The Complicated Mayor of New Orleans

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In the earliest days of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, Americans saw, and certainly heard, the bold and blunt style that had made New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin a popular and effective leader in the Crescent City. Nagin's angry calls to "get off your asses" may have shamed the federal government into action, but many of his broadcasts since then—most notably, his controversial decision to let 180,000 residents and business owners back into New Orleans this week, before the approaching Hurricane Rita led him to reconsider—haven't been as well received. His tall, movie star-handsome swagger seems rattled as he limits his public appearances and complains, as he did to a group of state legislators this week, that he's "getting more criticism than God knows who."

To Nagin, the attacks are just part of the price he's paid, even before Katrina, for being his own man. "It's the piling-on effect," he tells TIME. "I'm a very focused person and I'm able to withstand criticism and keep at the job at hand. Have I stepped on a lot of toes? Yes. But I think a lot of those who are bashing me and questioning my leadership skills are those who are unhappy with our new way of doing things in this city." Given New Orleans' venal reputation, Nagin's assertion is hardly far-fetched. But others insist that it's not Nagin's new way of doing things that troubles them as much as what they call his often impulsive and politically na´ve way of doing things.

Nagin's resident re-entry plan drew the ire of, among others, President Bush and his Katrina recovery director, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, who argued it was premature in light of the city's still ravaged and polluted state. Nagin in turn rebuked Allen for acting like "the federal mayor of New Orleans." ("We've since buried the hatchet," Nagin insists.) But, writes New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Stephanie Grace, the fracas arose chiefly because "Nagin didn't line up the support he needed before opening his mouth, and he didn't take care of the specifics."

As a result, Nagin himself has become part of the debate over how best to rebuild the devastated Big Easy. Critics suggest the qualities that endeared him to Orleanians before Katrina, among them his political inexperience and his shoot-from-the-hip approach, make him the wrong man for the massive, labyrinthine job ahead. But his supporters, especially members of the business community, say the reconstruction project offers Nagin, 49, a chance to dramatically change not only New Orleans' skyline but also the more larcenous and dysfunctional side of its free wheeling culture. "I'm still high on him," says Mark Lewis, president of the New Orleans-based Louisiana Technology Council. "He's the right leader to bring the city back—especially when you consider that the corrupt old guard could try to exploit this disaster and come back into power."

Nagin's own path to power was a New Orleans anomaly. Raised in a poor section of the city, he went to college on a baseball scholarship, got an MBA and rose to be a $400,000-a-year vice president at the cable giant Cox Communications. In 2002, Nagin, who had never run for public office, ran as a Democrat and won in a landslide. "I'm confident I appeal to just about every segment of the population here, and that's never happened in this city," says Nagin, who is black. He raised eyebrows again in 2003 when he backed a Republican against Democrat Kathleen Blanco in the governor's race. (Blanco won.) Still, he's won high marks for his anti-corruption campaign—which has netted scores of arrests—and his drive to improve the city's abysmal public schools and free business from smothering taxes and red tape. After taking office with only two days' cash reserves left in the city's coffers, he eliminated the $25 million budget deficit he inherited.

Katrina demanded far more than business acumen—more than any mayor could be expected to rise to, say Nagin's defenders. He is credited with ordering a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans before the storm hit, but has made several missteps as well, including a failure to get enough buses to people stranded in flooded neighborhoods, his baffling four-day disappearance during the second week of the crisis when he went to Dallas to rent a house for his family and his overwrought estimate that the city's death toll could be 10,000 instead of the likely finally tally of less than 1,000.

A worse gaffe, critics say, is his call last weekend for residents to return to the city without making it clear that, in most cases, they wouldn't be able to stay due to factors like toxic house mold. "Nagin just put us in a very bad situation," says Brenda Davis, 44, a resident of the Algiers district across the river from the French Quarter. She, her daughter and four grandchildren paid a stranger $220 to drive them from their evacuee housing back to New Orlean—only to find their home unlivable and with no transportation to get back out. "It was too soon," says Davis. "He should have made sure everything was right before he told us to come back."

Nagin insists he explained to residents that he meant only for them "to come back in to at least get a peak at their homes, to get some closure"—something many Orleanians had indeed been clamoring for—and that he'd warned them to "come prepared, with your eyes wide open." Others attribute Nagin's haste to a fear that too many residents have decided not to return to live in New Orleans—which could leave the city bereft of enough homeowners and workers to make its resurrection possible. Nagin conceded this week that New Orleans' post-Katrina population could be cut in half to about 250,000.

Nagin dismisses suggestions that he's in a hurry to bring New Orleans back to life by the time he runs for a second term early next year. "I've been at this for three years now and people know we've moved them away from the politics of New Orleans' past," he says. But as much as Nagin would like to think that his Katrina performance will be only a part of the record voters consider, it will surely be a deciding factor. It's something he'll have to come prepared for, with his eyes wide open.