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Man On Fire

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Ray Nagin has gone from being mayor of the party girl of American cities to being mayor of a ghost town with an uncertain future in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And he has often been at the center of a storm himself: first for what he did and didn't do before and after the hurricane, and now for incendiary comments about the city's changing makeup. Despite the fact that his constituents are scattered across some 40 states, and his city is populated by nearly as many contractors as residents, the mayor is up for reelection this year. Essence caught up with him between flights as he crisscrossed the country to check in with his far-flung constituents:

ESSENCE: You touched a nerve recently with your comment about keeping New Orleans from being "overrun with Mexicans." What did you mean?

Nagin: My problem is the way the federal government awards contracts in a crisis. They issued hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts, mostly to companies with which they had preexisting relationships. They brought in Mexicans and some of them were illegal aliens. My point is there's enough work for everybody, but locals should get first dibs on jobs.

ESSENCE: Why aren't more Black people employed in the reconstruction effort?

Nagin: The big reason is a lack of relationship between Black businesses and government contractors. The government issues a contract at $43 per cubic yard to remove debris. That contractor doesn't remove a twig. They hire a subcontractor at $33 a cubic yard, who then subs to someone else for $15, and so on. The first sub hasn't done a lick of work. You might start at $43, but the work may be getting done for $7. In between, people are stuffing their pockets. We're trying to break that cycle and get Black people in on one of the biggest construction booms in our state's history. I'm saying, "Let's get in front of this wave instead of jumping in after it's here."

ESSENCE: What do you think the city's population will look like after it's rebuilt?

Nagin: Before Katrina, New Orleans was 67 percent Black. Under every scenario, we'll still be majority Black. Some Mexican workers and White folks from up North are going to come here and fall in love, so the demographic will change somewhat, but all this talk about Black people not coming back is just Republican testosterone.

ESSENCE: Your constituents are all over the country. How do you keep up with them?

Nagin: We've been doing town hall meetings in the states where people have gone. Texas, Tennessee, Georgia. Black folks want you to come see about them.

ESSENCE: There's a mayoral election coming up. Who will be around to vote?

Nagin: Over the next six to 12 months, I expect we'll get 300,000 people coming back. A small group of White people think a White candidate can go up against me, that it's their turn now. If they think they can win against a sitting Black mayor who's been through what I have, they're wrong. It will backfire big-time. We'll contact voters around the country. They'll be allowed to vote where they are. You know Black people will vote from Alaska.

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