Friday, February 5, 2010

So Long, Hippo

Posted By on Fri, Feb 5, 2010 at 9:20 PM

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[This is a longer version of my Gambit column, which will appear in print on Sunday, Feb. 7 — the day the Saints win their first of several Super Bowl titles.]

Back in 1985, when then-Mayor Dutch Morial was making one last effort to change the City Charter so that he could run for “Just 3” terms as mayor, I introduced visiting NBC correspondent Ken Bode to one of Morial’s confidants, a rotund political operative named Maurice “Hippo” Katz.

“So tell me, Hippo,” Bode asked, “what job will you be getting in the third Morial Administration if this thing passes?”

Hippo, who stood all of about 5 feet 8 inches, drew himself up and said, without missing beat, “Mr. Bode, I don’t want a job … I want a position.”

The response was vintage Hippo — and vintage New Orleans politics. Bode still tells that anecdote whenever the subject of New Orleans comes up. When I called him last week to tell him that Hippo Katz had died at his home the night before, we shared a bittersweet chuckle at that and other Hippo stories. He was one of a kind.

A Runyonesque character who never forgot that the essence of politics is people, Hippo had a heart as big as himself. He liked everybody, and everybody liked him. He had a great laugh, and he laughed often — a high-pitched, almost childishly giddy, “Hee-hee-hee-hee!” As much as he enjoyed the game, Hippo took politics seriously. He had a great mind for it, not just for numbers and analysis, but also for people.

He was famous — or infamous — for sidling up to several candidates at once, and for changing teams suddenly. In the 1987 governor’s race, he harangued his friend Bill Schultz, who was then a neophyte political consultant, all the way from New Orleans to Alexandria one day about how urgent it was for Schultz to sign on as then-Congressman Billy Tauzin’s New Orleans campaign manager. After a day of nagging by Hippo, who was supporting Tauzin, Schultz acquiesced. “Call him right now and sign on,” Hippo told Schultz, elated that Schultz complied. Less than hour later, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards announced he would seek re-election. Hippo immediately turned to Schultz and said, “Your man can’t win.”

He got the nickname “Hippo” as a boy — from his mother. “She used to see me sitting on the front porch swing eating ice cream every day after school, and she told me, ‘You better stop eating like that or you’ll be as fat as a hippo,’” he once told me. “I kept eating, and the name stuck — hee-hee-hee-hee!

Not everyone understood that he liked the moniker. The first time the late Iris Kelso mentioned Hippo in one of her Times-Picayune columns, she assumed the nickname was a derisive twist of his real name. She thus referred to him, intending to be respectful, as Hippolite Katz. We all laughed out loud at that one.

During Hippo’s tenure as an assistant to Dutch Morial, the mayor sent him to present a welcome certificate to a convention of Overeaters Anonymous. Hippo returned with a big smile on his face. “I was the skinniest guy in the room,” he beamed.

Back in the 1980s, when I was between marriages, I hosted a bourré game at my house every Sunday night. The players came from all sides of the political spectrum, and Hippo could always be counted on to give us the “administration line” from the Morial camp. In fact, spreading rumors for Dutch was pretty much Hippo’s job description. Near the end of Dutch’s tenure, Hippo confirmed a story for me that the mayor didn’t like — and the mayor fired him. On his pink slip, Dutch wrote, “Loose lips.” Hippo was furious. He told Dutch that if he didn’t take that off the pink slip he would tell me everything he knew. Dutch relented — and to this day Hippo remains the only guy I ever knew who made Dutch Morial back down.

Speaking of bourré, Hippo was an amazing card player. He and his wife Judy were both bridge masters, and they traveled far and wide competing in tournaments. Many times during the bourré games at my house, Hippo would announce the results of the hand after only two of the five tricks had been played. “Split pot,” he would say matter-of-factly. Or, “split and a boo.” One night, after this had gone on for quite some time, a player with the nickname “Hard Times” groused, “Hippo, do you mind if the rest of us play the damn cards before you tell us what happened?” Hippo responded only with his gleeful laugh.

My favorite Hippo bourré story was the time he announced that he would not be attending the following week because it was his 20th wedding anniversary. We understood, and invited a substitute to fill out the table. Imagine our surprise when Hippo strolled in halfway through the evening a week later. There was no room for him at the table, but that was OK with Hippo — he just stood and watched, playing vicariously. “Hippo,” Hard Times said, “didn’t you tell us last week that you couldn’t be here cuz of your anniversary?” “Yeah,” Hippo replied. “I took Judy out to dinner … but she’s home now.” After a pregnant pause, Hard Times couldn’t contain himself, and he blurted out, “You’re a real romantic sumbitch, ain’t you?” Nobody laughed louder than Hippo.

In recent months, Hippo’s name was mentioned in the budding Jefferson Parish insurance scandal, but he swore he was not implicated in any wrongdoing. I believed him, because I never knew Hippo to be greedy or corrupt. I imagine him now playing bourré with another rotund friend of his, the late Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, trading favorite political stories — and hedging his political bets.

So long, Hippo. You finally got a position.

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