James E. Fitzmorris, Jr. is getting ready to celebrate his 90th birthday and the remarkable life that he has led.
He’s a former New Orleans city councilman and was a superb Lieutenant Governor for Louisiana. He ran for mayor twice, losing narrowly both times. He also ran for governor, just missing the runoff that was won by his friend, the late Dave Treen. For the last 32 years, Fitzmorris has been one of Louisiana’s best lobbyists. Even today, he is still at his desk at 8:15 a.m. and if you have a bill that you’d like to see passed in Baton Rouge, it’s a good idea to pay Fitzmorris a visit.
Fitzmorris thinks it’s fascinating that for 27 of the last 43 years, either a Landrieu or a Morial has sat in the mayor’s chair in New Orleans. He believes that each of them has done a good job for the city. Fitzmorris is a big fan of the current mayor who he remembers in diapers, then as a star performer with a great singing voice in New Orleans Recreation Department productions, then as a Lieutenant Governor before being elected overwhelmingly to the Mayor’s chair.
“If you look at the history of the Morial and Landrieu families, you’ll see that they are both grass-roots, salt-of-the-earth New Orleans families that started out striving for the middle class, hardly imagining as their children grew up that Dutch and Moon would turn out to be great New Orleans mayors,” says Fitzmorris. “Or that each of those two would produce a son who would be a strong, effective mayor with a vision for the growth and development of the city.”
Looking back on his own experiences in politics that began with his election as a city councilman in 1953, Fitzmorris, a 1939 graduate of Jesuit High School, deeply regrets today that few New Orleanians have any recollection of Chep Morrison, a World War II hero who was elected as a reform mayor of New Orleans in 1946. One of Fitzmorris’ great memories of reform politics was the day in 1946 when hundreds of New Orleans housewives marched on Canal Street carrying brooms. The context of the brooms was that they were ready to sweep out of office then-Mayor Robert Maestri who represented the last vestiges of the old Huey P. Long machine that seemed like a political dinosaur to the generation of New Orleanians who came back home from World War II. And, sweep Maestri out of office is just what they did.
It was Morrison, who served four terms as mayor and ran unsuccessfully three times for governor, that saw their promise and picked out both Landrieu and Fitzmorris as young comers with great potential. Later, when Dutch Morial came along as the head of the local NAACP, he met on several occasions secretly with Morrison at the Dooky Chase restaurant to talk about getting playgrounds and swimming pools for the African-American community. In those days when segregation ruled New Orleans, the mayor couldn’t meet publicly with African-Americans without stirring up a frenzied reaction from segregationists.
Today, Fitzmorris feels, only a few of his generation remember those days gone by that helped provide the foundation for 21st-century New Orleans. But, more importantly, he says, what is as vivid today as it was 50 or 75 years ago is the unique and passionate love that New Orleanians have for their city.
Many years ago, Fitzmorris had an outside-of-politics job with the Kansas City Southern Railroad. One day, the CEO of the railroad invited Fitzmorris up to Kansas City to tell him that he would be the next president of the railroad. The only problem was that he would have to move to Kansas City. No way, said Fitzmorris. I’m not leaving New Orleans.
That same spirit manifested itself after Hurricane Katrina when thousands of New Orleanians who had lost their homes to the storm decided to stay and rebuild. Fitzmorris was part, not surprisingly, of that number. He lost his house in Lakeview and rebuilt it.
Today, beyond his business and sharing memories with old friends, Fitzmorris dotes on his two beautiful granddaughters and swells with pride when he thinks of how New Orleans and the metro area has rebounded from Katrina, a storm that many thought would kill the city and the region.
“God knows that we are a hard-headed, stubborn people who just don’t know what it means to quit,” he says. “There was a time when many New Orleanians regretted that we were not more like Houston or Dallas or Atlanta. But I think today we have a much greater appreciation for the city and for ourselves and the region that we are. I think we’re really proud to be who we are and I think that’s a very good thing.”
Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City Councilwoman Stacy Head, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and council candidate Dana Kaplan.