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As mayor vacillates, criticism takes root

By Associated Press
Published September 21, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - Weeping and cursing in frustration at one point, jauntily announcing the city's comeback at another, Ray Nagin has pursued an erratic course as mayor of this woeful city over the past three weeks.

Last week, for example, he announced plans to quickly reopen much of New Orleans without even consulting federal officials. On Monday, he was forced to backtrack as another storm approached the Gulf Coast and President Bush and other top officials warned he was rushing residents back too quickly.

Earlier this month, as New Orleans was being swallowed by Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters, Nagin said the death toll could reach 10,000. On Monday, the Louisiana total stood at 736, and from what search crews have seen so far, the number of dead will probably not come close to Nagin's projection.

This week, Nagin missed a meeting with the top federal official in New Orleans, and at one point accused that official, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, of trying to make himself the federal mayor of New Orleans.

Some observers say Nagin's handling of the crisis has created the perception of a leadership void in this city at precisely the time it requires a steady hand.

"He hasn't demonstrated a clear vision for what should be happening next in New Orleans," said Melissa Harris Lacewell, a political science professor with the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. She described him as a "kind of a passionate character in this whole story," but said: "He appears to have been pretty unprepared."

Nagin's supporters say he is dealing with an enormous and unprecedented crisis.

Asked Tuesday about criticism of his leadership after the hurricane, the 49-year-old Nagin laughed.

"I won't even deal with that, man," he said. "It's my style, and I love it."

Nagin, a former cable company executive who made a midlife switch to politics four years ago, was known for blunt talk well before Katrina hit.

He said things that grabbed attention - claiming that City Hall was rife with favoritism, the school system was a catastrophe and that upper middle-class whites had abandoned many aspects of civic life. His language was the New Orleans vernacular, from the working-class black neighborhoods Nagin was raised in.

His frank talk - and his status as an outsider, with no political experience - were initially welcomed in the city.

But his shoot-from-the-hip style has not served him well in a crisis, and has resulted in sometimes ill-informed or premature public pronouncements.

His competence and his ability to work the levers of political power have come into question.

He was accused of inadequately protecting his city's poor and making sure they got out safely. Evacuees at the Superdome and the convention center furiously denounced Nagin, holding him responsible for the miserable conditions there.

Nagin, who is up for re-election next year, has periodically been absent from the city over the past few weeks, flying back and forth to Dallas, where he has rented a house for his family and enrolled his daughter in school.

His mood has gone up and down with New Orleans' fortunes.

With tens of thousands of people trapped in the city and food and water running out fast, the mayor erupted in tears during a radio interview and angrily told the federal government, "Get off your a---- and let's do something."

Two weeks later, he sketched out a sunny future for the city: "You know, I know New Orleanians. Once the beignets start cooking up again and the gumbo is in the pots and red beans and rice are served on Monday, in New Orleans, and not where they are, they're going be back."

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