NEW ORLEANS – Just a year after he won a second term, speculation is swirling that Mayor Ray Nagin is looking for another job — perhaps governor or congressman.
He downplays the talk, saying he's focused on "making sure that New Orleans comes back stronger than ever before."
But Nagin, who has raised almost $500,000 in campaign money since his May 2006 election despite being barred by term limits from running for mayor again, didn't completely dismiss the speculation Wednesday.
Does he have plans to run for governor?
"Not at the moment."
And if the seat now held by indicted U.S. Rep. William J. Jefferson, D-La., opens up?
"How many jobs are you guys going to give me? I'm running for governor, potentially, I'm running for Congress. Throw in some more seats, why don't you."
For months, Nagin has aired his frustration with the pace of the city's recovery after Hurricane Katrina — particularly the rate at which federal rebuilding aid is flowing to the city. Some political analysts believe Nagin is hamstrung in what he can do here, and may be looking for a way out.
"'What's the point?' has got to be what he and his people are thinking," analyst Elliott Stonecipher said. "His ratings (as mayor) are going to plummet, because he cannot do a thing about rebuilding and, apparently, he can't do a thing about the other problems" outside his control, like soaring insurance costs.
"Ray Nagin wanted to be re-elected in some sense as a vindication of his role in Katrina and the aftermath: 'See, I'm the leader, I did a good job and am doing a good job,'" offered Pearson Cross, an assistant political science professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. "But New Orleans has major problems and is coming along very slowly. My sense is, being the congressman from the 2nd District or governor would be very attractive."
This week, a local TV station reported that Nagin said he would meet with Democratic leaders to see if he'd be a viable candidate for governor. A state party spokeswoman said neither the party chairman nor executive director had spoken with Nagin about that as of Wednesday afternoon.
Observers believe Nagin would be a long shot for governor, saying he has several strikes against him. Historically, the rest of the state has had a poor view of New Orleans, which they see as "sin city and corrupt," Stonecipher said.
He also noted that Nagin is black, and Louisiana has only had one black governor. P.B.S. Pinchback was appointed, not elected, to lead the state during Reconstruction and served just a few weeks.
And then there's Katrina, which made Nagin a household name and his gaffes public fodder. People still talk about his comment that the city, predominantly black before Katrina, would one day again be "chocolate." He apologized for the remark.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco — like Nagin, one of the most high-profile public figures following Katrina — said earlier this year she would not seek re-election.
Nagin would have a better chance, analysts say, at filling the 2nd Congressional District seat if Jefferson leaves office. Jefferson was indicted this week on federal charges of taking more than $500,000 in bribes; he has denied wrongdoing.
Cross believes Nagin would be "the one to beat" if that seat opened up. Other names analysts tossed around as possible contenders: state Rep. Karen Carter, who lost to Jefferson in a race last year, state Sen. Derrick Shepherd and New Orleans councilman Oliver Thomas. All are black.
Pollster Bernie Pinsonat believes Nagin has a political future, but "I think it's primarily relegated to winning elections where there's a majority of black voters."
A recent poll by the University of New Orleans found Nagin had a 33 percent approval rating among residents in March, down from 40 percent in October. The poll showed he had lost favor among blacks and whites though 51 percent of blacks indicated they approved of Nagin, while 15 percent of whites did.
While some analysts doubt Blanco's political future, saying apparent failures of the hurricane recovery fell at her feet, they believe Nagin, who hasn't shouldered the blunt of the blame for the slow recovery, might fare better.
"Can Nagin be elected clerk of court for Orleans Parish? Yep. Can he be elected to the 2nd District? Yep," Stonecipher said. "But there's a geographic and ethnic limit to his election."