Ever since the July day when Mayor Ray Nagin announced that 84 arrest warrants had been issued in a massive campaign against public corruption, New Orleans has been a changed city. The simple fact that such a thing could take place in the town called the Big Easy is a signal of change in itself. But even more striking has been the way Nagin's efforts have been embraced by the public.
The arrest warrants arose from an investigation of the city's car inspection and taxi licensing bureaus that Nagin launched shortly after taking office in May, and they were just the beginning. In the months since, his administration has dismantled the city's Utilities Bureau, announced that it had found graft in contracting and revealed extensive fraud in federal housing contracts. In addition, the acting U.S. attorney in New Orleans announced late in August that the FBI is two years into an ongoing probe of graft in city hall. "Everyone's settling in for two or three years of probes," says one local reporter.
Hard as it may be to believe, New Orleans appears ready for reform. Nagin is drawing approval ratings above 80 percent in recent polls, and calls have flooded in to police, newspapers and city hall reporting shakedowns and other shady doings by public servants. "There is a great deal of pent-up frustration with the system here," says Larry Lorenz, host of a weekly public affairs show on local public TV. "There's been a perception for many years that in order to do business at city hall you have to pay off whoever out there has his hand out. And there's also been a sense of almost hopelessness in getting the situation corrected. Then Ray Nagin comes in and starts the investigation, and suddenly there's blood in the water. People are much more willing to come forward."
There was a hint of things to come last spring, when voters sent two reform-minded non-politicians into their mayoral runoff: Nagin, a 46- year-old cable company executive with no political experience at all; and Richard Pennington, the city's police chief, who had won national applause for cleaning up the city's scandal-stained police department. Nagin's business-oriented, break-from-the-past profile appealed both to middle-class black neighborhoods and to white voters, a new electoral combination for the city.
The public demand for a new order has its roots in the city's--and Louisiana's--deep economic travails. "As long as corruption didn't hurt our pocketbooks, it was fun to watch," says New Orleans lawyer C.B. Forgotston. "But the state's economy has contracted, and we're the only Southern state with a net population loss. Some of us have been saying that corruption, coupled with an anti-business tax structure, is the reason. We tend to vote our wallets."
In that regard, Nagin's anti-corruption fight is an economic development tool and a precursor to a more efficient local government. "I've talked consistently about making sure we have city government that is open, honest, fair and fairly transparent in its dealings with the public," the mayor says. "We're trying to set a tone that says it's safe for outside investors to invest, because it's an environment where they can get a decent return."
Before that can happen, though, there's more cleaning up to do. "We're about the business of raising the bar and establishing levels of accountability in the departments," says Nagin's chief administrator, Kimberly Williamson, "and it's hard to do that when you've got bribes taking place." Once corruption is under control, she and Nagin argue, they can improve on all the little tasks--filling potholes, collecting the garbage, maintaining the parks--that New Orleans has failed at for years.
Nagin has already made it clear that he has no intention of following the political traditions that might help him deliver on these commitments--schmoozing the city council, for example, or developing a street-level political organization. But if his popularity continues at current levels, he may not need to.