- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said Wednesday that President Obama can score an “early win” and shift the political landscape in the Republican-dominated South if he helps rebuild the city and “did what Bush couldn’t do.”

Ironically, the Democrat said federal money has been flowing to the city since Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, took over in January 2008.

The mayor, who became a national figure during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, said Mr. Obama’s push to help with recovery so early in his presidency gives him a “great opportunity” to win in 2012 some of the Southern states he lost in November.

”If he can help us to finish this work in New Orleans, it’s going to demonstrate to the South he really cares about the South,” Mr. Nagin told editors and reporters during an interview at The Washington Times. “I think they see it and I think they are seizing the day.”



“This administration can have the legacy of ‘we came in and did what Bush couldn’t do, and oh by the way America - we righted an incredible wrong and we restored this great American city,’ “ he said.

Mr. Nagin said he was feeling much better about the city’s future than he did during his last visit to The Washington Times a year ago, citing the influx of backlogged dollars he credited to his own persistence and “when the administration changed in Baton Rouge.” Much hurricane aid had remained tied up in state government led by Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat.

“Money solves a lot of problems, and money is flowing right now,” he said, lamenting the days when he was dealing with “the realities of not having money and having a Republican president and a Democratic governor in the midst of this incredible struggle and I’m the one on the front line.”

“But now everything’s flipped and I have a Democratic president and a Republican governor,” he said. “The difference this time is I’ve got someone in the White House that is definitely [incentivized] to get a huge win from the work that we’ve done over the past 3 1/2 years, and besides wants to help us and his people want to help us.”

Mr. Nagin said he thinks by contrast, President Bush “misunderstood” the situation on the Gulf Coast and his team didn’t make it a priority.

“I think America looked at New Orleans and saw itself and said, ‘This is not an America we want,’ ” Mr. Nagin said.

Asked to comment directly on the young governor, Mr. Nagin called Mr. Jindal a “bright guy” with “tremendous ambitions.”

“He’s put himself in a very difficult spot being the front-runner supposedly of the Republican Party to try and run against a very popular president,” Mr. Nagin said.

He said the governor’s widely criticized response to the president’s speech last month “did not go as well as he had hoped,” but applauded Mr. Jindal for ethics reform and for helping remove “roadblocks” to his city’s recovery.

Mr. Nagin said he told Mr. Jindal, “Your legacy will be maximized if you became the governor who helped to restore New Orleans.”

Asked whether he had higher political aspirations of his own, Mr. Nagin laughed and said, “I’m running for the border.” He said that after living and breathing Katrina recovery for 3 1/2 years, “I just don’t think I can keep up this pace much longer, I need a break.”

He said he does not think he can handle moving from the mayor’s office to another political position “right now.”

A report released Wednesday showed good news for Louisiana - the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped from 5.5 percent of the labor force in December to 5.1 percent, one of the lowest in the nation, while other states are bleeding jobs. Mr. Nagin said he thinks the actual figures are better because the census estimate is 100,000 people short of the total number of employees.

Mr. Nagin said New Orleans is a good example of how new jobs can create prosperity and several times cited a national magazine ranking the city as one of the 10 American cities likeliest to survive the recession.

Mr. Nagin, in Washington with city council members to pitch New Orleans projects to the federal government in hopes of scoring some of the $787 billion stimulus cash, said the process of applying for the funding through a needs assessment and competitive grants is unclear.

“It’s a challenge for the new administration. I think this bill moved very quickly,” he said. “It has some great concepts in it, but the rules of how you access and engagement of how you access a lot of these dollars are still being worked out. We’re here on the front end to try and see if we can understand what needs to be done and hopefully influence our fair share to end up in New Orleans.”

The New Orleans group favors an idea by Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, to remove the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Nagin said Craig Fugate, Mr. Obama’s nominee to lead FEMA, is a “great hire” who has been “on the user side” in his position heading Florida’s emergency department.

Mr. Nagin said, about three months before hurricane season begins, that the levee rebuilding is coming along and “we’re in the best shape that we’ve been in,” though he cautioned that the Lower 9th Ward, which bore the brunt of the flooding during Katrina, is not ready for people to come home.

He said studies show that in big disasters such as earthquakes in urban centers, the average recovery takes 10 years.

But Mr. Nagin predicted that five years from now, when the building cycle is complete and the city’s population returns to 500,000, “It’s going to bustle.”

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