Far south of the now-quiet Tauzin-Dingell fray, another contest is underway as former Cox executive Ray Nagin squares off with the local police chief in tomorrow's New Orleans mayoral runoff election.

Nagin could not pause for questions — "I am running pretty hard and you have a lot of questions," he told CEDaily.

Nagin's pulled a surprise win in the Feb. 2 primaries, where polls had favored Police Chief Richard Pennington and possibly State Senator Paulette Irons. Pennington landed 24 percent of the vote, with Nagin at 28 percent on a 98 percent turnout. Irons trailed at 18 percent, with two other candidates, councilmen Jim Singleton and Troy Carter, placing 13 and 10 percent respectively.

Pundits credited his win to endorsements from two newspapers, including the New Orleans Times-Picayune, but noted he'd have to work for the vote.

Since then, however, Nagin's camp has raised $400,000-plus, or more than twice the contributions to Pennington, who has drawn about $187,000 since the primary. Overall, Pennington's $1.1 million has topped Nagin's $800,000 for the entire campaign, the Times-Picayune reports.

Observers also noted that Nagin was the best business candidate for the spot in decades. Nagin is VP and GM at Cox Communications, where he's credited with turning the then-failing office around, although Pennington has leveled accusations that Nagin took high-paying jobs from the city when it combined operations in Jefferson Parish under his watch. The city did lose jobs with that, but created more when Cox moved its Cable Rep ad agency and its technical support to New Orleans, the Times-Picayune reports.

Nagin, who joined Cox's New Orleans office as accounting system controller in 1985, had his work cut out for him.

"It was one of the worst-managed companies I had ever been involved in," he told the Times-Picayune recently, noting its reputation as Cox's black sheep unit.

Nagin is credited with pursing the 15-year franchise extension Cox Communications of Louisiana now has — a hard win and political victory from the City Council in 1995 because Cox had violated terms of a 1980 franchise deal, the newspaper says.

Nagin also supervised creation of a $500 million fiber optic network, allowing the company to up the number of channels it carried, and set it up for high-speed Internet service. The effort meant competing for Cox funds that management could have sent to more profitable locations.

Cox's cable franchise in the area saw revenue grow from $52.7 million in 1997 to $70.3 million in 2001, although profits fell from $13.7 million in '97 to $7.5 million in '01. The company saw high programming and employee costs during that time, and a rise in depreciation costs from the value of its local network.

Likewise, Cox's customer base in the city grew from 1991's 90,477 to 106,000 in 2001, the Times-Picayune says. The company also saw a penetration rate of 70 percent in the four parishes consisting of Orleans, St. Bernard, Jefferson and St. Charles.

The candidate has been on temporary leave from Cox since December, and Paul Kronin is acting GM.

The mayor's race was delayed when incumbent Mayor Marc Morial campaigned to end the two-term limit, CNN reports. Voters rejected the proposal in October, putting the race into full swing. Morial reportedly recruited and appointed Pennington, who since gained a reputation for cleaning up corruption in the city's police department.

Nagin is a past president of the Louisiana Cable Television Association, which represents more than 80 cable systems in the state, and is past president of Black Men of Metro New Orleans.

He also is president and founder of the New Orleans Brass hockey team, and serves on several boards, including the Greater New Orleans Education Foundation and United Way.

A Cox representative did not return calls by CEDaily's deadline. Last month, a Cox spokeswoman would not say what, if any, support Cox was giving nor would she comment on Nagin's future at the company.