Tonight was the first debate between Mitch Landrieu and Ray Nagin and it was interesting. I was glad to see the candidates engaging in civil discourse about the serious challenges that New Orleans faces, and not getting into petty disputes. Nagin and Landrieu are both likable people, and they don’t get their hackles up easily. If all we needed was a likable mayor then voting in the runoff election would be easy: just flip a coin.
But the next mayor has to be savvy, forceful and yet diplomatic. The next mayor will need to be able to move quickly on several fronts at once, multi-tasking in the extreme. We need a mayor who can delegate tasks but not abdicate the oversight function. I know that Ray Nagin feels like he has done the best he can do, and maybe he has. But "his best" is simply not good enough for a city that has the monumental problems that we now face.
Nagin says that he hasn’t gotten the help he needs from the State of Louisiana and the federal government. I get the sense, when listening to his explanations of why things haven’t progressed more quickly, that once FEMA tells him that they are working on some proposal he more or less "waits to see what happens." Obviously, I could be misinterpreting his response but that’s what it sounds like when he explains the process of working with FEMA. I hope he does a better job of appearing forceful and insistent when he talks with FEMA and other governmental officials.
One thing is certain: even if he is vigorously following through with key people in the federal and state government, he needs to spend less time using colorful metaphors –you know, the ones that attract attention of the media but do nothing to help the delicate political process of getting outside help. In fact, let’s face it, metaphors like the Ex-Lax remark and head-spinning statements about Katrina being visited upon New Orleans as a punishment are highly detrimental. The goofy part of the so-called Chocolate city speech was not the ‘chocolate city’ reference but this part:
"Surely God is mad at America," he said. "Surely he’s not approving of us being in Iraq under false pretense. But surely he’s upset at black America also. We’re not taking care of ourselves."
Councilman Oliver Thomas summed it up: "Even if you believe some of that crazy stuff, that is not the type of image we need to present to the nation." In the debate tonight, Nagin shrugged off the importance of those kinds of comments saying, essentially, they’ve been forgotten. As if that somehow makes them acceptable. The remarks may have been forgotten by some, but they live on in the minds of many outside New Orleans thanks to their ‘media attention getting’ quality. Those kind of remarks should not be forgotten by voters in New Orleans: we need help from people outside this city and we can’t waste our precious ‘sound-bite time’ with remarks that are completely non-strategic and off-the-cuff, and worse: blatantly inane.
The mayor of this city needs to be a great spokesman and a great unifier. I like the way Mitch put it in the debate: "We need to find higher common ground." Yes, we do. We need for our mayor to be much more circumspect about how he communicates with the outside world. Nagin doesn’t seem to have grasped that seemingly obvious point. Yes, he’s likable and pleasant. But he’s lacks the ability to communicate effectively, and that’s not something to shrug off as unimportant.