Washington — For the thousands of people attending the Washington Mardi Gras celebration this week, Tyron Picard has three words of advice: “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.”
What with three days and nights of eating and drinking and partying, there are ample opportunities for excessive indulgence in adult beverages. Fortunately, Picard said, most of the members of Congress, Louisiana politicians and businesspeople who crowd the Washington Hilton Hotel for the festivities know how to pace themselves.
“It’s very rare that we see folks who have been over-served,” he said Wednesday.
Picard is a lieutenant, or executive officer, of the Mystick Krewe of Louisianians, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the Mardi Gras-flavored celebration in the nation’s capital each year. This year’s event is the 67th, with the theme of “Land of Coastal Riches.”
The celebration kicks off Thursday night with Louisiana Alive, featuring music by Louisiana bands and food flown in from Louisiana and prepared on-site by Louisiana restaurant chefs.
On Friday, local chambers of commerce from across the state host an economic development lunch that’s not part of the official program, with former Utah governor, ambassador to China and Republican presidential candidate John Huntsman as the keynote speaker. That night is the captain’s dinner-dance, a black-tie affair adorned by queens and princesses from various Louisiana festivals.
The long weekend culminates in the Saturday night ball, presided over by the year’s king and queen and including a tableau and an indoor Carnival parade with 400 costumed krewe members tossing throws from floats to the guests.
Beyond that, there are breakfasts and lunches hosted by various business groups and government agencies — and after-parties in the hotel that last into the wee hours.
“I advise my guests that you have to treat it like a marathon and not a sprint,” Picard said.
Although the krewe functions as the official sponsor, the members of the Louisiana congressional delegation play integral roles in the event. The delegation supplies the yearly chairman: for 2015, it’s Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, of Lafayette, who filled that position in 2010. The chairman chooses the theme and the king and queen: Boustany this year picked oil and gas executive Charles Goodson and University of Notre Dame sophomore Amelia Grace Zepernick, both of Lafayette; Goodson and Zepernick’s mother are consistent donors to Boustany’s campaigns.
For decades, a U.S. senator from Louisiana has served as krewe captain: Republican David Vitter currently, former Sen. Mary Landrieu before him, and before her, former Sen. John Breaux, who took over from the late Sen. Russell Long, a major booster of the event.
Breaux, who left office in 2005 and now is a lobbyist in Washington, belongs to the krewe and will go to this year’s ball. “I still dress out and I have my regalia and I walk around the floor and try to keep order in a totally chaotic situation,” he said.
Breaux has been a regular at Washington Mardi Gras since 1968. He sees it as a business-development tool.
“It’s a way to promote the state in a setting that is one that allows for relaxed conversation, to say the least,” he said. “It works very well. It gives us an opportunity to showcase the members of Congress that are going to be working with these companies if they ever locate in Louisiana.
“Everybody agrees that Louisiana is a unique state, different from all the other 49 states, and the Mardi Gras ball is just one example of what we can do that no other state does. Other states have a little get-together or a cocktail reception. We do it for three days and three nights.
“It’s more fun than you can calculate.”
Picard, a lawyer, business consultant and lobbyist in Lafayette and Washington, is one of five lieutenants who run the krewe. All are either lawyers or lobbyists or both, among them the former chiefs of staff for Long and Breaux. That professional concentration is something of an anomaly, he said: Recent krewe lieutenants have included a real-estate developer from New Orleans, a caterer from Lafayette and a restaurant owner from New Orleans.
Picard, the son of former state legislator and state education superintendent Cecil Picard, attended his first Washington Mardi Gras in 1985 as an LSU sophomore and guest of Breaux, who was then a congressman.
“I was immediately smitten with it,” he said, adding he was “struck by the fact that we had 2,500 business and political people up in Washington on a good-will mission.” The krewe takes in money from membership dues — Boustany’s campaign finance report for 2013-14 reports expenditures of $780 in each year for krewe dues — as well as corporate contributions and event ticket sales.
The tickets, which go for $200 apiece to each of the Friday and Saturday events, are allocated to krewe members, members of Congress and parents of the festival queens and princesses for distribution across the state. Many are sold in blocs to chambers of commerce who invite businesspeople, Picard said.
The captain’s dinner sold out this year before Christmas, and the masked ball by the end of the first week in January, Picard said. Typical guests include business executives, hospital administrators, levee board members and port commissioners.
“Many people come who have zero interest in state or federal political circles but because of all the CEOs and business leaders who come to the ball, they’re attracted to be able to network with those individuals,” he said.
Washington Mardi Gras has passed muster with congressional ethics enforcers, in part because it draws such a big crowd.
Members of Congress and of their staffs are allowed to accept two complimentary tickets each to each of the three nighttime events, according to a letter to Boustany from the House Ethics Committee.
The members also can attend the various parties and receptions, provided they receive only snacks and refreshments, and not full meals.
The letter says party sponsors may hand out free Mardi Gras trinkets — “including, but not limited to, plastic bead necklaces.”
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