Impact of Nagin's gaffe still being weighed
By Jeff Duncan
The impact of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s controversial Martin Luther
King Day comments landed squarely on the shoulders of tourism officials
Wednesday, one day after the mayor and his staff launched a major damage
control effort to temper the firestorm.
As pundits and talk-show hosts parodied Nagin coast to coast, local
tourism officials spent the day trying to soothe angry, disillusioned
clients while political observers weighed the potential impact the
mayor’s comments might have in Washington.
Whether the damage caused to the city and mayor was a temporary setback
or a critical blow remains to be seen, business, civic and political
leaders said. Nagin spent Tuesday repeatedly apologizing to anyone
offended by his remarks, with critics saying he offended just about
Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and
Tourism Bureau, said his office had received a handful of cancellations
from clients that had booked or were considering events in the city.
Others, he said, had deluged his staff with irate e-mails and phone
calls. Perry said he and his staff are working to reverse the
“In tourism, perception is the driver,” Perry said. “(Nagin’s remarks)
have caused a considerable amount of unrest and concern among our
national business customers and ripples of anxiety among our leisure
Since Nagin’s prediction that post-Katrina New Orleans would be a
“chocolate city at the end of the day” — meaning once again majority
African American — and his claim that last summer’s hurricane
destruction in the U.S. was the result of God’s will, late-night
talk-show hosts and political pundits have lampooned him on TV and in
newspaper columns. Cartoons and images of Nagin in a Willy Wonka outfit
have circulated on political Web sites and Internet Weblogs. A cottage
industry of “Willy Nagin” and “Mr. Goodbar” T-shirts and bumper stickers
has sprouted on-line.
“This was damaging locally and nationally, and at a time when New
Orleans is desperately in need of assistance and partnership,” Perry
said. “It was embarrassing to a lot of people here to be the subject of
Calling it an “all-hands-on-deck” crisis, Perry said his staff has
conducted meetings around the clock since Nagin’s comments on the
federal holiday honoring King. Staffers have launched a proactive attack
using Nagin’s apology in e-mails, letters and phone conversations to
minimize the negative impact. He said officials from the mayor’s office
have offered to help in the effort.
“We honestly believe we can turn this around with a couple of weeks of
very intense marketing,” Perry said. “The main worry is that this could
have a ripple effect through our customer base. It’s left people
bewildered about the city and its direction.
“The irony is that the tourism industry and all of those that love to
come to our city love the multiracial culture and character of New
Orleans That literally is the core of our business.”
Among the Washington political class, opinions were mixed on how the
fallout might affect the view of New Orleans. While no one thought Nagin
helped the city’s cause, and that his comments reinforced a negative
view in the city in some quarters, most believed it wouldn’t be
something lawmakers would hold against a community in desperate need of
Former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said he didn’t think that Nagin’s
comments would cause lasting damage to the state’s effort to get federal
hurricane-relief money. He said politicians in Washington aren’t likely
to hold the incident against Nagin because they sometimes find
themselves in hot water for verbal gaffes. Breaux said he viewed the
comments in the context they occurred: Nagin trying to reassure
displaced African American New Orleanians that they are welcome and
wanted back in the city.
“You are talking to an all-black group on Martin Luther King Day,”
Breaux said. “I can see how you could say something like that to bring
up the spirits of people who were down.”
Breaux compared it to Sen. Trent Lott’s, R-Miss., rhetorical misstep in
2002 when he praised then-Sen. Strom Thurmond’s long career, which
included a 1948 run for president as a member of the segregationist
Dixiecrat Party. Lott apologized, but was forced to give up his position
as Senate Majority Leader.
When Breaux was reminded of the lasting damage to Lott’s reputation, he
noted that with ethical questions hanging over the current Republican
leadership in Washington, Lott is mounting a political comeback.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., agreed that Nagin’s comments wouldn’t
have a lasting effect. He brushed it off with a quip. “There is dark
chocolate and there is white chocolate,” Lieberman said.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., however said that the nationally broadcast
comments serve to hurt Louisiana’s reputation at a time when lawmakers
in Washington already are skeptical of the state’s leadership. Part of
that view stems from a $250 billion wish list bill submitted to Congress
in September by Republican Vitter and his Democratic counterpart, Sen.
“We heard questions even before this,” Vitter said. “People (in
Washington) want assurances that there is leadership here that so
federal resources don’t get squandered.”
Washington political analyst Charlie Cook, a Shreveport native, said the
negative perception of Louisiana politicians inside the Beltway is real.
“A lot of people in Washington see Louisiana as a Banana Republic and
New Orleans as a kind of zoo,” Cook said. “The mayor’s not helping the
city when he says things like that. It just reinforces that negative
stereotype and really does hurt your cause.”
Tulane University president Scott Cowen, who Nagin handpicked to chair
the Bring New Orleans Back Commission’s education subcommittee, said he
hoped the mayor’s apology on Tuesday would soften the blow in
“Unfortunately, the damage has already been done,” said Cowen, when
asked if Nagin’s remarks would impact the city’s ability to garner
public and private funding. “And it needed to be repaired. The only
thing that will repair that is action.
“The community needs to come together and bridge this racial divide and
the mayor needs to lead that charge to show the nation that everyone is
welcome here regardless of race, class or gender.”
Cowen has worked closely with Nagin for the past three months on the
BNOB commission’s education subcommittee and said he doesn’t think the
mayor’s remarks were racially motivated.
“But,” Cowen added, “he has a lot to make up for. All of us in
leadership positions are under terrible pressure and stress right now
and my suspicion is the mayor got caught up in the moment and the
setting on Martin Luther King Day. That said, it’s no excuse.”
Others believe the controversy eventually will dissipate and ultimately
have little long-term effect.
“I don’t hear a lot of people crying foul in my business,” said Jay
Cicero, the president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation. “I’m
not expecting it to be something that will have a long-lasting effect on
our ability to market the city for major sports events. I don’t think
it’s going to have an impact.”
Ben Johnson, the president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation,
“I think he had a Katrina moment,” Johnson said. “If you look at his
whole speech, it was clear he was trying to encourage the community to
work together. It’s one blip on the radar screen.”
Staff writers Brian Thevenot and Bill Walsh contributed to this report.
Jeff Duncan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504)