It’s not about building relationships. Merely knowing people doesn’t cut it.
It’s about building friendships.
If anyone should know what it takes to be an effective public servant, it would be John Alario Jr. His 45 years in elected office include nine terms as State Representative (District 83) and, once term limits were instituted, three terms as State Senator (District 8). They also include two terms serving as Speaker of the House (1984-1988 and 1992- 1996), as well as two consecutive terms as Senate President (2012–present). Only four others in public service in the nation have held the top leadership roles in both their states’ House and Senate chambers. He has also earned the distinction as the only Louisiana Legislator to serve twice as Speaker and twice as President.
Needless to say, his political credentials are off the charts impressive.
So, how does the son of a commercial fisherman from Westwego climb to such political heights?
He’ll tell you it’s due to Southeastern Louisiana University.
Recruiters from Southeastern traveled to West Jefferson High School in 1961 and brought with them several current students who were West Jeff alumni. They made an impression with a young John Alario who said he had always heard great things about Southeastern. Knowing other West Jeff students who were “good guys” who went there sealed the deal for him.
Well, that and the fact that the school was far enough away yet still close enough to make it home on weekends to visit “my girl (his future wife Ree).”
“I learned solid academics and how to make real friendships,” he said. “Unlike kindergarten, when your mom drops you off and the only expectation is for you to get along with everyone else, this was my opportunity to meet people and make friendships based on trust, respect and appreciation of each others’ viewpoints.
“Those friendships made at Southeastern taught me that people always have more in common than they don’t,” he added. “Over time I learned from them that all people cry when their children hurt. They weep when their parents pass. And they all want things to be better for their own children when they grow up.”
Alario has been described as someone who wins votes by winning friends—an excellent listener with an exceptionally calm demeanor even in the face of some of Louisiana’s most “passionate and colorful” elected officials.
“There are always two sides to every issue—sometimes three sides. I listen to all the sides so we can find a way to mold them together,” he said. “Everybody’s got to be willing to give a little for democracy to work. That’s part of the problem with what we’re seeing today. People are digging in and unwilling to give anything.”
He added that you’ve got to know the rules and work within the rules. Now, make no mistake: that doesn’t mean he’s a political pushover by any means. In fact, the phrase “timing is everything” lends itself very well to a vote back in 1992. Alario had caught wind of a planned attempt to pull one over on the supporters of legalizing a land-based casino in New Orleans. The plan was for opponents to provide false assurance of its passage. Those against the measure would indicate votes in favor on their voting machines, but planned to switch their votes in the final seconds of voting. This would likely lead some legislators who were in favor—but would rather not have to take the vote on record — think it was destined to pass even without their votes. They wouldn’t vote because they thought their votes weren’t needed, and when the opponents switched their votes against it, it would fail. With no specific amount of time for voting prescribed in the House Rules of Order, Alario simply sped up his delivery of the call for votes—after having privately notified the staff that his calls for votes may be more rapid than usual that day. The voting closed before those planning to switch had a chance to do so, and the measure passed.
He was criticized for his swift delivery, but it was well within the rules of legislative engagement.
Of course, anyone in the political spotlight for such a lengthy duration will receive his or her fair share of disparagement from time to time. However, his colleagues will tell you he eventually wins over even his sharpest critics with his self-effacing style, his desire to find middle ground and often even his culinary acumen.
“If someone votes against something I support, I want to understand their reasons,” he said. “I’ve found that inviting them over to the Barracks for dinner at the President’s Apartment and enjoying an adult beverage or two with them helps us open up the conversation and better understand each others’ sides.”
What’s for dinner? Crawfish etouffee and chicken stew with lima beans are two of his specialties.
Whether over a seafood supper or in the hallways and meeting rooms of the Capitol, Alario practices his belief that one must first listen in order to learn. In fact, in the early 1990s, he was in the position to help facilitate greater opportunity for legislators to hear from the people of Louisiana. So that the public would be able to provide input and better engage with the state’s legislative process, he directed the construction of additional committee meeting rooms at the State Capitol. The House of Representatives applauded him for his foresight by unanimously passing a resolution naming the addition “Alario Hall.”
His penchant for paying attention to all parties involved has earned him a reputation as someone who will give you his word, and, most importantly, keep it. Trust is an invaluable commodity. It’s something he picked up from his Uncle Antoine who was an ice boat runner “back in the day.”
“The fishing crews would stay out for weeks at a time. My uncle would run ice out to the boats and pick up their catches to bring back to the dock and hold for them until they came back in,” he said. “Never once was he accused of shorting anyone even one shrimp. That level of trust would be hard to come by in today’s business world.”
Antoine Alario later served thirty-two years as a Westwego City Council member. His nephew jokingly refers to him as one of the three “rock star politicians” he’s had the opportunity to know over the years—the other two being Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards and President Bill Clinton.
“When we’d walk into a room, people would rush up to actually touch them,” he said. “It was crazy.”
He’s worked alongside no shortage of differing personalities, including seven governors who hail from various points all over the political spectrum. Those are Gov. Edwards, Gov. Dave Treen, Gov. Buddy Roemer, Gov. Mike Foster, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Gov. John Bel Edwards.
That’s a highly remarkable list of co-workers and it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of men and women he is honored to have called colleagues over the past four decades of service. Take—for example—the person who held the title of the youngest legislator in the House of Representatives when Alario was elected at the ripe old age of 28. It wasn’t him. He was the second youngest.
“I honestly can’t remember who was the youngest,” he said. “It must have been either Woody Jenkins or Richard Baker.”
Which one, of course, matters not, but it’s proof positive that Alario is more often than not, in really good company.
The best company came when he was invited to greet Pope John Paul II at the airport in 1987. “Speaking directly with him was by far the highlight of my 45 years of public service,” he said.
His strong Catholic faith keeps him centered, he said. And he remains grateful for the faith his constituents have placed in him for so many years.
“It may not always appear that a certain vote on its face value is in the best interest of those back home, but they trust me that there’s a bigger picture or a piece of the puzzle that has to be placed,” he said. “And, of course, I have made my share of mistakes, too. And they have forgiven me for those. I am forever thankful for all their support.”
It’s a reciprocal relationship. Alario has enjoyed their support and his constituents have enjoyed the fruits of having the most senior member of the Legislature hail from their hometown. Over the years his districts have been speckled with construction and projects that add up to more than $1 billion.
With more than 435,000 residents now living and working in Jefferson Parish, it looks quite a bit different than it did when there was no environmental regulation and the Robinson Can Company, known for its canned shrimp product, would dump its remnant seafood hulls directly in the bayou adjacent to its property. It stunk. It really, really stunk, he said.
That stink is what motivated Alario to first run for public office. But first, he had to navigate newly drawn districts that resulted from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965. In 1972 Louisiana replaced at-large seats with single-member Legislative seats. Previously Jefferson Parish had elected six at-large members of the House of Representatives. Drawing geographic district boundaries insured that for the first time ever some members would have to come from the West Bank. Initially Westwego was split in two different districts, but a court declared that the political districts be re-drawn in order that Westwego could remain whole. Once his hometown was contained within a single district, Alario threw his hat in the ring. He promised voters that he would find a way to stop the stink that was keeping additional economic development at bay.
He won and he kept his word. He was able to secure state funding for a pipeline that ran from the seafood processing plant to the Mississippi River. The company got to continue canning shrimp, the discharge was now flowing into the Gulf where it became food in the ecosystem, and, most importantly, the stink was gone and economic development commenced. It was a win for everyone. And, it was the first of many to come.
DECADES OF CHANGE
He associates sports with the votes he is most proud to have cast—those repealing Jim Crow laws in Louisiana. He remembers his first encounter with segregation when he went to play ball on the East Bank one time.
“In the neighborhood, we played sports outside all day, and would cup our hands to drink from a faucet when we got thirsty,” he said. “But we went to play once on the East Bank, and I clearly remember there being two drinking fountains. One was labeled ‘White’ and the other ‘Colored.’”
The ‘White’ fountain wasn’t working correctly so he and his friends drank from the ‘Colored’ fountain.
“It was wonderfully clear and pure water,” he said. It resonated with him that the water from both fountains was the same, and two separate fountains seemed silly.
Other transformations he’s witnessed entail technology and specifically its impact on media coverage of legislative action. Thanks to live streaming, video conferencing and even archived video recordings of committee meetings and legislative action in both chambers, journalists no longer must be physically present in order to report on the news of the day. However, he feels they should be present in order to more accurately and effectively do so.
“The cameras face toward us [the legislators] most of the time. People who aren’t there in person don’t get to see the body language or reactions of people in the audience or even of other legislators who aren’t in the frame all the time,” he said. “There is a lot lost. It can lead to things being reported without proper context.”
He added that there are still some who hold true to the higher journalistic standards and even some who still know how to properly use “those small reporter flip notepads.”
There is fear that legislative decorum has lost a bit of its luster. The waning minutes of the First Legislative Special Session of 2016 stand out as one of the most telling of such statesmanship decline. Described as chaotic and embarrassing, the final minutes saw reams of documents and legislators flying back and forth from the Senate and House with legislation in order to meet the deadline for sine die—the closure of a legislative session as set by the Louisiana Constitution.
“We [the Senate] received seven or eight Conference Committee reports in the final seconds. If we wanted the funding to plug the budget hole, we had to vote without even reading the reports,” he said. “That’s not the way for a state to do business. It upset me greatly.”
He added that he feels members of the Legislature learned a great lesson that day, and that they have collectively moved forward in a manner more befitting an elected body of the Great State of Louisiana.
“Of course, nothing’s perfect,” he quipped. “Democracy is supposed to operate within rules. The problem is there is no 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct in the Legislature.”
At 73 years old, Alario has spent more than half his lifetime as a team leader in the Legislature. He’s also been busy on the homefront. He and “his girl,” who was the motivation for weekend trips home from Southeastern, married and had four children. He became a widower in 2006 when his wife of 40 years, Ree, passed away after battling cancer. At present he is the proud grandfather of three boys and three girls—“a grandkid six-pack”—who range in age from nine-months-old to 18-year-old Allison, who is a freshman at Southeastern this fall majoring in kinesiology.
What advice would he give her and her fellow classmates?
“The world doesn’t owe you a whole lot. You can only earn respect through service,” he said. “Make sure you take some courses that give you a broad education so you can see the big picture. History is very important, so we can try to learn from the past, too.”
If you hope to one day run for office, he advises students to get involved in the local community so they can learn its various needs. “Volunteer at a Chamber [of Commerce] to learn about the business community’s needs. Be a volunteer fireman to find out about emergency response needs. Donate your time at a nursing home to find out what senior citizens need,” he added. “Oh, and don’t forget to study!”
Wise words from a true Lion of the Legislature.
Due to term limits that he helped pass, however, he is currently serving his final term as a State Senator.
“At this point I’m more concerned about the BIG term limit than any political term limit,” he said with a grin. “I had seven by-passes 18 years ago when I had a heart attack. The doctor tells me those usually last about 10 years. As best I can tell, I’m about eight years past my warranty right now.”
So what’s next?
He says he’s leaving his options open.
“Three years is a LONG TIME when it comes to politics,” he said.
He could run for the House of Representatives again in 2020. He could retire and relax. He could also retire and go back to school.
Really? Back to school?
“Yes, I need to see if any of my old credits would still apply toward another degree,” he said with a smile. “I may very well go to Southeastern again and make more friends.”
At Southeastern’s Fall Commencement in December, 2016, Senator Alario was presented with the Southeastern Louisiana University Lifetime Achievement Award.
By Erin Moore Cowser. Originally published fall 2016 in the Southeastern Magazine.
Download the full article here.