If you're going to write about politics for a living, there's no better place in America to do it than Louisiana. Individually and collectively, our politicians are the most colorful on the planet. Folks often ask me why that's the case, and I tell them to look in the mirror. Our politicians merely reflect who and what we tolerate, if not celebrate.
Looking back on the past 30 years, no political figure has been more tolerated and celebrated than Edwin Washington Edwards. The wisecracking, skirt-chasing former governor may be sitting in a jail cell today (he'll be released in 2011), but he always was and always will be good copy. The wily Cajun populist served up many memorable quips during his four terms as governor, but his all-time greatest came in 1983, when he said of his imminent showdown against then-Gov. Dave Treen: "The only way I can lose this election is if I get caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy." Of Treen personally, he said, "He's so slow it takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes." Years later, despite those taunts, Treen worked harder than anyone to get EWE pardoned and released early from federal prison. Some politicians are great characters; others have great character.
While EWE was our most colorful governor, many could vie for the title of being our most colorful lawmaker. New Orleans' own John Hainkel Jr. became the first person to preside over both the Louisiana House of Representatives and the Louisiana Senate during his career. Hainkel was a fiery orator who also had a soft side, especially after a few drinks, and no politician (despite his professed conservatism) did more to help publicly fund the arts. His great friend and equally interesting character, lobbyist and poet Charlie Smith, wrote on these pages when Hainkel died in 2005: "John could beat you up, then turn on that smile and be laughing a few minutes later. He could put on a suit fresh from the cleaners and, a few moments later, look as if he'd just been in a brawl — and, at the same time, comment on everyone else's clothes."
Speaking of Charlie Smith, one of my all-time favorite phone calls was the one I got from Charlie in the late '80s, after alcohol and drugs ruined his first stint as a lobbyist. "I've been arrested," Smith growled into the phone, "for selling poetry in Jackson Square. Don't we still have a First goddamn Amendment in this country?" We do, and Charlie beat the rap. Now he's lobbying again — for the arts, charter boat captains and strippers. If Charlie Smith didn't exist, we'd have to invent him.
Several other lawmakers deserve mention. When it comes to passion and cunning, no one could equal the legendary 9th Ward brawler, Sen. Nat Kiefer. "No matter what the issue is, you want Nat on your side," one of his colleagues told me. "If not, he'll almost always find a way to beat you." Kiefer's crosstown rival in the 1977 mayor's race, then-Rep. deLesseps S. "Toni" Morrison Jr., was equally colorful. The son of legendary Mayor Chep Morrison, Toni grew up in the world of Irish Channel politics but never lost his idealism. Like all great politicians, he loved people and never stopped campaigning.
The late Sen. Leonard Chabert, a Democrat from Chauvin, put on a convincing Cajun country-boy facade, but he was as crafty as anybody who ever served in the Upper Chamber. During Gov. Buddy Roemer's tenure (1988-92), Chabert helped lead a coup that ousted Roemer's hand-picked Senate President, Allen Bares. An hour before the vote to restore Sen. Sammy Nunez to the president's chair, he sent me a note. It read, "Hey Neg, we fixin' to kick ass." Chabert never lived to see it, but he's the only Louisiana senator ever to have two sons succeed him — former Sen. Marty Chabert and current Sen. Norby Chabert.
On the local front, no one could equal former Mayor Dutch Morial for generating good copy. A fierce competitor who never stopped thinking about politics, Morial dominated the landscape during his tenure by being tougher and smarter than anybody else in the game. "We both love the chess game aspect of politics," Morial once told me, and I had to agree. We had many great conversations over the years, most of them private, but the most public of them was the time he yelled at me, "Have you ever bought a building, Clancy?" (I was quizzing him about a controversial land swap that he had proposed, and he had grown tired of it.) The city's first African-American mayor, Morial wanted more than anything to bridge New Orleans' racial divide, but when white voters deserted him in his 1982 re-election, he rallied black voters to his cause. He later tried twice to amend the City Charter to remove the two-term limit on mayors, failing by large margins both times. Still, he left an indelible imprint on local politics and was the first mayor to sire a future mayor. His eldest son, former Mayor Marc Morial, now serves as president of the National Urban League.
The New Orleans City Council likewise produced some memorable characters. At-Large Councilman Joe Giarrusso Sr. was an old-school police chief who made the transition to politics as deftly as anyone. A classic 1950s tough guy, "Da Chief" became one of Dutch Morial's closest allies on the council. A fighter by nature, Giarrusso once punched out then-state Sen. Hank Braden when the two were arguing at Ruth's Chris Steak House. For weeks afterward, the waitresses would ask regulars, "You wanna sit in the fighting section, or the nonfighting section?"
Equally tough was At-Large Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor, who authored the controversial "Mardi Gras ordinance" to desegregate the city's old-line Carnival krewes. The ordinance ultimately failed on legal grounds, but morally she had the high ground, and several krewes have since opened their memberships to blacks. In a world dominated by white men, Taylor more than held her own.
Speaking of women who held their own, no discussion of local politics in the last 30 years would be complete without a mention of Iris Kelso, the late political reporter for WDSU-TV and The Times-Picayune. A native of Philadelphia, Miss., Iris became the queen of the local political scene. She came of age in a era when politics was truly a good old boys club, so she had to toughen up fast — and often — but when she took a politician to task, hers was the always the last word.
New Orleans assessors were once the kingpins of retail politics. My favorite was the late Larry Comiskey Sr., the scion of a legendary Mid-City political dynasty. Comiskey was the last assessor to keep his rolls in pencil, and his most important tool on the job was a large, rubber eraser. When constituents came to quibble over assessments, he used that eraser often, and to great effect.
Speaking of assessors, how many recall that Sherman Copelin was Louisiana's first black assessor? The sly political operative and former state lawmaker was appointed by the other assessors, not elected by the voters, after Third District Assessor Cy Hickey died in office in 1985. Copelin lost the subsequent special election to the guy who is now New Orleans' only assessor, Erroll Williams. He later won a special election to the state House of Representatives and quickly established himself as one of the smoothest operators in the Legislature — but voters never quite forgave Copelin for his involvement in a bribery scheme during the Family Health Foundation scandal of the early 1970s. In his heyday, Copelin had a row of identical briefcases in the trunk of his huge Mercedes. Only he knew the contents of each one, and he kept them in meticulous order. Oh, the secrets those briefcases held. ...
Politics produces many larger-than-life characters, but the two largest (physically and otherwise) of the past three decades had to be Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee and political operative Maurice "Hippo" Katz, who were also great friends. Harry had a common touch that endeared him to everybody, but he also had a temper. He used to call me up and chew me out whenever I wrote something critical, and sometimes he even threatened to sue. But I knew Harry's soft spot. If he loved anything more than politics, it was fishing. I'd let him gnaw on me for a while, and then I'd say, "OK, Harry, you're probably right ... but have you caught any fish lately?" That was all it took. He'd talk fishing for at least half an hour, and by then he was in too good a mood to be angry.
Before he became Harry Lee's close pal, Katz was an aide to Dutch Morial. It was during that time that he uttered one of my favorite political lines of all time. I introduced Hippo to then-NBC political correspondent Ken Bode, who was in town covering Morial's bid to remove mayoral term limits from the City Charter. Hippo was waxing eloquent about Morial's chances when Bode asked, "And what job will you get in the third Morial administration?" Hippo didn't miss a beat. "I don't want a job," he said. "I want a position."
Of all the political characters I've encountered, my favorite is the late pollster Joe Walker, who taught me most of what I've come to know about the game. Walker was a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, keenly insightful observer whose polls and analyses were always on the money. My favorite Joe Walker story was the time he left his home early on Election Day (always a Saturday) after an all-nighter with his candidate and various cronies. He walked briskly to his car with a cigarette in one hand and a briefcase in the other just as the sun was coming up. His wife called out to him from the front door: "Joe, what time will you be back?" He paused for half a second, then said with a straight face, "No later than Wednesday."
I wish I had more space to include the dozens of other great characters I've known over the years. I guess I'll just have to write that book some day. I'll get to it eventually ... some time after Wednesday.