NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Former Louisiana Senate president Sammy Nunez, a champion of various causes and an ally of Edwin Edwards who served in the Legislature from 1964 until he was swept out of office in an anti-incumbent wave three decades later, has died. He was 81.
His wife, Cynthia Nunez, said Nunez had Parkinson’s disease and was hospitalized more than a month ago with pneumonia. He died Sunday of complications, she said.
“Sammy Nunez was well-liked and respected even by those on the opposite side of a political issue,” U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said in a statement Sunday night. “He was easygoing, yet a very able and effective legislative leader who served the people of St. Bernard and our entire state with great distinction for more than three decades.”
Cynthia Nunez said former president Bill Clinton called during her husband’s final weeks to speak with him and praised him as “the most devoted true gentlemen as a public servant that I have ever known in my entire life.”
His accomplishments went beyond state lines, she said, and the National Conference of State Legislatures that he once headed. His wife said Nunez was appointed to a U.S. government delegation to help East Berlin set up a new government after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. After the Soviet Union broke up two years later, he went to Russia as part of a delegation to explain how to deal with the oil industry on an international basis.
A Chalmette Democrat, Nunez served in the state House from 1964 until 1969, when he was elected to the Louisiana Senate. He became its president in 1982, after the federal conviction of Michael O’Keefe. He lost the position in 1988, when then-Gov. Buddy Roemer insisted on his ouster, but won it back two years later with the help of Senate friends with ties to Edwards, the former four-term governor who was released from prison last year after serving eight years for a racketeering conviction.
“Sammy was a real leader,” said Senate President John Alario, who was House speaker when Nunez was Senate president.
“I remember him championing lots of causes for commercial fishermen” when such advocacy was unpopular, Alario said. “He stayed true to his roots.”
Nunez’ tenure was not without controversy. He was roundly criticized in spring 1994 - a session when the Legislature passed tax breaks for the New Orleans Fair Grounds race track - for handing out campaign contributions from racehorse owner and gambling entrepreneur Louis Roussel III on the Senate floor.
Nunez said he was given the envelopes by a lobbyist whose name was on them. “I knew they were contributions but I didn’t know who they were from,” he said.
Amid public dissatisfaction with Edwards and his allies, Nunez lost a 1995 runoff to St. Bernard Parish President Lynn Dean.
Nunez’ legacy includes work to set up Louisiana’s state Revenue Estimating Conference, to limit the state’s bond debt, and to modernize and streamline Senate operations, Alario said,
Personally, he said, Nunez was “just fun to be around. He was a real sportsman - loved fishing and hunting. A man amongst men.”
Until a few years ago, he was board president for the Port of New Orleans. He also worked for the Port of St. Bernard, which named its new building for him about six months ago.
At that ceremony, Cynthia Nunez said, he talked about the legislative wrangling over the port.
“He was on stage for an hour,” she recalled. “He kept everybody entertained.”
Visitation for Nunez will be at St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday CST. A Mass will be said at 1:30 p.m., with Archbishop Gregory Aymond officiating. Edwards will deliver the eulogy, with burial to follow at St. Bernard Memorial Gardens.