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."
Former judge Nadine Ramsey, who served at Civil District Court from 1997 to 2009, focuses on a different kind of experience. "I've been involved in government, but I'm not a politician," she says, adding that she will differ from Nagin by working more closely with the City Council to get things done.
Lawyer James Perry, who until recently led a nonprofit fair housing advocacy group, says there's a third kind of candidate — himself, of course — from the nonprofit sector. "The business candidates are all very similar to Ray Nagin," says Perry, who describes Jacobs, Henry, Couhig and Georges as "Nagin third-termers" because, in his view, they are cut from the same "business" cloth as Nagin.
Those candidates, of course, disagree with that description.
Henry promises to set "a higher standard" as mayor — another veiled shot at Nagin. Jacobs notes that she "won an election in one-seventh of the city" to serve on the Orleans Parish School Board for four years. She also worked with two governors as an appointed member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). "I've been in the news for being involved in public school reform in a very public way for 16 years," she says. "The general public doesn't think of me as a business executive."
Couhig and Georges likewise emphasize their political and governmental experience.
"I was the most vehement opponent to Nagin [in 2006], but after he got elected I volunteered for 100 days over there to help get things going again," says Couhig, who also ran for Congress twice prior to 2000. "As a result, I spent time in every city department. I understand how it works and how it should work."
"I have 30 years of political experience, serving on the Board of Regents (for Higher Education) and the Public Belt Railroad board," Georges says. "I'm in the most regulated business in the state — groceries, tobacco and video poker. I am politically active as a matter of necessity for my business, and I have relationships with elected officials at all levels."
As of late last week, former at-large Councilman Eddie Sapir was still testing the waters. If he enters the race this week, Sapir will surpass Murray as the candidate with the most political and governmental experience. Starting with a stint in the state Legislature in 1967, Sapir has served on the City Council and as a judge for the better part of four decades. Also late last week, jazzman Irvin Mayfield removed himself from consideration — but in doing so he cited polls that showed voters "wanted political experience" in the next mayor, which Mayfield interpreted as someone who won't make "novice mistakes."
Here's a closer look at each declared candidate's experience, how each distinguishes himself or herself from the rest of the field, and the unique challenges each must overcome to win. (Candidates are listed in alphabetical order.)
Couhig's skills as a trial attorney are his chief strength as a candidate. He has a sharp mind and quick wit — and the ability to slice and dice his opponents in a debate. He will sharpen his saber this time on the man he sees as his main competition for votes: Georges.
As for governmental experience, he volunteered to help Nagin for 100 days after endorsing the embattled incumbent over Mitch Landrieu in 2006. Nagin later appointed him to the board of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) — but the mayor failed to fund the agency adequately. Couhig has since become a vocal critic of Nagin.
Couhig has two main challenges: he is a Republican in a city that went 75 percent for President Barack Obama; and his endorsement of Nagin in 2006 still angers many anti-Nagin voters. He shrugs it off ... and goes on the offensive.
"I am the only fiscal conservative running for mayor," Couhig says. "I'm the only one who has actually been in City Hall and attempted to make it work. And I'm the only one who has an articulable matrix of guidelines by which I will make decisions. No. 1: Will it make the city more livable? No. 2: Will it make it more affordable? No. 3: Will it improve economic opportunity? No. 4: Will it be fair and equitable for all of our citizens?
"I will take a disciplined, hard-working, consistent approach. That's the antithesis of Ray Nagin. We don't need ... highfalutin' promises. We need someone who wants to do the work."
If business acumen is a plus, Georges clearly has the most of the lot. He built his family's grocery distribution business into a multi-million dollar powerhouse — taking it into new arenas such as video poker and oilfield boats. As he did when he ran for governor in 2007, Georges can put virtually unlimited personal funds into this campaign. He is passionate on the stump and determined to get significant African American crossover votes.
Georges' biggest hurdles are himself and some of his associates. He has a legendary ego, which he says is simply a measure of pride in what he stands for and has accomplished. Among his political advisers is Sherman Copelin, a former state representative who years ago admitted taking bribes while working at City Hall. Georges defends his friendship with Copelin, but it's sure to become an issue. His opponents also may criticize him for morphing from Republican to Independent to Democrat in just two years — each time to gain political advantage. Any criticism will have to compete for airtime, however, as Georges won't be outspent.
Georges bristles at being portrayed as a millionaire seeking public affirmation via public office. He emphasizes his years as a political operative and donor, and his ability to find good people to run his companies.
"I don't have to establish new political relationships because I've been close to people in power for a long time," he says. "I also understand the business world. ... I can talk the language of a CEO as well as the language of politics. That's what voters want in the next mayor."
Among all the candidates, Henry probably has the most interesting story to tell. Born in the Lower Nine, his family moved to Pontchartrain Park after the floods of Hurricane Betsy, although his dad continued to operate a well-known pharmacy in the old neighborhood. After Katrina, he and his lifelong pal, actor Wendell Pierce, led the fight to restore the city's first African-American middle class neighborhood where they grew up. A graduate of St. Aug, Henry attended Stanford and then earned two M.B.A.s from Carnegie Mellon, went to work for Fortune 500 companies, and then started his own consulting firm. He built his firm into a multi-million-dollar enterprise. He also helped write the Unified New Orleans Plan after Katrina.
Henry's biggest challenges are the fact that he is not well known and has little time to tell his story — and the fact that, of all the candidates, he comes the closest to Ray Nagin's 2002 profile. He is a businessman with no firsthand political experience, though he has worked with the public sector as a consultant. That leaves him vulnerable to the Nagin Effect. Pierce's role as campaign chair gives his effort star power, but in the end the candidate matters most.
"I think New Orleans voters are much smarter than a one-size-fits-all approach," he says of the Nagin Effect. "Skills, qualifications and experience set me apart. I think voters are looking at the individual and not at the type of individual running. Nagin had nowhere near the qualifications I have when he first ran ... or the level of responsibility that I have had."
Insurance Exec, Education Reformer
Jacobs stresses her 16 years in the trenches of public education as proof that she has government experience as well as business chops. She started her political career by winning a tough election to the Orleans Parish School Board, then spent 12 years as an appointed member of BESE under two governors. She is a leading proponent of charter schools, and she has staked her career on making New Orleans' post-Katrina experiment in public education reform succeed.
She is probably the smartest of the candidates and could also be the best debater. She has laser-like focus on issues, particularly education. Her main challenges will be getting better known and not leaving people cold — despite impressing them with her smarts. She has enough personal wealth to stay on TV and radio, and her early media ads have been well done.
When asked about the Nagin Effect and her business background, she is quick to respond: "I would challenge that assumption. I think I have more governmental experience than any candidate in the race. ... I have worked with several governors and on the local school board and BESE, and I've worked with the Legislature in getting reform legislation passed. ...
"Having both business experience and government experience, I don't believe you can run government like a business. When you are a CEO, you are an employer at will. In government, you can't get things done that way. You have to build consensus, integrate diverse opinions and ... build a consensus to take action. I have the benefit of both experiences."
Attorney, State Senator
Murray has the most political and governmental experience — but no business background. In the Legislature, he is one of the go-to lawmakers on any key issue, not just because of his seat on the Senate Finance Committee, but also because he is a master of legislative procedure. He is widely respected among colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and his understated style (his nickname is "the Mummy" because he's so quiet) belies his effectiveness.
Murray's biggest challenges arise from his strengths. A guy who's that effective ought to be better known. His quiet demeanor does him no good as a mayoral candidate, particularly in a crowded field. Moreover, his 18-year record offers his opponents lots of potential ammunition. He has worked the black political community well in this race, but he needs a shot of caffeine if he hopes to finish strong and gain white crossover votes.
"The current mayor and no other candidate in the race can match my qualifications or experience in government," Murray says. "That sets me apart — and in my 18 years of service I've never been associated with any kind of scandal. ...
"I also have military experience as a former officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, where I served some 15 years in the military police. No other candidate has military or police experience. The military plays a very important role in our economy, and we often rely on them in times of emergency. My military experience will help our city in times when we need to call on them."
The youngest candidate in the race by far, Perry distinguished himself early by trouncing his four major opponents in a debate on the subject of the Youth Study Center. He knew what it was; they didn't. That same day, his campaign released an ad featuring voters shouting bleeped-out expletives to underscore their disgust with the leading candidates (Georges and Murray). It got Perry notice, but I'm not sure it got him votes.
Perry has raised little money so far, especially compared to the frontrunners. He has mimicked Barack Obama's use of social media and viral marketing, which gives him great cred among young voters — but Obama also raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Perry's obvious challenge is to raise more money and get better known. That said, he impresses voters who are paying close attention as someone who is up on the issues and very specific in his answers.
As the director of a regional fair housing agency, Perry has seen how government works — or not — where the rubber meets the road.
"We've seen nonprofit organizations really help the community after Katrina," Perry says. "People trust the nonprofit community. People want a true servant-leader now, someone willing to put the community first and himself second. That's who I am as a leader. The whole group of Nagin third-termers spent their careers putting themselves first. Another thing that's different is that people want a leader who can be collaborative but also willing to take strong stands when necessary. My background as a nonprofit leader demonstrates that I can do that."
Former Civil Court Judge
Ramsey shocked the political community when she announced that she was giving up her judgeship to run for mayor. The state constitution bars judges from engaging in politics and requires them to resign before seeking any non-judicial office. First elected judge in 1997 — without opposition — she twice won re-election without having to mount a campaign. That works to her disadvantage now, as she must work quickly to build name recognition. She also trails the other major candidates in fundraising.
Ramsey points to her experience in "government" as opposed to "politics." She served as an assistant city attorney for four years, then spent several years as an assistant attorney general.
"My experience includes four years as an assistant city attorney as part of legislative team, helping draft and pass legislation that was important to the city," Ramsey says. "As an assistant attorney general, I worked in the consumer protection office and on general litigation. All this experience gave me a knowledge of how government operates. Serving in the judiciary — and as chief judge — I had the opportunity to work with state and local officials. I'm not bringing business experience or political experience to the office, but I do bring lots of governmental experience — knowing how to get around Baton Rouge and D.C. to get what citizens need."
She contrasts herself to Nagin by pledging to "build alliances, to work well with other people. ... I think what's going to be important, and what needs to be different, is to work with all governmental agencies at all levels."
You ask the Questions... the candidates give their answers
Questions currently being asked to the mayoral candidates
The candidates will begin answering on January 6th