Friday, March 2, 2012

Charlie's way

Posted By on Fri, Mar 2, 2012 at 1:23 PM

Charlie Smith.
  • Charlie Smith.
When state lawmakers gather for the annual session next Monday, March 12, there will be a lot of new faces — and one less familiar face. Charlie Smith, a colorful, veteran lobbyist who was named to the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame last year (the first lobbyist so honored), died March 1 after a long illness. He was 69.

Charlie got his political start at LSU when he joined the Young Democrats, but he honed his skills when he began lobbying in the 1960s — first for the Louisiana Municipal Association and soon thereafter for one of the 800-pound gorillas of that era: the Associated General Contractors, builders of Louisiana’s highways. “I pimp for asphalt,” he once groused.

In Charlie’s early days in the game, he indulged in all the excesses of the time — booze, drugs, women. I remember him standing in the back of a committee room talking in his hallmark stage whisper about a bill he didn’t like. “This is such bullshit,” he snarled. A roomful of heads turned, but the committee’s chair and veteran members — all of whom knew it was just Charlie’s way — pretended not to hear.

During that freewheeling time, Charlie figured in every big fight: passage of the right-to-work law, reforms to worker compensation and unemployment comp laws, repealing the prevailing wage law and other hot-button issues. One senator described his style as “hard-charging … take no prisoners.”

That style earned him respect and status, but it also set the stage for his downfall. By the late ’80s, the years of late nights, booze and cocaine caught up with Charlie. He crashed hard.

He became a Bohemian poet peddling books of amazingly good verse in the French Quarter. One day I walked past his table and didn’t even recognize him. He called me over and signed his first tome, Still Waiting for Last Call. Charlie was now sporting a dangly earring in addition to his trademark lapel button, which each day proclaimed a different smart-ass comment.

I wrote a column about Charlie’s new life. Just as he pulled no punches in the political trenches, Charlie was brutally honest about his own faults.

Months later, my phone rang. It was Charlie.

“I’ve been arrested,” he growled.

My first thought was, “Oh, shit. He fell off the wagon.”

Then he said, “For selling poetry. Can you believe that? They say I need a damn license. Don’t we still have a First Amendment in this country?”

Municipal Court Judge John Shea summarily tossed the charge in a courtroom packed with media. Charlie beamed.

Charlie’s newfound connection to writers and artists spurred his re-entry into politics. He came back in 1994 as a gentler — but unpaid — lobbyist for the arts. In short order, he helped raise state support for the arts to record levels. He continued to represent the arts until his dying day, but he also landed a few paying clients as well — including charter boat captains, “gentlemen’s clubs” and gallimaufry of others. He recently described himself as “the patron saint of previously lost causes.”

To say there will never be another like Charlie is an understatement. I once wrote that if Charlie didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. Suffice it to say that Louisiana politics is cleaning up its act, which makes Charlie’s exit from the stage timely — but the story will be a lot less fun to watch without him.

So long, Charlie. You gave it one helluva ride.

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