New Orleans voters may not know just yet what they want in their next mayor, but they definitely know what they don't want: another Ray Nagin. Polls and campaign strategies bear that out as candidates try to distinguish themselves not only from one another but also from the hugely unpopular, term-limited mayor.
Call it the Nagin Effect. After eight years in office, Ray Nagin is a political pariah, the guy every candidate for mayor wants desperately to be unlike.
This is not a new phenomenon.
When Nagin first ran for mayor in 2002, he proudly touted his business credentials as the general manager of the local Cox Cable franchise. His media handlers billed him as "the turnaround artist" who made Cox profitable after years of underperformance. Equally important, after eight years of Marc Morial, whose administration was fraught with political patronage and insider deals, voters wanted someone radically different from the familiar political palette. Nagin, with his business background and "political outsider" aura, came on like a breath of fresh air.
Now, eight years later, voters long for something different. Again.
Looking back at past mayoral elections, the pattern is clear. The affable Sidney Barthelemy was the candidate most unlike the fiery two-term mayor Dutch Morial in 1986, and the energetic Marc Morial was the most unlike the easygoing Barthelemy in 1994.
And so it goes. Every eight years, after a mayor has put his stamp on City Hall and city politics and cannot run again, voters yearn for someone different — often times as different as possible.
A poll last spring of more than 1,000 New Orleans showed Nagin with an overall disapproval rating of more than 2 to 1. By a margin of more than 4 to 1, voters said they wanted the city to move in a "significantly different direction" from where Nagin has taken it.
Above all, the poll by Democracy Corps, which was overseen by Democratic consultant James Carville as part of his Tulane professorship, showed that 65 percent of the voters surveyed wanted the next mayor to be "an experienced political leader who knows the City Council and can work with them," compared to only 25 percent who preferred "a political outsider who can challenge the city's political culture."
While the survey is more than six months old, voters' assessment of Nagin — and the effect he has on the mayor's race — has not changed.
Qualifying for mayor, City Council and other local offices is this Wednesday through Friday (Dec. 9-11). The primary is Feb. 6 — a mere eight weeks away, with several holidays, the onset of Carnival season and the NFL playoffs providing major distractions. The campaign's short timeline puts added pressure on candidates to hone their messages.
All of which explains a lot about how certain candidates present themselves to voters these days. Consider how the leading candidates with business experience address The Nagin Effect:
• "I'm a businesswoman who knows you can't run a city like a business," says insurance executive and education reformer Leslie Jacobs at one of her early meet-and-greets.
• Businessman Troy Henry's first radio ad touts his private-sector accomplishments and promises that he'll be the mayor "who did what he said he was gonna do" — a clear reference to Nagin's reputation for not following through on his big promises.
• "I reject the idea that Ray Nagin was a businessman," says Rob Couhig, a Republican attorney and businessman who ran against Nagin in 2006 and then endorsed him in the runoff. Couhig says letting Nagin poison the well for business-oriented candidates is "like saying you don't want (veteran state Senator) Ed Murray because of (corrupt former Congressman) Bill Jefferson."
• "I don't see this in absolutes," says John Georges, the Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat businessman who ran for governor as an Independent in 2007. "I think voters want elements of business and elements of politics in the next mayor. I have both."
The non-business candidates have weighed in as well, but to varying degrees and in varying ways.
As an attorney and 18-year legislator, Murray arguably has no business credentials at all. His latest radio ad uses that to draw a sharp distinction between himself and Nagin — and his opponents. "Unfortunately, our experiment with a businessperson as mayor has been a total failure — a failure we cannot afford to repeat," Murray says in the ad. "The goal of business is to make money. The goal of government is to serve its people. Businesspeople are about making money. I'm about getting things done for our people. ... That's the difference between me and the other major candidates."