An indictment, an election: Can Ray Nagin help New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu win reelection?

Former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin is being tried on corruption charges related to bribes after Hurricane Katrina. It's a reminder of the city's darker past as Mayor Mitch Landrieu seeks reelection.

Susan Walsh/AP
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, right, listens as New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu speaks about their campaign to cut the nation’s murder rates, reduce gun violence and address other issues affecting urban communities at the National Press Club in Washington Sept. 26, 2013.

As Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the Crescent city’s first white mayor in four decades, attempts to convince New Orleanians to give him another term, another man, another mayor, still lurks in the background to remind the city of its most troubling days.

On Monday, federal prosecutors brought to trial former Mayor Ray Nagin on corruption allegations tied to bribes received in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Nagin is accused of a variety of pay-to-play schemes, including taking $160,000 in cash bribes, as well as loads of granite, in order to expedite special city contracts. Formerly known as “Ray Reagan” for his business connections, he had left New Orleans and was living in a Dallas suburb when federal prosecutors indicted him last year.

Nagin’s trial is to many an unwelcome reminder of a widely-held sentiment that this city had to basically rebuild without City Hall’s help. But Nagin’s trial may be fortuitous for Mr. Landrieu, who, despite being seen as effective and a racially unifying force, is facing unexpectedly stiff competition from two African-American candidates in the Democratic primary Saturday, which in the historic liberal-leaning river town is a proxy general election.

“The Nagin trial is definitely a factor in the election, because it shows people what the past was and what the current is,” says Peter Burns, a political science professor at Loyola University, and author of an upcoming book marking the 10-year anniversary of the storm.

For the rest of America, of course, the horror of Katrina has long faded, its greatest legacies a keen awareness that even in modern-day America things can go very wrong, very fast. The city, meanwhile, has largely regained its stature as one of the nation’s premier tourist and convention destinations, a place to gawk and let loose to the pumping strains of America’s original chord progressions.

But for residents – including scads of young professional newcomers who arrived to help rebuild after the storm – New Orleans is just home, warts and all. And while Mr. Landrieu has managed to curb the city’s blight – the worst in the nation – and help to push a high murder and violent crime rate to far below pre-Katrina levels, there are still lingering concerns about the pace of rebuilding, and whether every neighborhood is faring equally under Landrieu’s helmsmanship.

His most vocal critic and mayoral opponent, former circuit court judge Michael Bagneris, lashed out at Landrieu at a candidates forum on Thursday, chiding him for what some say is a vindictive streak against not just political enemies, but anyone who disagrees with him. Landrieu, Mr. Bagneris said, is an “emperor” who has the “audacity” to punish critics and complainants.

Such attacks could be effective with an electorate grown both more politically active and demanding after the storm, especially given that property taxes have risen, in some cases dramatically, under Landrieu.

“The electorate Mr. Landrieu is facing – the one left in Mr. Nagin’s wake – is more shrewd, more engaged and more demanding than the often fatalistic New Orleans of decades past,” writes Campbell Robertson, in the New York Times.

Nevertheless, Landrieu, the younger brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu and son of the last white mayor, Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, is credited with creating a more honorable and far less divisive status quo than his predecessor, Mr. Nagin, whose racialized speeches fed deep divides on the city council. Landrieu won with a strategy much like his father and sister, by cobbling together both white and black voting blocs to overcome common problems.

Today, Landrieu’s campaign events are punctuated by their diversity, where the mayor is just as likely to pick up a smiling black girl from the projects as he is to peer into the stroller of a white middle-class mom.

At a recent such mixer, Landrieu observed that the diverse crowd suggested “the new New Orleans,” which local actor Ameer Baraka took to mean “collaboration of white and black across economic classes,” according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

To be sure, given that Sen. Landrieu is facing a tough reelection campaign later this year with potential national ramifications as Republicans seek to take the Senate, the mayoral race has become caught up, to an extent, with political jockeying that extends beyond Lakeshore Boulevard and the big bend in the river. At the same time, while Sen. Landrieu has a difficult parsing job given her support of Obamacare – an easy target in largely Republican Louisiana – Mitch Landrieu has embraced a rare local race endorsement from President Obama.

While his opponents batter him with claims of inequality and failure to control crime, Landrieu’s main thrust is to point out statistical facts from his mayorship: The city is now at 80 percent of its pre-Katrina population, a landmark since many believed its population would never rebound to even that level. He says he’s plugged a $100 million budget deficit while hiring more cops and establishing effective gang task forces. The city’s sewer system is in the midst of an overhaul, as is its airport. Still, quality of life issues have been hard to turn around. The city still is one of the most pot-holed in the nation.

"I love this city with all my heart and all my soul,” Landrieu said at Thursday’s forum. “I get up every day and go to work trying to find a way to make things happen and done. We've come a long way in the last four years and we've made great progress but we have a very, very long way to go and the challenge of the next four years is to make sure we don't leave anybody behind."

As prosecutors in the Nagin trial this week showed jurors pictures of City Hall to illustrate the core of alleged corruption in the post-Katrina havoc, New Orleans voters are faced with an unmistakable contrast. Whether the change has been deep and fair enough under Landrieu will likely define the outcome of Saturday’s primary.

“The overall tone in New Orleans seems to be that the city is heading in a positive direction, but I think this election will be a snapshot of whether or not that’s actually the case,” says Prof. Burns.

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