Nagin was elected mayor in 2002 primarily because he represented a sea change from the old way of doing things. He was the non-politician running against a slew of pols, and his message of changing the political paradigm struck a chord with voters. Electorally, it worked like a charm.
After the election, however, Nagin seemed to stall on several fronts, particularly in the legislative arena. Despite the new mayor's best efforts to change the way the city does business, it seems you can't take the politics out of politics. And nowhere is politics more at the center of decision-making than in the Louisiana Legislature.
Nagin also had to learn an important political lesson: The politics of winning an election are nothing like the politics of governing. They overlap in places and have certain things in common, but the skill sets required to succeed at one are nothing like those demanded by the other. While Nagin proved himself a master at electoral politics in his very first outing, he had a steep learning curve on the politics of governing.
That was painfully obvious during hizzoner's first two legislative sessions. If the city had a legislative agenda, it was unfocused and poorly coordinated. Nagin was rarely in Baton Rouge, and local lawmakers often complained that they received conflicting signals or no signals at all from City Hall.
Even the city's annual legislative party was sparsely attended and roundly criticized as an exercise in futility. In some ways, that's worse than having no agenda. Lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists and others conduct a lot of business at after-hours social gatherings during legislative sessions. It's a way of doing business that probably will never change -- so it's important for a mayor to throw a good party.
For Nagin, pretty much everything went wrong at last year's party -- many were turned away at the door because they didn't have invitations (a big no-no in the universe of legislative parties), and some high-ranking members of the governor's staff were not even invited (a deliberate snub, some say, at the hands of a now-departed staff member). The event featured no less an entertainment draw than New Orleans' own Dr. John, but it was a bust in every other respect.
A lot has changed for Nagin since then. He hired a new director of intergovernmental relations, Brenda Hatfield, and he beefed up the city's lobbying team. He started meeting with -- and listening to -- local lawmakers regularly at the Capitol. And this year, the city's party was an open-air, "come one, come all" affair on the lawn of the Governor's Mansion. Nearly 1,000 people attended, including everyone that Nagin needed to see there -- starting with Gov. Kathleen Blanco, whom he did not endorse in last fall's elections.
On one level, it was just a party. But political symbolism abounded when Blanco joined Nagin onstage to welcome guests. Their joint appearance sent a clear signal that the two leaders are forging a friendship despite their past differences. On the whole, the event showed that Nagin is getting his political legs beneath him -- and learning how to play the game in the governmental arena as well as the electoral one.