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Thinking BIG 

Whether he's crafting a multimillion-dollar business deal, building a ranch for exotic animals or launching a bid for governor, Walter Boasso thinks big.

Walter Boasso motions with his fork to come over. He's at the far end of a boardroom table hunched over a lunch plate smothered with red beans and rice. The fork goes back to working a large lump of turnip greens while his other hand holds a half-eaten piece of cornbread. A binder sits in front of him, divided by topics such as education, health care, insurance and other issues. The big guy is multi-tasking. After a few more bites, he makes eye contact and offers an oversized hand, pulling while shaking and using his immense bulk to exert dominance, not unlike the way former President Lyndon Johnson used his height to his advantage. Boasso's a big Italian with Cajun and Creole mannerisms, and he doesn't mind admitting as much.

He's at home eating his Monday red beans, but would be just as comfortable with meatballs and spaghetti, with his huge grin, incessant joking and unbuttoned white Oxford giving way to puffs of chest hair. 'Our last names were originally Boassiano," he says with a laugh.

He jokes frequently, as his staffers can attest. He sometimes refers to his press secretary Brian Welsh as Ron White, the drunken comedian known best for his role in the Blue Collar Comedy troupe, although Boasso contends he's the 'guy from Def Comedy Jam." He's also proud. His birth date marked 200 years in St. Bernard Parish for the Boasso family line.

His father was a union electrician who was disabled on the job while Boasso was still very young. His mother did her best to help out, but Boasso was compelled to start working at the age of seven. He sold newspapers, picked shallots, did yard work and anything else to turn a dime. It proved to be a solid foundation for a young boy who would eventually grow into a wealthy, self-made man. If you catch Boasso in a particularly reminiscent mood, he might tell you what it was like to be an altar boy back in the day when suffering built character. 'I had to walk to mass every morning, and I didn't have a bike," Boasso says. 'Whether it was cold or raining or whatever, it didn't matter. I was at 6 a.m. mass."

The 47-year-old Boasso is sharing his life story with anyone who'll listen, telling complete strangers about his wife " the love of his life for 25 years " and his three children, including which ones like to fish. He entered public life four years ago by running for and winning a state Senate seat representing St. Bernard, Plaquemines and parts of St. Tammany parishes.

After only one term in the state Senate, the self-proclaimed 'doer" is running for governor. He portrays himself as the anti-career politician, saying he will drop out of politics altogether if he does not win the gubernatorial election.

Boasso adds that he will not take a salary as governor if elected; the money will be donated to a cause or charity, he says. Former Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican who enjoyed two terms, struck a similar note by saying he would not take a salary until teacher pay reached the elusive southern average. It's an easy decision for Boasso, a self-made multimillionaire. Foster, too, was worth millions, though he inherited much of his wealth. Boasso recently sold his maritime service company, Boasso America, to Florida-based Quality Distribution for $60 million. 'I really don't need a paycheck," he says.

As for branding, the Suburban-driving Boasso plays up his large size in the Oct. 20 primary " he could easily pass for a former pro football player or an extra on The Sopranos. His television commercials frame him as a 'Big Guy" who can tackle 'Big Issues," in contrast to front-running U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal, a small-framed Republican portrayed in the spots as a life-size cardboard cutout that Boasso carries around with ease. Most recently, Boasso's campaign printed up bumper stickers declaring, 'I'm For the Big Guy." It's a theme you can expect to hear a lot more of in coming weeks. 'Everybody calls me the "Big Guy,' so it seems like a natural thing to do," Boasso says.

Boasso's entire life has been defined by bold moves, from business to politics, and it's evident in his personal life as well. An outdoorsman, Boasso built a mammoth ranch/compound/zoo on a site in southwestern Mississippi, 85 miles north of his native Arabi. There, he keeps 14 species of animals " from zebras to wildebeests to Pere David's deer (from China). A full-time staff cares for the animals, and Boasso says the operation requires 2 tons of protein a day. He refers to himself as a 'father" when talking about the baby animals born on the ranch. He also cruises a 65-acre pond stocked with bass and bream.

These days, however, Boasso is more concerned with capturing a spot in the runoff against Jindal, where the contrasts between the working class guy and the Rhodes Scholar could become stark. Meanwhile, he has to contend with Foster Campbell and John Georges. In that regard, Boasso has shown he is more than willing to hustle and shake to become Louisiana's next governor.

On this particular Monday, Boasso is holding court in the Baton Rouge offices of Ourso Beychok Johnson, a high-powered consulting firm that works exclusively for Democrats. They're new friends, but intense campaigning " and a few million dollars in campaign spending, no doubt " has drawn them closer. Until April, Boasso was a chest-thumping Republican.

In the state Senate, he allied himself with conservative icons like the late John Hainkel of New Orleans and now-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne. In his early bid for governor, however, Boasso couldn't get the state GOP to stop obsessing over Jindal. Feeling frustrated and jilted, he jumped ship. In the process, he lost campaign manager Brian Lanza and press secretary James Hartman, who resigned after Boasso switched parties. The switch also drew expected criticism from conservatives who labeled Boasso as a flip-flopper and opportunist. 'The people of Louisiana deserve better than another politician saying one thing and doing another," said Roger Villere, chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party and a big Jindal promoter.

The move cut Boasso off from the GOP core, but it also gave him a new sense of independence. He now says he should have made the switch sooner. He notes this soberly, then closes his Styrofoam container of red beans. He leans his chair back and swings two legs like oak limbs atop a nearby buffet table. 'Hindsight is 20-20," he says. 'I made that decision on my own. Did you know that I didn't even meet the executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party [Chris Whittington] until two weeks after I made the announcement? I did this for me and no one else."

The decision put Boasso on eye level with Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell of Bossier Parish, with the Democratic party core asking one question: 'Who is the real Democrat?" The Louisiana Association of Educators symbolically split their endorsement between the two, while the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, linked to the AFL-CIO, backed Campbell, forecasting union support as well, for whatever that's worth these days.

'I don't think there's any question who the real Democrat is," Campbell says of Boasso's switch. 'I have 32 years of helping people as a Democrat, and I have never thought about switching parties. I'm one of the strongest white Democrats you'll find in Louisiana," he said at a fundraiser earlier this summer.

State Rep. Juan A. LaFonta, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and a Democrat from New Orleans, says he hasn't seen Boasso or Campbell emerge yet as a frontrunner in African-American strongholds. Boasso isn't ignoring the party's traditional base among blacks. He has met regularly with black mayors around Louisiana and expects a series of endorsements as a result of those encounters. Earlier this year, Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden introduced Boasso for his announcement speech, the two having become friends in the Senate.

Boasso has an extremely conservative voting record in the Senate, so a side-by-side showdown on traditional Democratic issues doesn't benefit him. However, Boasso has blasted President Bush and his increasingly unpopular Iraq war in campaign commercials, likely earning him some points among Democrats. Boasso's main strategy has focused on contrasting his candidacy with Jindal's, hoping that voters will put them both in the Nov. 17 runoff. Oddly enough, both men are currently reading the same book " The Purpose-driven Life " but it's doubtful that reading the same faith-based book will prevent either candidate from pulling punches during the campaign.

The cardboard cutouts that Boasso uses to lampoon Jindal in his television commercials are spread out among different offices at Ourso Beychok Johnson. There are at least two " one has a set of broken fingers and the other seems pristine. (A Gambit Weekly photographer tried to land some playful poses with the prop, but was shot down by Welsh's Jindal-sharing rule: 'If I let you use it, I have to let every other photographer use it.") Jindal has shot back by depicting Boasso and Campbell in one of his commercials as a band of smoking, dancing, laughing clowns. 'These guys are no different from the old clowns," a voice says in the spot, 'the ones who let corruption take over."

The state Democratic Party, in turn, seems a bit gun shy after launching an attack on Jindal's religious beliefs that triggered widespread criticism. When asked if any other spots are going up anytime soon, party officials balked. They'll take advantage of free media opportunities, pointing out discrepancies in Jindal's armor through press releases and the like, but that's it for now. 'We don't have anything planned for the immediate future," says Julie Vezinot, party spokesperson.

That leaves the two leading Democrats to do the heavy lifting, and Boasso brings by far the most money to that task. He spent $1.6 million during the second quarter of this year alone, most of it on advertising. His media strategy has been to stay on the air continuously, mixing issue spots with attacks as needed. 'We'll do whatever it takes," Boasso says.

On substantive issues, there's no doubt that Boasso can lead. He proved that in the dire days following Hurricane Katrina. After losing his home and one of his local offices to the storm surge, Boasso shuttled back and forth between the emergency operations center in Baton Rouge and the makeshift hub that had been created by locals in Chalmette for search and rescue operations. Each day brought Boasso to Baton Rouge at some point, often wearing the same blue fishing shirt, and sweating and screaming mad. Communications were literally under water, and Boasso was delivering the first news of just how bad things were in St. Bernard Parish " not just in New Orleans.

He developed a lifeline of communications, food, ammunition, water, medicine, clothes and other badly needed supplies to his constituents. He would fill trucks, put them westbound on I-10, then load them on a ferry at Algiers Point, then take them by bass boat or other means into Chalmette " and finally deliver them by hand to Camp Katrina, a massive warehouse on the Mississippi River where thousands of people sought refuge " and where dead storm victims were stored. On the ground, Boasso and a state trooper even hot-wired a school bus to move evacuees. ABC's Nightline Report as well as other news outlets dubbed Boasso a 'hero" in the wake of the storm.

Boasso's policy introduction to voters, made via television ads, has been homeowners' insurance reform. The issue is a sleeping giant in Louisiana after the 2005 storm season, which sent underwriters packing and rates skyrocketing. Boasso's plan focuses on leveling the playing field between the homeowner and the insurance industry. Its two key provisions are (1) requiring insurance companies who sell auto policies to offer homeowner policies as well and (2) imposing tougher penalties for insurers who delay or deny claims in bad faith.

'For years now, we have been bending over backwards for the insurance industry," Boasso says. 'And all that has gotten us is higher premiums, fewer policies being written and an outright abuse of the homeowner when it comes to filing claims."

Boasso tried taking this fight to the people last year when he formed a nonprofit called 'Get It Done," which was intended to be citizen-driven. He commissioned what had to be a costly campaign, with a multi-faceted Web site, radio spots and other outreach efforts. Get It Done has been dormant for months, having produced no tangible results. Opponents claim it was an early vehicle for Boasso's gubernatorial ambitions, but Boasso denies that. 'I didn't even know at the time I was going to run for governor. Everything you do people will say is politically motivated. I got into politics with a mission," Boasso says, adding Get It Done has been 'put to rest."

While still in the state Senate (he officially relinquishes his seat at the end of the year), Boasso cultivated a reputation for taking on controversial issues that no one wanted to touch. He fought hard and got mixed results.

When Boasso tried to install reforms in the teachers' retirement system, opponents surprised him by distributing a misleading flier late in the campaign; he shelved his legislation. He tried to bring equity to the riverboat pilot system but was shoved aside by special interests that opted for subtler but nonetheless noteworthy changes. After Katrina, he pushed a bill to consolidate the levee districts in southeast Louisiana, long tagged by cronyism, but that effort was watered down as parochial politics chipped away at the proposal and led to the creation of two boards.

'I've learned a great deal from the process over the past few years, and I know that it's going to take uniting the Legislature to get anything done," Boasso says.

As a senator, Boasso voted with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) 86 percent of the time on LABI-backed bills. There's a theme in that statistic, as Boasso has certainly earned more credibility as a businessman than he has as a politician " not unlike another 'businessman" candidate for governor, John Georges of New Orleans, who is running as an Independent after leaving the Republican Party. In 2002 alone, Boasso was given the C. Alvin Bertel Award for his outstanding maritime industry work, recognized by the Small Business Administration as 'Louisiana's Young Entrepreneur of the Year" and selected as the 'Ernst & Young, LLP, Entrepreneur of the Year." Hefty titles, indeed, but it all started from humble beginnings.

At the age of 14, Boasso landed his first steady gig as a janitor at a grocery store, which was followed by a number of other odd jobs: shucking oysters by day and loading trailers at night, bank teller positions, payroll clerk and so on. Boasso's family was getting by on food stamps at the time, and work was as constant as school. His first real 'money-paying job" was at Louisiana's very first Popeye's Fried Chicken store. 'Man, I did everything there," he recalls. 'I seasoned the chicken, took the orders and cleaned the floor."

Boasso's TV commercial, the one that introduced him to voters earlier this year, tells the rest of the story: 'I graduated college (University of New Orleans) and with a box of Tide and a garden hose I started my business cleaning shipping containers. Big challenges? Sure! But I'm proud today that my business employs over 500 people. Now I'm running for governor to fight for the little guy " because for too long the rich and powerful have gotten their way in Louisiana."

Of course, Boasso isn't exactly on food stamps anymore. When asked what his net worth is, he turns coy. Is it in the tens of millions? 'Let's just say I've been blessed," he responds.

The company he refers to in his ad, Boasso America, provided one of the few sources of attacks against Boasso by the Louisiana Republican Party. Because Boasso sold the company to a Florida concern, the GOP argues that jobs and business opportunities could go out of state. The GOP also tried its hand at guilt-by-association, sending out press releases claiming the Florida company 'failed to renew certain insurance policies, but continued to collect premiums" in 2004, according to news reports. The Jindal campaign also notes that Boasso, in the latest legislative session, voted for a bill raising the minimum liability coverage requirement for auto insurance policies " from $10,000 to $25,000. The Jindal camp " citing Gov. Kathleen Blanco as a source, ironically " says the bill would have raised auto insurance costs for many drivers. The measure was not sold to lawmakers that way, of course. The bill's main selling point was that innocent persons injured by drivers with minimal policies would be able to recover more than the current $10,000 for potentially serious injuries. Blanco vetoed the legislation.

Boasso contends that the next governor will have to make tough decisions " so tough that he should kiss off re-election. Supporters say that his ability to eat his campaign debt and forsake fundraising makes him the real deal. 'I'm not getting elected to get re-elected," he says. 'In my heart, I know I'll be doing the right thing, and there will be unhappy people at the end of it all."

If elected, Jindal says the first thing he'll do is call a special session on ethics reform. Campbell will push a controversial processing tax on oil in exchange for eliminating income taxes. Boasso is reaching back deep and proposing an overhaul of the Louisiana Constitution. The pitch is somewhat conceptual at this time, but Boasso has been presenting the idea to voters across the state. There's always a question-and-answer period after his speeches, and Boasso prides himself on taking all comers, even hecklers, whom he has challenged more than once to make their own bids for governor.

A Shreveport publication dubbed his style 'Boasso Unplugged." The tough talk is catching on. 'If I'm going to be governor, I should be able to take anything you throw at me," he says, making a subtle dig at Jindal's notable absence from forums and debates.

Noting that government has grown since Katrina, Boasso says he wants to scale it back. He tends to speak in general terms, without specifics, but he says a series of plans encompassing everything from economic development and senior citizens' needs to education and hurricane recovery will come soon.

Boasso doesn't seem nervous about having millions of his own dollars invested in the campaign. He takes encouragement from his second-place position in most polls, despite trailing Jindal by a wide margin in most surveys. Using a metaphor that hits home in south Louisiana, he compares himself to a speckled trout fisherman who is casting into the wind. A singular defeat might be his fate, but Boasso is running his race his way " in a big way " and there's nearly a month of campaigning left.

'If I lose, I'll have more time to go fishing with my son," he says. 'What's so bad about that?"

This story originally appeared in The Independent Weekly in Lafayette. Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

click to enlarge Walter Boasso contends that the next governor will have to make tough decisions  so tough that he should kiss off re-election. Supporters say that his ability to eat his campaign debt and forsake fundraising makes him the real deal. - TERRI FENSEL
  • Terri Fensel
  • Walter Boasso contends that the next governor will have to make tough decisions so tough that he should kiss off re-election. Supporters say that his ability to eat his campaign debt and forsake fundraising makes him the real deal.
click to enlarge Boasso plays up his large size in the Oct. 20 primary. His television commercials frame his as a "Big Guy' who can tackle "Big Issues,' and he recently printed up bumper stickers that read: "I'm For The Big Guy.' - TERRI FENSEL
  • Terri Fensel
  • Boasso plays up his large size in the Oct. 20 primary. His television commercials frame his as a "Big Guy' who can tackle "Big Issues,' and he recently printed up bumper stickers that read: "I'm For The Big Guy.'
click to enlarge A self-made multimillionaire, Boasso says he won't take a salary as governor. He'll donate the money he would be paid to a cause or a charity. He also says if he doesn't win the gubernatorial race, he will drop out of politics. - TERRI FENSEL
  • Terri Fensel
  • A self-made multimillionaire, Boasso says he won't take a salary as governor. He'll donate the money he would be paid to a cause or a charity. He also says if he doesn't win the gubernatorial race, he will drop out of politics.
click to enlarge "I'm running for governor to fight for the little guy  because for too long the rich and powerful have gotten their way in Louisiana."  Walter Boasso in a TV ad that introduced him to voters earlier this year - TERRI FENSEL
  • Terri Fensel
  • "I'm running for governor to fight for the little guy because for too long the rich and powerful have gotten their way in Louisiana." Walter Boasso in a TV ad that introduced him to voters earlier this year
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