New Orleans Mayor Finds His Words Follow Him to New York

Published: September 2, 2006
New York Times

MediaBuys, as the agency of record for the City of New Orleans (under the direction of CEO Chick Ciccarelli) oversaw the New Orleans Economic Development Tour at Tribeca Cinema in New York.

Photo: C. Ray Nagin, left, at a news conference in TriBeCa yesterday with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Bernardo Wade, a New Orleans artist. Mr. Wade's work was featured at a two-day event promoting business investment in New Orleans. Mr. Nagin was in town to take part in the event. (Photo by Cary Conover for The New York Times)

Standing just blocks from ground zero, C. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, backed away yesterday from his heavily criticized remarks about the slow pace of rebuilding at the World Trade Center site. But he declined to say he was sorry.

Mr. Nagin, who is visiting New York, was asked at a news conference at Tribeca Cinemas if he wanted to make an explicit apology. "I think I've already kind of been through that," he replied.

But he added: "I tell you what I will never do again is refer to that site as a hole. It's a sacred site that is presently in an undeveloped state. I'll leave it at that."

Last Sunday, on a segment of CBS's "60 Minutes," a reporter asked Mayor Nagin why so little debris, including long-abandoned automobiles, had been cleared from New Orleans neighborhoods devastated by flooding after Hurricane Katrina a year ago.

Mr. Nagin replied sharply: "That's all right. You guys in New York can't get a hole in the ground fixed and it's five years later. So let's be fair."

His remarks were widely criticized as flippant and insensitive.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who joined Mr. Nagin at the news conference, said that the mayor's critics should keep the words in perspective.

"To those in the media that would concentrate on the intemperate remarks he made," Mr. Sharpton said, "the people of New Orleans have gotten over the media calling New Orleans citizens refugees. So we all have a lot to get over what was said."

In prepared remarks, Mayor Nagin said: "New Orleanians and New Yorkers understand what tragedy is all about. We understand the difficulties in trying to recover from the tragedies."

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg did not attend the news conference. Dennis M. Walcott, a deputy mayor who was there instead, said Mr. Bloomberg was attending the funeral of Firefighter Michael C. Reilly, who died last Sunday fighting a fire at a 99-cent store in the Bronx.

Mr. Walcott said he had spoken with Mr. Bloomberg before the news conference. "There is no issue between Mayor Nagin and our city and our mayor," Mr. Walcott said.

However, visitors at ground zero, where more than 2,700 people died during the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, condemned Mr. Nagin's lack of apology when they were told what he had said at the news conference.

John Foley, 38, a reinsurance broker from Glen Cove, N.Y., who works on Wall Street, said Mr. Nagin "owes the people of New York and the people of the United States an apology."

"He's shown very poor judgment," Mr. Foley added.

Glancing down at his 4-year-old daughter, Katy, born on Sept. 8, 2001, he said, "She's the reason I wasn't at the World Trade Center."

Matt Berkowitz, 26, a television producer from Philadelphia, said: "It's just a political thing, not wanting to apologize and go back on his words. But what he said showed a lack of compassion."

And Mark Schwaller, 51, a kitchen remodeler from Genesee Depot, Wis., said Mayor Nagin "should be embarrassed."

Ceeon Quiett, a spokeswoman for Mr. Nagin, said the mayor planned to visit ground zero during his visit.

Accompanied by New Orleans economic development officials, Mr. Nagin is attending a two-day conference at Tribeca Cinemas to help attract business investment to New Orleans.

Mayor Nagin, dapper in a dark suit, white shirt and yellow tie, seemed to suspect that the gathered reporters might not all be interested in the subject of economic development.

Moments after getting up to speak, he said: "We're going live, right? So I'm going to watch myself."

He smiled, smoothed his tie, and said, "I'm going to stick to my script this morning."

One reporter, saying that ground zero really was "a hole in the ground," asked, "So what's so wrong about calling it what it is?"

A jocular Mr. Sharpton leaned toward the microphones and said, pointing first at the reporter, "He said it," and then at Mr. Nagin, "but he didn't!"