Crazy. Angry. Rabid. No matter how you define the word "mad," it sums up New Orleans' mood over the past year. Politicians and public figures left us wondering if they'd lost their minds. The public was furious. And Saints fans brought Who Dat madness to an all-time franchise high.
Nationally, Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann both advanced their careers on making people angry, while Glenn Beck just went mad every night and delivered the ratings. The Tea Party movement brought political tempers to a boil on both sides. A Pennsylvania man enjoyed brief popularity as the "Unknown Who Dat" — until fans flew him to town for the Saints-Cowboys matchup; he proceeded to give the middle finger on live TV before the game and the team lost. And then there's the city's true Mad Man: New Orleans' own Bryan Batt, whose role as Sal Romano on the acclaimed series was left in limbo as Mad Men's third season came to a close. (If they don't bring back Batt next year, count us among the show's fans who are going to be really mad.)
As the Year of Living Madly draws to a close, Gambit salutes those among us who truly earned the title of New Orleans' Mad Men.
GOLD MEDAL MADNESS
C. RAY NAGIN
In our first issue of 2009, we offered this New Year's resolution for Hizzoner: "Mayor Ray Nagin should try to get through an entire year without saying something that embarrasses his city." It was, of course, too much to ask. It was another inexplicable year for New Orleans' inexplicable leader, from the courtroom squabbles over his "missing" 2008 emails to his June detainment in Shanghai over concerns of H1N1 flu.
An April poll by the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center found that a mere 24 percent of New Orleanians approved of Nagin's performance — a number even lower than that of President George W. Bush when he left office. By year's end, the mayor's disapproval ratings had reached such toxic levels that mayoral candidates were scrambling to distance and differentiate themselves from his "businessman" approach to governance (a phenomenon that Gambit political columnist Clancy DuBos termed "The Nagin Effect").
If Nagin managed to get through much of the year without any verbal gaffes in New Orleans, it was because he was largely somewhere else in the world, on international junkets with vaguely defined goals of "attracting new business to Louisiana" or "creating jobs." The trips were long on grand pronunciamentos and short on anything resembling results. Besides the ill-fated Shanghai Surprise, the mayor also traveled to Australia and Cuba, the latter of which was most memorable for his praise of the dictatorship's ability to evacuate its people when a hurricane approaches. "I think they do a much better job than we do on knowing their citizens at a very, very detailed level," he noted, apparently without irony.
Despite spending much of the year abroad, Nagin ended 2009 in typical form: feuding with the City Council over the budget and insulting them and us in the bargain. "The newer councilmembers ... really don't understand" the budgeting process, he insisted, ignoring the fact that the newest ones had been there since 2006. The same week, he told WWL-TV he didn't see a conflict in giving municipal contracts to people convicted on corruption charges: "If somebody has made a mistake and has a white-collar crime and they've paid their time and they're back in the business, I don't really see a problem with that."
In his final State of the City address in May, Nagin unveiled a plan to turn the old Chevron Building in the CBD into a new City Hall — a scheme that quickly went the way of his earlier grand plan to turn Canal Street into a casino-clogged "Vegas South" — and finished by offering the city (and the universe) an apology: "I stand here tonight and I say to the world: I forgive everyone who has done me any wrong, and I ask that you forgive me if I may have done you any wrong."
"May have done you any wrong"?
It was vintage passive-aggressiveness from a man whose legacy left us wondering who's madder: Hizzoner, or We the People for putting him in office a second time.
SILVER MEDAL MADNESS
In a year when many people feared unemployment, one job seemed safe: that of young Gov. Bobby Jindal's travel agent. The man who insisted he had no eye on the White House nonetheless managed to hold 34 out-of-state fundraisers (as of press time), most of them in conservative family-values strongholds like Malibu and Boston. On Mar. 3, he managed to set a new personal best, holding three of them in one day in the tony California towns of Fairfield, Palo Alto and San Diego. The Boy Wonder's globetrotting ways drew grumbles even from Louisiana conservatives; attorney and blogger C.B. Forgotston dubbed him the "Roads Scholar."
Jindal had begun the year as one of the GOP's national rising stars, mentioned in the same hopeful breath as Sarah Palin when it came to 2012. That reputation crashed to earth Feb. 23, when he delivered the official party response to President Barack Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress. From his jack-in-the-box entrance to his Mr. Rogers delivery, it was a performance that even David Brooks of The New York Times described as "a disaster for the Republican Party" and Brit Hume of Fox News called "not Bobby Jindal's finest rhetorical moment." That week, in a Republican straw poll, Jindal placed second behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. By September, when the Values Voters Summit held its own straw poll in Washington, D.C., the party's wunderkind had plummeted to seventh place, behind Palin, Romney, Mike Huckabee and even Mike Pence. (Mike who?)
The embarrassments didn't stop there. Though his numbers remained high back at home, Jindal foes got a hoot in the summer when the governor toured the state presenting oversized, Publishers Clearing House-style checks to various parish leaders. The money came from the federal Economic Recovery Act ("Stimulus Plan"), which Jindal had derided, yet Uncle Sam's name was nowhere on the checks. Instead, they were labeled "State of Louisiana Office of the Governor." And even his fundraising ended the year with a thud in November when it was revealed a Florida lawyer accused by federal authorities of running a $1 billion Ponzi scheme had contributed $10,000 to Jindal's campaign and held a fundraiser for him. Jindal quickly donated $30,000 to a victims' compensation fund. Two weeks later, he was in Jackson, Miss., for another fundraiser.
Finally, in December, the governor bragged about the New Orleans Saints' perfect 12-0 record and predicted the team would go "not only undefeated, but all the way through the Super Bowl — something that's never been done before." He was quickly corrected by the Miami Dolphins, who went undefeated in the 1972 season and won Super Bowl VII — when Jindal was just one year old.
BRONZE MEDAL MADNESS (tie)
THE CZARS: Ed Blakely & Greg Meffert
2009 was the year City Hall's recovery and technology czars crashed to earth, beginning with Dr. Ed Blakely, who departed New Orleans in June after a 30-month tenure marked by grandiose statements, unfulfilled promises, and a good deal of insult toward the city he was supposed to be restoring. From his early description of New Orleanians as "buffoons" in The New York Times to his parting shot last month — "I should have left a little earlier. ... I had other things to do, and administering a recovery is not one of them" — Blakely was to post-Katrina recovery what Mike Ditka was to the Saints: a windbag who squandered opportunity and spurned civic goodwill at every chance, then blamed the city for his own failures.
Back in 2007, Blakely was confident enough in his own abilities to predict he'd be gone by 2008, because most of the recovery work would have been done. He promised redesigned street grids, new high-tech industry and, most famously, a sky full of construction cranes — even as he accepted outside consulting contracts and traveled the globe giving lofty speeches. In June, when he announced he'd be returning full-time to his job at the University of Sydney in Australia, he told WDSU-TV's Norman Robinson, "Cranes is a metaphor for starts. I didn't mean that necessarily literally." His departure caused nary a ripple in the recovery process until his now-infamous video interview with a student from the University of California at Berkeley, where he laid his failures at the feet of New Orleanians, calling them lazy and predicting "race wars" in the city.
As the year closed, Blakely announced he would be working with a group owned by the Dubai Real Estate Corporation on strategies for "corporate sustainability." We wish them — if not him — luck. They'll need it.
Greg Meffert's fall was far less cushioned. The former city technology chief, once Ray Nagin's right-hand man, was slapped in November with a 63 felony-count indictment alleging public corruption. Meffert's co-defendants include his wife Linda and Mark St. Pierre, a former business partner of Meffert's and city vendor. Like Blakely, Meffert had arrived on a gust of braggadocio, and Nagin had promised Meffert would lead New Orleans from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. What we got instead was Dilbert.
Some of it was predictable (a citywide WiFi network never materialized), some tragic (the failure of the municipal crime cameras and the loss of a Department of Justice interoperability communications contract that could have saved lives during Hurricane Katrina). Meanwhile, Meffert enjoyed use of a credit card belonging to one of St. Pierre's companies (which showed charges ranging from strip clubs to Chuck E. Cheese), and he and Nagin, along with their families, enjoyed a trip to Hawaii on St. Pierre's dime. The mayor additionally took his family to Jamaica — first class — on St. Pierre's credit card shortly after Katrina.
Until his City Hall tenure, Meffert had been seen as one of the shining stars of New Orleans' digital future. In Gambit's inaugural "40 Under 40" issue in October 1997, we had cited the then-32-year-old whiz kid as a "gifted software designer." By 2000, he was developing email software that, among other things, allowed messages to "self-destruct" after they'd been read. Unlike Blakely, Meffert had the potential to become a game-changing business pioneer in New Orleans, which made his undoing more tragedy than comedy.
Earlier this month, the Mefferts' federal corruption trial was rescheduled for September 2010. That same day, the Mefferts quietly put their house up for sale, perhaps in anticipation of legal bills. The four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath showplace on Park Island featured a "fully mechanical, electronically controlled pool" ... but no word on whether the security cameras actually worked.
RUNNERS-UP IN MADNESS