jason berry author

History and Ray Nagin

New Orleans has faded from national media focus because of failed politics. The Virginia company hired to pump $7.5 billion in federal Road Home funds to flood-damaged property owners has produced a trickling faucet. With more than 100,000 people waiting for checks, Gov. Kathleen Blanco threw in the towel on her own re-election. As the media narrative moved from a disaster zone to stalled recovery, Mayor Ray Nagin’s loose-lipped remarks magnified the image of a city without a grip. Crime has skyrocketed amidst the decay.

To many people, Nagin’s verbal antics signal a poverty of leadership. His 2006 “chocolate city” speech and the later 60 MINUTES interview in which he called the 9/11 Ground Zero site “a hole in the ground” (just before a trip to Manhattan) made Nagin seem, by turns, clowning and callous. On the other hand, the chocolate city remark sent a message to black voters that helped him win re-election. His recent suggestion to a black journalists’ convention that a white conspiracy was keeping blacks from returning to New Orleans bordered on demagoguery. After all, this is the man who got Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to help transport displaced blacks to New Orleans to cast votes for him, after which he washed his hands of housing project residents trying to return to repairable apartments that HUD sought to demolish.

On April 4, however, Nagin stood next to Jesse Jackson at a local news event for the Right to Return and Reconstruction conference, and proclaimed, “My citizens are frustrated” — posturing himself as an advocate of the displaced poor.

Nagin’s March 29 unveiling of a $1.1 billion neighborhood revival plan with recovery czar Ed Blakely signaled another turn in the story line, at least locally, by providing something for which people have achingly yearned: a plan to put the city back together. The challenge now is to garner the money.

Why does a politician with charisma to burn waltz across the public stage, changing like a chameleon and tossing verbal hand grenades like some Comedy Channel wannabe? Nagin has made a few half-hearted apologies for his oracular disasters — as politicians, movie stars and TV preachers do when caught with shoelaces in their teeth — but what explains this man? Does his style of leaderships translate into a vision, or a cop-out, for the city? Equally important, how will Nagin’s term as mayor be judged in the prism of history?

Answers come from several African-American veterans of the local civil rights movement — Dr. Rudy Lombard, Don Hubbard and Johnny Jackson Jr. The era in which they came of age is chronicled in a new book, NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE PROMISES: POVERTY, CITIZENSHIP, AND THE SEARCH FOR THE GREAT SOCIETY, by historian Kent B. Germany of the University of South Carolina. A former New Orleans resident, Germany focuses on President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda and the role that the federally funded War on Poverty had on the movement activists whose leadership style was formed in black churches. Germany chronicles the tactical shift from the racially embattled 1960s to the coalition politics of the 1970s as these leaders’ influence spread.

LBJ’s domestic agenda became a public enemy to GOP conservatives who blamed “big government” for society’s ills. In the 1980s, as President Ronald Reagan gutted many of the Great Society programs, he famously said that in the War on Poverty, “poverty won.” Germany reports: “The one undeniable fact is that the official poverty level did decline in the United States … from 19 percent in 1968 to a low of 11.4 percent in 1978.” The local poverty rate among blacks fell from “almost 50 percent in 1960 to near 30 percent in 2000.”

When George W. Bush took office, the national poverty rate was 12.6 percent. In six years it has risen 33% percent. At the same time, the national debt has skyrocketed — with Chinese banks providing loans to bankroll the Iraq war.

“Moon Landrieu’s administration helped to transform downtown, construct the Louisiana Superdome, improve infrastructure and reshape race relations,” writes Germany. “He proved to be one of the most effective and agile politicians in recent U.S. history.”

Landrieu was a beneficiary of LBJ’s domestic policy — just as Nagin may be a victim of Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s. “The War on Poverty ensured that local control over federal influence went through political institutions whose ultimate authority lay in the neighborhoods,” explains Germany. When Landrieu ran for mayor in 1969, he received 90 percent of the newly mobilized black vote, thanks to the “acronym groups” that supported him. He rewarded the leaders with jobs and program funds from Washington, even as the Nixon Administration began phasing out programs.

Among the black political groups that gained influence under Landrieu was SOUL (Southern Organization for Unified Leadership), based in the Ninth Ward and led by Don Hubbard and Sherman Copelin. For decades, in fact, SOUL was arguably the city’s most powerful — and effective, at election time — black political group. SOUL, COUP, which was based in the Seventh Ward, and BOLD, which formed in Central City, “were tightly organized entities led by college-educated professionals who knew how to operate in complex bureaucracies,” writes Germany. In the mid-60s, the activists clashed with bureaucrats working for Gov. John McKeithen and Mayor Victor Schiro over who would control the federal funds. LBJ wanted Democratic chieftains, like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, to dispense funds that would provide jobs and educational uplift to blacks and expand the Democratic base, as FDR had done with the New Deal in the 1930s.

McKeithen and Schiro, however, had campaigned as segregationists; although they ended up hiring a few blacks and dispensing some funds to black areas, the Johnson Administration routed major anti-poverty money to black programs in which their own administrators made the decisions. “By 1970, the Desire area seemed to be developing into one of the great success stories of the War on Poverty,” writes Germany. “Desire had received an infusion of several million dollars over the previous five years, and community action had produced a number of vibrant community groups” including the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation.

Of the activists in that era, 80 percent grew up in blue-collar homes, 90 percent had college degrees and slightly more than a quarter had graduate degrees. SOUL and the other organizations delivered support to candidates at election time, more than a few of them white, and expected them to deliver jobs and programs if they won.

Landrieu had 12,000 city workers. When Nagin took office in 2004 after a generation of federal cutbacks, the city had fewer than 6,000 workers. Katrina forced Nagin to fire half of them, leaving the city work force at a fraction of what it was in the heyday of the War on Poverty.

Nagin graduated from O. Perry Walker High School in 1974 — during the boom years that “salt and pepper” suburbs (as Landrieu called them) burgeoned in eastern New Orleans. By 1978, when Dutch Morial succeeded Landrieu, “tolerance and cultural diversity [had become] one of the city’s strongest selling points, helping New Orleans seem to be a culturally authentic place in a crass age of materialism and homogeneity,” notes Germany. Morial began to cut services and jobs as the oil recession and loss of federal funds began the erosion of city services from which New Orleans never recovered. The “acronym groups” such as SOUL and COUP could deliver votes, but with the federal jobs pipeline running dry, they could not groom a successor generation of activists to advance into middle class jobs. As Germany observes:

How could anti-poverty and racial uplift programs have a lasting effect when entry-level jobs that had paid well and provided training were migrating out? How could they stabilize communities when highway funding, mortgage policies, and tax trends encouraged suburban flight, cultural segmentation, and privatization? How could they adequately fund vital local institutions such as schools and hospitals?
…The broadly accepted, simple faith that market forces would solve economic problems was devastating to areas where market logic held that young blacks were dangerous and the safest economic choice was to avoid them. Throughout much of the twentieth century, a sustaining theme of liberalism was the belief that the market could be reshaped to help people otherwise deemed to have little market worth.

As poverty deepened, the drug culture spread in tandem with a booming market in semi-automatic weapons. Mayor Marc Morial filed suit to penalize gun manufacturers that did not include adequate safeguards on their weapons, but the Louisiana Legislature under Republican Gov. Mike Foster passed a law that effectively ended the litigation. Today, with a fractured criminal justice system, the crisis that began when “poverty won” has become acute.

So much so that recruiters from Xavier, Loyola and Tulane face a challenge in attracting new students because of crime. Parents worry about sending their children to a city perceived as violent, even though most of the homicides are committed by black males on black males in poor areas. Xavier President Norman Francis calls it “The Mama Factor” — mamas don’t want to send their babies to these killing fields.

Four black males died of gunshot on the day this article was finished.
Is any of this Nagin’s fault?

“Nagin comes out of the business community and thinks the private sector has the keys to the kingdom and capacity for the solution,” Dr. Rudy Lombard, an urban planner who got his start as a movement activist in Algiers, told Gambit Weekly in a telephone interview from Chicago. “Nagin does not have an accurate perspective. … The city’s needs OVERWHELM the resources of government.

“Blacks are caught up in the symbolism of having an African-American occupy the mayor’s office when the resources have eroded,” explains Lombard. “They believe that having a black mayor in office is absolutely essential. The circumstances in which the black community finds itself overwhelm the power available to them to control local issues. Urban mayors are less and less powerful because the funds are controlled by the state and federal government.”

A partner in a “small investment management company,” Lombard visits New Orleans every few weeks.
“I think Nagin is boxed in,” Lombard continues. “He doesn’t have the kind of personality which can transcend the problems and be effective as mayor of the city. There will be a growing dissatisfaction with politicians in New Orleans. They’re going to lose support and the respect of the rank and file because they will not produce the results that are needed. The federal and state government will continue to be callous toward the needs of the poor. The funding streams are just not there.”

Nagin, who contributed $1,000 to George W. Bush in 2000, assumed control of a city starved of resources it once had because of ideologues like Bush. How could any mayor bring prosperity to a city with a 30 percent underclass WITHOUT federal help? Then came Katrina, which sent half of the population into exile, particularly the poor. Nagin assumed the city would receive a huge federal windfall via the Road Home program. As Road Home stalled, Nagin had little in the way of other sources to kick-start the city’s recovery.
Nagin touted a “market-driven” recovery, encouraging neighborhoods to work with the City Planning Commission on proposals for redevelopment. The subtle message was that this is no longer a city for poor folk. Nevertheless, poor people continued to return, finding conditions more desperate than before.

Hubbard Mansion is a solid brick, Greek Revival home with a long veranda at 3535 St. Charles Avenue. This is the home of Don Hubbard, who planned and built the residence as a combined bed-and-breakfast with Rose, his wife of many years, who died in early February. Don grew up a few blocks away on Fourth and Saratoga streets in the 1940s, graduated from Walter L. Cohen High School, married and moved to Old Gentilly (what is now eastern New Orleans), where he became a neighborhood organizer and one of the founders of SOUL.

Eschewing public office for himself, Hubbard became a political consultant, prizefight promoter and real estate investor. Seated in the dining room of the urban plantation house, Hubbard cuts an ironic picture of success.

Hubbard was a loyal ally of Moon Landrieu. He has supported every politician since then who was elected mayor. When Ray Nagin was thinking about making a bid to become public school superintendent while then-chief Col. Al Davis was sinking on the job, Hubbard says, “I talked to [Nagin] on the phone for half an hour. I told him the job was a garbage disposal. He’d go down and never come up in enough pieces to run for anything.”

Nagin waited, and instead ran for mayor in 2004. Hubbard supported him in that election and, though he supported Mitch Landrieu in the 2005 mayoralty election, he has maintained a relationship with Nagin.
“What went wrong,” says Hubbard in a calm voice, “is that we started electing personalities with the high hopes that personalities would take advantage of the opportunity to move the city forward.”

Hubbard considers Nagin a symptom of “the first generation of black leaders with no history of a civil rights background. We wound up with style and no substance. Nagin never explained his game plan. He never had a playbook. Nagin can’t be any better than the people around him. I don’t know if he has anyone on his staff who can tell him no.”

By Hubbard’s lights, Nagin’s pivotal mistake came right after Katrina hit.
“My recommendation to one of Nagin’s aides was to get the recovery going by contacting Colin Powell. Make him the head of an intervention team. ‘HEY, MAN, YOU LED US INTO THIS IRAQ MESS: BUSH OWES YOU. YOU KNOW WHERE THE BONES ARE BURIED IN WASHINGTON.’ That would have been my first choice. Second, I would have called Jimmy Carter. Third, I would have called Andrew Young. You get national figures who know Washington, D.C., and what it took to get New York reorganized after 9/11. Nagin didn’t know how to do that. Blanco didn’t know. We needed someone on our team IMMEDIATELY who could get a phone call returned.”

The moment that many consider Nagin’s finest hour — his angry interview on WWL Radio with Garland Robinette after the flood hit, excoriating Washington’s failure to rescue the city — was “good show business,” says Hubbard. “I call it style and no substance: how does that get someone to write you a check? He didn’t have anybody around him to say, ‘Mr. Mayor we need somebody who can help the city through this situation.’”

Hubbard recounts the advice he gave Nagin’s staff before people returned after the flood: make a priority of “mental health facilities for people without resources. The psychological impact is going to be devastating.”
He says he told Nagin a horrendous drug problem was looming. “He said he agreed,” explains Hubbard. “We’ve had several conversations about services it would take to help our community. I talked to him in the first term about it. Can you imagine a school called Rehab High, where students in that kind of [drug] recovery school are WHITE? Lou Dobbs did a story on CNN about that school in St. Louis. It’s run in conjunction with Washington University. In New Orleans the answer to this is Parish Prison.
“In New Orleans you don’t have a drug problem. It’s a problem of hopelessness, an inability to solve problems, so they medicate themselves. We need treatment-on-demand. A person who wants an alternative can’t get treatment. They can’t afford it.

“How can you plan for a community when you don’t include services?” Hubbard asks. He pauses. “We had such great hopes for this guy. But he refused to hire people with strong experience in state government. Moon, Dutch, Sidney and Marc HAD FRIENDS IN BATON ROUGE. Nagin depended on people who didn’t have friends in Baton Rouge to carry water for him [with the Legislature]. … Marc made sure the ministers had little programs to keep the kids off the street. Ray cut that.
“I remember the ‘Colored Only’ signs in buses. I remember not being able to eat at the lunch counter in Krauss. Those of us whom God has blessed have a responsibility to give something back.”
He pauses. “You’ve got to spend time in the trenches.”

On a balmy Saturday morning, March 17, the St. Patrick’s Day parade was gearing up in the Irish Channel as Mayor Ray Nagin and various city department heads pulled into Mid-City and took seats on a stage at Jesuit High School. The occasion: a town meeting with Councilmember Shelley Midura’s District A constituents. The mayor was in a sunny mood. Heaping praise on Midura, he began by telling the crowd of about 80 people: “There is a lot of misinformation out there.” He boasted that “we probably have more Ph.D.’s” than any comparable city government, and in a cheerful botch of grammar that has become his trademark, declared: “Hotel taxes continue to trend very good.”

Tax revenues trending well would please any mayor. Happily, there were no TV camera crews to capture Nagin’s protracted warm up. The city population is LARGER than the 225,000 figure the Brookings Institute and other demographic surveys have reported — or so he claims. “We’ve got 250,000 back,” Nagin announced. “We go out and knock on people’s doors. Normal surveys don’t do that.”

The idea of city workers in a revenue-starved city going door to door for population head counts was all of a piece for the mayor. Building permits were escalating, he said. Chase Bank had found that “97 percent of medium and small businesses are back” — a figure that would belie the rows of shuttered businesses on North Carrollton, Harrison, and Tulane avenues. As Nagin ran down his index of recovery signs, the crowd, largely white, clapped politely — no hint of the booing Nagin got at House of Blues in January when he gave Fats Domino a plaque at a music awards show. That ignominy came on the heels of the Silence is Violence rally at City Hall, with 5,000 protestors enraged about crime and Hot 8 trombonist Glen David Andrews shouting from the podium to Nagin on the ground: “Get on your job!”

At Jesuit, Nagin raised the crime issue.
“We’ve come together,” he said, “and we’ve yelled at each other and we’ve had a relatively great week, which is a blessing.”

Nagin was on a roll. The Economy Motor Lodge on Tulane Avenue had recently burned. “We gave the owners three days after the fire to remediate,” he announced. “Now it’s being demolished.”
What he did not say is that the abandoned motel had reportedly become a hub for homeless people before the fire struck. As the city’s population has shrunk by half, the homeless population has escalated, according to Martha Kegel, director of UNITY, a group of agencies helping those on the streets. Kegel states that the number of homeless in New Orleans has gone from 6,000 before Katrina to 12,000 now — a figure about equal to the number of City Hall workers during the Landrieu years, when the War on Poverty was still in effect. There is an acute shortage of homeless shelters.

“I’ve been into some of these buildings myself and seen dozens of people living in them, including very young children,” Kegel told the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR. “One of the most shocking things we’re seeing now are the very elderly who are living in abandoned buildings and on the street — people in their late 80s living this way, who never in their lives expected to be homeless.”

Nagin turned to blighted housing: “Our goal is to demolish another 10,000 units and board and gut 5,000 units.”

As Nagin gave the word, various department heads delivered three-minute
presentations on issues ranging from summer programs for youth to street repairs. Police Chief Warren Riley told the crowd that a new class was graduating from the academy, that NOPD ties were improving with District Attorney Eddie Jordan’s office, that Baty Landis, a Silence Is Violence founder who helped organize the huge anti-crime rally at City Hall, was encouraged by the situation in Bywater.

Midway through the event, new recovery czar Ed Blakely arrived late, shuffled on stage and took a seat near Nagin. With curly gray hair and a mustache, Blakely had the rumpled look of a congenial college professor out for a Saturday stroll. When his time came, Blakely gave a stem-winder.

“We’re using the basic plans of the neighborhoods as a starting point for the New Orleans Recovery Authority,” he told the crowd. “We will work with developers to get the best plan we can” — in reference to the sweeping blueprint for rebuilding that was released March 29. “I want you behind me!” Blakely declared, sounding like a candidate. “When the time comes, I’ll need your support!”
Mayor Nagin was beaming.

Johnny Jackson Jr. has deep roots in the Ninth Ward. He grew up in the Big Nine, got his start as a community activist with SOUL, and directed the Desire Community Center in the late 1960s with a $500,000 budget, thanks to the War on Poverty. As support declined, Jackson won a seat in the Legislature and in the 1990s served on the City Council. He continued working as a consultant on programs for Desire. Poor though it was, throttled by drugs and gang violence in the 1990s, the Ninth Ward had a 56 percent level of home ownership, one of the highest in the city.

After Katrina hit, Jackson spent two days in the Convention Center with relatives before making his way to the West Bank. As his home in the Ninth Ward took eight feet of water, Jackson rescued his 80-year old mother in nearby Press Park. They spent two days in the fetid horror of the Convention Center, then walked to the I-10 up ramp behind WDSU-TV on Howard Avenue and caught a ride on a Kentwood Water truck that took them to Westwego, where they had friends. His mother ended up in Slidell with his sister. Jackson landed in McKinney, Texas, where he waits for a Road Home check to rebuild his home in the Ninth Ward.
“My daughter has a house in Carrollton; water came up to the floor,” Jackson says, with fatigue in his voice. “We were able to get her house back into shape, and it was habitable. My sons and son-in-law still work in New Orleans. When I come to town, that’s where I stay. Normally I come down for a week or so at most. I’ve been doing it once a month. I still serve on community boards and on the Jazz Fest board, in addition to looking over my home.”

On paper, Jackson and Nagin are as different as two African-American politicians can be. Jackson was “in the trenches” of civil rights while Nagin was in elementary and junior high school. Jackson spent years battling for a share of diminishing funds for Ninth Ward programs as Nagin climbed a corporate ladder at Cox Cable, a position he obtained with help from council members in the 1980s.

“My general feeling is that he’s doing the best he can with what he’s got,” says Jackson. “I think Nagin has tried to be proactive, but the city has limited resources. To a large extent it’s dependent on outside help from the state and feds, where there does not appear to be a great sense of urgency.”

Jackson faults Nagin for spending too much time in his first administration “beating up on Marc Morial’s Administration. I told Nagin to his face, ‘Just because we were friends with Marc’s Administration doesn’t mean we failed to support you.’”

Nevertheless, Johnny Jackson Jr., who had close ties to Moon Landrieu, supported Nagin in last year’s mayoralty campaign over Mitch Landrieu. “It was a struggling decision for me,” he says. “But the message being sent out was an effort to reduce black political leadership. Personally, I like Mitch; but it was a question of whether black leadership was going to be eliminated like our homes were.”
Jackson also defends Nagin on his polarizing statements.

“People have put too much weight on his remarks. The ‘hole in the ground’ was said out of frustration because people were criticizing New Orleans for not moving fast enough. I personally don’t feel that that kind of remark, disparaging as it was, required that kind of reaction. How do you measure his progress against other disasters? There is no measure.”

Jackson sees Nagin following an unfortunate pattern “since the days of Dutch Morial. When the second term comes around, all those headlines about how great you are fall by the wayside. It happened to Dutch and Sidney and Marc. The second term, you just get hit hard. … It’s Nagin’s time in the bucket.”

Jason Berry, Distinguished Visiting Writer at Tulane University, is author of the novel LAST OF THE RED HOT POPPAS.