Vince Lombardi famously said that winning isn't everything; it's the only thing. Jim Carvin, the dean of Louisiana political consultants, played the game of politics the same way — to win — and he left a deep and lasting impression on the local political scene. Jim died Jan. 16 at the age of 79.
He will be best remembered as the man who managed 10 winning mayoral campaigns in a row in New Orleans, a streak that will never be matched. Those of us who had the pleasure of knowing Jim will remember him more for his unique brand of political wisdom — a blend of wry Irish wit, a poet's way with words, an artist's eye for the unusual, a historian's grasp of human endeavors (and frailties) and a warrior's fearless love of a good fight. We toasted all those qualities and more at his Irish wake this past Saturday.
Born in New York in 1929 to British parents of Irish descent, Jim moved to the U.K. with his family when he was 6. He was educated by the Jesuits, whom he credits with teaching him to think and question. They did too good a job, it seems. He loved challenging priests on articles of faith, and one exasperated cleric predicted that Jim would be either a bishop or an atheist. He chose the latter.
Equally life-shaping for him were the Nazi air raids during the Battle of Britain, which began when he was 10. "During all the years I knew him, he never seemed to be afraid of anything," recalls his daughter, Karen Carvin Shachat, who followed him into the political consulting biz. "His comment was always, 'I survived the Blitz. What would I be afraid of?'"
He moved back to the U.S. at age 18 and ultimately settled in Lake Charles, where he met his wife Ruth, an artist. Jim had an artistic bent as well. "He was not just a political strategist, but also a very creative guy," says fellow consultant Deno Seder, one of a generation of Carvin proteges. "Jim had a creative streak about him that made for some unique ads. He was never afraid to go out on the edge."
Jim got his start as a political consultant in Lake Charles, where he and Ruth had started a commercial advertising agency. When politicians realized they needed to be on television, they called on "admen" like Jim. He told his daughter that his first big win — a Lake Charles mayoral race — gave him one of the greatest highs of his life.
He later helped elect Edwin Edwards, the state's first Cajun governor; Dutch Morial, New Orleans' first black mayor; and Ray Nagin, "the cable guy" given little chance of winning. Nagin's 2002 victory was especially pleasing because it came near the end of Jim's career, after one local politico called Carvin and pollster Joe Walker (a close friend who died in September) "dinosaurs." When Nagin won, Jim proclaimed from the podium, "Dinosaurs rule!" He also shepherded Nagin's 2006 re-election campaign, another effort given little chance to succeed. He never doubted that Nagin would win, both times.
Former mayor Marc Morial first met Jim during his own father's first successful bid for mayor in 1977. "Jim helped quarterback the components of the black/white coalition that led to Dutch's victory," Morial remembers. "He produced memorable print and TV pieces emphasizing my father's civil rights record, and later his abilities to be a great mayor. The piece was titled, '10 Reasons Why Dutch Morial Will Be a Great Mayor.'
"In my own campaigns for mayor, we would meet every Sunday night at Jim's home and methodically work through an agenda that Jim had prepared. He was the best, period."
A man of great intellect and intellectual curiosity, Jim loved staying up till 3 a.m. discussing history, politics, foreign policy and making predictions. "He slept late, chain-smoked, and always had at least one evening cocktail," recalls his daughter. "If you mentioned that none of the other fathers behaved this way, his response was, 'Winston Churchill won the Second World War while staying up all night and drinking enough brandy to sink the English Navy. That's good enough for me.'"
Although never far from the political limelight, he was an intensely private man who trusted few people, perhaps because he saw the darker side of politics and politicians. "There aren't any secrets in politics," he often said. Among his other oft-quoted observations:
• "Every election is a unique event."
• "If it can't be fixed with a glass of scotch and an aspirin, it probably can't be fixed."
• "People don't vote for something, they vote against. Remember, you have to have an enemy."
• "Money may be the mother's milk of politics, but gossip is its lifeblood."
One of his favorite pastimes was playing historical war games atop a large pingpong table, which he kept in his living room for years. Among those who played those games was Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, a longtime client.
"Several friends would go over to Jim's house on Monday nights, starting at 7 p.m. and playing until 1 a.m.," Broussard recalls. "The games lasted up to 120 hours and continued for weeks. I learned a lot about political strategy from watching Jim exercise war strategy. There are many similarities between politics and war, like knowing when to attack and how to attack, and when to retreat and how to retreat. Jim played his politics and his board games the same way: It was all about winning."
Along with his late friend Joe Walker, Jim was one of the last of Louisiana's political lions. Right up to the end, he never lost his roar.
So long, Jim. You were always a winner.