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Top 10 Political Stories of 2002 

Wow! What a year this was -- Edwin Edwards in jail, a businessman in the mayor's office, a Jefferson Parish judge under federal indictment, David Duke about to go to jail ... and that's not even half of it.

Our annual list of the Top 10 Political Stories includes lots of surprises and more than our share of disappointments. Then again, this wouldn't be Louisiana if that weren't the case.

1. Nagin Elected Mayor. This time last year, he was at 3 percent in the polls, pouring his own money into his fledgling campaign, and virtually nobody gave him a shot. But former Cox Cable GM Ray Nagin proved to be the most telegenic candidate of the bunch -- and the best debater. Nagin's election also proved the veracity of Richard Pryor's old saying -- "You don't get to be old bein' a fool" -- as veteran handlers Jim Carvin and Joe Walker flawlessly guided Nagin across the treacherous shoals of New Orleans politics. Above all, Nagin accomplished his threshold goal of changing the local political paradigm: he boxed out the organizations and put together a bi-racial coalition along economic rather than racial or geographic lines. Eight months into his term, Nagin still spends an inordinate amount of time pulling skeletons out of Marc Morial's closet, but polls show the voters like what they see in the new mayor.

2. EWE, Jim Brown Go to Jail. When I think of the money I could have made betting all those doubters who said the Silver Zipper would never spend a day in jail, it almost makes me weep. Nowadays it's EWE and former Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown who are drying their tears -- behind bars. After a federal appeals court denied both men's pleas for new trials, EWE began serving his 10-year stretch in the federal pen. Brown, meanwhile, became the third consecutive insurance commissioner to be sent to the pokey, but he got the lightest sentence of them all: six months for lying to the FBI.

3. Landrieu Reelected Senator. It's never easy for somebody named Landrieu to win statewide, but Mary made it look even tougher during the primary, when her campaign refused to answer the barrage of vicious attacks from the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. She regrouped in the runoff, however, and the national GOP cowboys once again shot themselves in the foot by not finishing on the high road in the nation's last unsettled Senate race. Despite the White House's spectacular showing on Nov. 5, the Republicans failed to beat Landrieu and lost a sure thing in the Fifth Congressional District in northeast Louisiana. Both races made national headlines and reminded us that all politics are local.

4. Jordan Elected D.A. The former U.S. attorney proved that front-runners can go the distance in New Orleans politics, a game that typically favors strong closers. In winning, Jordan showed a steady hand, a cool head under fire, and an ability to balance politics and prosecution -- important skills for a district attorney. His victory also gave Congressman Bill Jefferson a boost after Jeff got blamed for Richard Pennington's poor showing in the mayor's race.

5. Bodenheimer Busted. The federal indictment against law-and-order Judge Ronnie Bodenheimer (a former prosecutor) shook the Jefferson political establishment to its foundation. FBI surveillance tapes of Bodenheimer and others revealed a seamy, Sopranos-like underside to the Gretna courthouse -- right before judicial elections in the fall. Bodenheimer wisely chose not to run again; other judges survived the election, but the investigation is ongoing.

6. The Stelly Plan. The upset of the year was voter passage of the Stelly Plan, named for Rep. Vic Stelly (R-Lake Charles), who for years tried to convince lawmakers and voters to swap income taxes for state sales taxes. No one gave this proposition a chance, which is probably why it passed. Future governors and legislatures will thank Stelly, but he announced he's quitting politics at the end of the current term. He will leave with something few retiring lawmakers can claim: a legacy.

7. The City Hall Corruption Investigation -- or Not. Ray Nagin's first shining moment may dull as time passes, but his efforts to undo the patronage excesses of the Morial years remain his best work and underscore his props as a reformer. The investigation probably came to light too soon, and it definitely could have benefited from better up-front lawyering. Nonetheless, it gave honest city workers and suspicious voters reasons to cheer. It also took the shine off Morial, even among black voters.

8. Duke Returns. Neo-Nazi David Duke finally came in from the cold, just in time to cop a plea after years of defrauding his right-wing supporters. He would have been nuts not to take the deal the feds offered him: 15 months in exchange for one count of tax evasion and one count of mail fraud. Meanwhile, not a word of his dirty dealings with Gov. Mike Foster.

9. Heebe Sacked, Resurrected as U.S. Attorney Nominee. Gov. Foster wanted Jefferson businessman-lawyer Fred Heebe to be U.S. attorney real bad, so much so that he made it his top priority after George Bush won the presidency. Heebe got the nomination but withdrew in March after claims of drunkenness and abuse from a former wife and a former girlfriend. By year's end, however, Heebe was rumored to be back in the hunt. It will be interesting to see how Sen. Mary Landrieu responds this time -- after Foster and Bush did all they could to unseat her.

10. Odom Indicted. The Ag Commish is alleged to have used his office and his employees for personal gain. So far, however, Odom's lawyer has run rings around the Baton Rouge prosecutors. But, even if Odom prevails at trial, he'll likely face a major challenge for re-election next fall -- if he opts to run.

But that, and other stories, will have to wait 'til next year.

Happy New Year!


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