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The State of the Mayor 

If Mayor Ray Nagin can foster progress in the areas of public education and race relations, his tenure will be historic.

The inside word on Mayor Ray Nagin's 'State of the City' address last week was that he wrote the whole thing himself. I believe it. The speech was vintage Nagin -- bold and inspired in some places, vague in others, and a bit off the wall in at least one instance. That pretty much sums up Nagin's first three years in office, so I guess he did a good job of writing and delivering the speech.

Let's start with the good stuff: Nagin put forth the boldest plan yet for turning around public schools. Although he offered no details, he wants to take over 20 of the city's worst schools and make them 'centers of excellence.'

A few days later, The Times-Picayune speculated that Nagin got much of his idea from local architect Steven Bingler, who has done extensive research on the subject of how school design affects student achievement. There's no question that Bingler has influenced Nagin, but I think this goes back much farther than meetings he had with Bingler in February.

In September 2002, Nagin accompanied MetroVision on a trip to Chicago, where he met Mayor Richard Daley (recently named by Time as one of the best mayors in America). Daley took over Chicago's public schools years ago and turned them around. Daley and Nagin talked privately at length about how he did it, and Daley told the rest of us at a luncheon the next day. I believe the seeds of Nagin's proposal were planted then. As the mayor put it last week, he's no newcomer to the effort to turn around public schools.

It won't be easy. Moreover, Nagin has not followed the blueprint laid out by Daley (who advises letting the system go bankrupt, so that contracts can be tossed). Still, Nagin deserves credit for putting forth a grand vision. Now he must deliver some specifics.

Another high point in the mayor's address was his call to action on the question of race relations. To mix a metaphor, that has always been the elephant at the Mardi Gras ball hereabouts. He offered a blend of rhetoric and specifics on that subject, challenging African Americans to rediscover 'black love' (part of which involves 'tough love' for young people) and white businesses to diversify from the top down -- and toreach out to black entrepreneurs.

If Nagin can foster substantial progress in the areas of public education and race relations, his tenure will be historic.

On another thorny issue -- the domicile requirement for police officers -- Nagin remained gun-shy. He talked all around the idea of temporarily suspending the so-called residency rule, but he stopped short of saying, 'I want the City Council to pass this so my police chief can hire more cops.' Instead, he said, 'If lifting the residency requirement is in the wisdom of the majority of the City Council, I will sign it into law.'

Not exactly the charge of the light brigade. My guess is, unless and until Nagin himself asks the council -- unequivocally -- to suspend the rule, things will remain as they are.

Now for the off-the-wall part.

In recent weeks, some of us in the press have criticized Nagin for playing fast and loose with public bid laws in the awarding of several contracts.

Well, it turns out Hizzoner is a tad thin-skinned. In his speech, he tried his hand at turning the tables. Claiming he 'went to consult Webster,' Nagin stated that the dictionary 'define(s) a gambit as the act of tripping someone up.'

Um, excuse me, Mr. Mayor, but what you quoted was the etymology of the word 'gambit,' not its definition: 'A maneuver, stratagem, or ploy, especially one used at an initial stage.' I do hope you know the difference -- especially if you're going to take over 20 of our worst public schools. (Here's a friendly suggestion: If you do get control of any schools, focus on the math -- and leave language arts to somebody else.)

In his close, Nagin quoted The Temptations song 'Ball of Confusion.' I love pop culture references. Since the mayor's speech also signaled the start of his re-election campaign, I'll close with a pop culture reference of my own, from Sting and The Police, a song called 'Every Breath You Take' --

Every move you make,

Every vow you break,

Every smile you fake,

Every claim you stake-- I'll be watching you.

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