City Council.

Which brings up another major challenge.

An Early Showdown?

Nagin got a huge boost in his runoff against Police Chief Richard Pennington from one of his vanquished opponents, veteran City Councilman Jim Singleton. Singleton and his organization, BOLD, provided Nagin with a street organization and instant credibility in a large segment of the city's poor and black communities.

Since the election, Singleton has been seen everywhere with Nagin. He's widely acknowledged as the expert on budget matters at City Hall -- and that's expertise Nagin can use right away.

The problem is, Singleton is not popular among all of his fellow council members. In fact, he was voted out as council president more than a year ago and replaced by fellow Councilman-at-large Eddie Sapir, who still presides over the council.

After the elections, Nagin predicted that new Councilman-at-large Oliver Thomas, a Singleton ally who likewise endorsed Nagin in the runoff, would be council president. Sapir took that as a gauntlet and dug in his heels.

A master of behind-the-scenes political jockeying, Sapir and his close friend and advisor, lawyer Bill Broadhurst, began meeting with business and political leaders to secure Sapir's position. They reportedly have claimed to have a lock on the four votes Sapir needs to retain the council presidency.

If that's true, it could set the stage for an early showdown between the new mayor and the new council. Nagin could lose face if his anointed candidate, Thomas, does not win the council presidency. But the stakes go much higher than that. If the behind-the-scenes tug-of-war between Nagin and Sapir spills into the open and lines get drawn in the sand, Nagin could see his ambitious programs and proposals bogged down amid council squabbling.

That could cause him to lose ... focus.

Nagin remains upbeat about it all.

"I think I'm finding some common objectives with the City Council, and making sure I'm respecting them and communicating with them on a timely basis so that we work together as a team," Nagin says. "If we're not a team, we still can get things done, but it slows down the process. If we are a team and we're working together, we can just accelerate everything. That's the biggest challenge."

On another front, Nagin says his budding relationship with Gov. Mike Foster is off to a good start, and he remains on good terms with Morial -- despite Morial's criticism of Nagin's proposal to relax Morial's controversial domicile rule for NOPD officers.

"I haven't had any closed-door, come-to-Jesus meetings with him," Nagin says of Morial. "So we're still fine. I don't see any issues. I don't expect us to always agree. The mayor's a very proud person, and he's done some good work in this city. But any time I'm talking about something that changes what he's put in place, I'm sure he's gonna have some thoughts on it, and I expect that."

Perhaps the most important relationship of all for Nagin is the one he has with citizens. For now, voters are giving him a big thumbs up -- but their optimism is tempered by high expectations. Nagin characteristically embraces the challenge.

"Everywhere I go, people are excited about me becoming mayor, but they're more excited about a future for New Orleans. They have a collective vision of New Orleans doing much better than we've done in the past, of being a place where their children can stay and work and prosper. New Orleanians are really family-oriented, and they're excited about that."

Nagin's ability to meet his initial challenges will say a lot about both his style and his substance. Starting this week, the clock is ticking.

click to enlarge 'I don't come into this thinking that running the city is going to be a cakewalk,' says Ray Nagin. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • 'I don't come into this thinking that running the city is going to be a cakewalk,' says Ray Nagin.
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