In any campaign, the stakes can be almost as high for media consultants as the candidates who hire them. Even if they’re largely invisible to the public, the reputation of a political operative is generally made — or lost — on the strength of his or her battle plan.
But Greg Buisson will have an especially big pile of chips on the table when Kenner City Councilman Dominick Impastato, his client, faces off against state Sen. Danny Martiny for a hotly contested Jefferson Parish Council seat next month.
The winner will decide which bloc has the voting majority on a seven-member council that awards millions of dollars a year to contractors. One of those contractors happens to be Buisson.
Media consultants typically confine themselves to developing a plan for their candidate to follow as well as writing and producing the campaign’s print, TV and digital ads. But Buisson has carved out an additional gig for himself, in the form of a contract from the council that allows him to provide the Mardi Gras reviewing stands in Jefferson Parish every year.
He also handles marketing for the Jefferson Convention and Visitors Bureau, including Family Gras, a three-day event on the first weekend of Carnival. The Parish Council provides part of the tourism group’s financing. In addition to those side jobs, Buisson also lobbies the council on behalf of Uber, the ride-hailing service.
While Buisson has worked for six of the seven council members at one time or another, he can count only three as allies at the moment.
In January, two of Buisson’s clients on the council — Ben Zahn and Paul Johnston — voted to award him $120,000 for legal fees to settle a federal lawsuit that Buisson filed against the council and at-large member Chris Roberts. But Roberts and four others voted against the proposed settlement. A federal judge ruled against Buisson in June, saying the consultant couldn’t show any harm at that point, but left open the possibility for him to revive the lawsuit if he could.
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by political consultant Greg Buisson against J…
Buisson also serves as the top political adviser to Mike Yenni, managing the embattled parish president’s efforts to recover from a sexting scandal that has imperiled his re-election chances in 2019.
The lawsuit against the parish, his contracts, his efforts to rehabilitate Yenni and the ubiquity of his campaigns in Jefferson Parish — trying to elect clients to all the key offices — have made Buisson a controversial and powerful political force in the parish, if one little-known to the public.
“I’m at the center of the storm in many cases,” he said. “I get it. I’m in a business where I choose to take sides. If I wanted to be in a business to make everybody happy, I’d open an ice cream parlor. When we get engaged, we work very hard for our client. We give it everything we have.”
He is currently giving it all he has to elect Impastato.
“This is life or death to them,” Martiny said. “If I get on the council, rather than them having four votes to rubber-stamp whatever Buisson wants to do, they’ll have somebody scrutinizing it.”
The outcome of the Impastato-Martiny race has huge implications not only for Buisson but also more broadly for Jefferson Parish, because the winner will provide the crucial fourth vote on the council needed to pass legislation and approve contracts.
The council deadlocked 3-3 on whom to name to replace Zahn when he left to become mayor of Kenner in January, with Roberts, Cynthia Lee-Sheng and Ricky Templet on one side and Johnston, Mark Spears and Jennifer Van Vrancken on the other. The tie threw the decision to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who gave businessman Jack Rizzuto the interim appointment.
The council is also deadlocked 3-3 in the Impastato-Martiny race, with Roberts, Lee-Sheng and Templet supporting Martiny while Johnston, Spears and Van Vrancken are backing Impastato. The winner will replace Rizzuto.
“Some of my colleagues make no bones about it, that it’s about their fourth vote,” Rizzuto said.
Political analysts also see the Impastato-Martiny race as something of a proxy for next year’s high-stakes special election for sheriff. When Newell Normand resigned last month to become a radio talk show host, he named Joe Lopinto as the interim sheriff. Lopinto, a Martiny ally, will run to fill the rest of Normand’s unexpired term. Buisson is believed to be lining up Keith Conley, who is Yenni’s chief operating officer, to challenge Lopinto.
The Jefferson Parish sheriff is arguably the most powerful political official in the New Orleans region.
Buisson said he sees no tie between the Impastato-Martiny race and the sheriff’s race, but he has conducted a poll to determine which candidate he might represent against Lopinto.
Buisson, 58, grew up in Gentilly, graduated from Brother Martin High School and went on to Loyola University. He worked for The Times-Picayune and Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris while getting a degree in political science and communications. He has combined politics and marketing in one form or another since then.
Buisson co-owned a public-relations firm and then spent 15 years at WVUE-TV, rising to serve as the station’s general manager. While there, he pulled off a broadcasting coup by recruiting prized anchorman John Snell away from WWL-TV.
In 1999, Buisson opened his own consulting firm, called Buisson Creative. He said he has handled more than 400 campaigns over the years, including those of more than 60 current elected officials in Louisiana: the sheriffs in St. Bernard, St. John, Washington and Plaquemines parishes; state Reps. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, and Stephanie Hilferty, R-New Orleans; state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville; and state Supreme Court Justice Greg Guidry.
Moreno awarded Buisson’s son a coveted legislative scholarship to study at Tulane for two years tuition-free. Moreno and Buisson said his son applied for the scholarship and won it on his merits because he was a top-rated high school student.
On the Jefferson Parish Council, Buisson has been the chief campaign strategist for Roberts, Templet and Johnston, has handled campaign direct mail for Van Vrancken and has prepared a campaign fundraising appeal for Spears. He handled two failed legislative campaigns for Rizzuto.
Buisson served as the chief strategist for Zahn, the former councilman, in his Kenner mayoral campaign, receiving $44,821 for his work, including a $5,000 victory bonus. (Thanks to Zahn, Buisson produced Freedom Fest earlier this month in Kenner, earning, he said, about $6,000.)
“He’s the coach of the team,” Zahn said. “He brought me to the finish line.”
Buisson also used to help Roberts cross the finish line, guiding Roberts to victories on the School Board and then the Parish Council.
In 2015, Buisson said, he was prepared to work for Roberts again if Roberts ran for parish president. But when Roberts chose to seek re-election to the council and to back Elton Lagasse for the top position, Buisson said he decided to handle the campaign of Yenni, who had been his client when Yenni was elected Kenner’s mayor.
Working for Yenni made Buisson uncomfortable about working for Roberts, he said, since Roberts was deeply involved in Lagasse’s campaign.
Roberts, according to Buisson, began to badmouth him to others. So Buisson said he then felt free to manage the campaign of Louis Congemi, a former Jefferson Parish councilman and Kenner mayor who was challenging Roberts.
It was a bitter campaign. Congemi and Roberts sued each other twice, with much of the vitriol stemming from Congemi’s charge that Roberts didn’t pay his taxes for five years beginning in 2010. Roberts said he delayed filing tax returns for those years because he had appeals pending with the IRS. He noted that he ultimately got refunds in each year. (In a recent interview, Congemi said he chose to attack Roberts on Buisson’s advice but now regrets the decision. “I was never involved in a negative campaign like that,” he said.)
Roberts narrowly won the primary on Oct. 24, 2015. Late that night, according to Buisson, Roberts called him to make vulgar threats and texted him an ominous message: “We’re coming. Lawyer up, baldy.”
Within days, Roberts introduced an ordinance to bar the parish from awarding contracts to any company that is at least partially owned by a consultant who represented an elected official during the previous election cycle. The council approved it 5-2, with Zahn and Johnston voting no.
Buisson immediately accused Roberts of trying to retaliate against him. On Nov. 30, 2015, Buisson filed the federal lawsuit against the council and Roberts personally.
In it, Buisson said the ordinance threatened to cost him his contract to provide the Carnival reviewing stands for the parish, his marketing work for the Jefferson Convention and Visitors Bureau and his marketing work for an annual event in Lafreniere Park known as Uncle Sam Jam.
In an interview, Buisson said he provided 19 different stands — he calls them skyboxes — for Carnival in 2017. Jefferson Parish officials and krewe members used seven of them. The parish paid his firm $90,000 for that. He rented out the other 12 to corporations and law firms. Those 12 come in two sizes. The Majestic Skybox Experience accommodates up to 60 people and cost $9,700 this year, according to a brochure he provided. The Krewe Skybox accommodates up to 26 and cost $5,000.
Buisson said he views the contract as a public service to the parish more than a plum deal for himself. He said he upgraded the quality of the reviewing stands and makes little money on the contract.
“The only reason I did those stands is that before I took them over they were looking shoddy,” he said.
Buisson said he netted only $25,000 from the rentals and the payments from the parish because of the high cost of providing high-quality skyboxes and insurance.
Buisson has also been the marketing consultant for the Jefferson Convention and Visitors Bureau since 2004, a contract he won through a competitive bid, said Violet Peters, the bureau’s executive director.
“He has a vision for tourism,” she said, crediting Buisson’s ad campaigns with helping increase the number of visitors to Jefferson Parish. “It’s been a great partnership.”
The bureau pays Buisson’s firm $57,600 annually, and he also receives a 10 percent commission on advertising, good for an additional $14,883 in 2016, Peters said.
Along with those gigs, Buisson produces Family Gras, the three-day event on a single stage on the Veterans Memorial Boulevard neutral ground on the first weekend of Mardi Gras. He said he receives no payment for his role other than a 15 percent commission on advertising. This nets him about $5,000 per year, he said. He receives no commission for booking the bands, he said.
The Patrons of Lafreniere Park organize Uncle Sam Jam on July 3 each year. Bob Emery, the group’s chairman, said then-Councilman Zahn pushed to have Buisson become the producer beginning in 2014. Buisson said he earned a 10 percent commission booking the bands, worth about $8,500 in 2016. With Rizzuto replacing Zahn, the patrons group chose someone else to produce the event this year.
Roberts’ ordinance — which targets future contract awards and extensions — has put all of Buisson’s deals at risk. A victory by Impastato could prompt the council to reverse itself and kill the ordinance.
“One councilman has a personal vendetta targeted against me to stop me from doing any business within Jefferson Parish,” Buisson said, calling Roberts a “bully.”
Roberts denied that he is targeting Buisson. “I think it’s an appropriate question to ask candidates whether they will give contracts to consultants who run their campaigns,” Roberts said.
The council suspended Roberts’ ordinance in 2016 to allow Buisson to receive the contract to provide the Carnival reviewing stands. He was the only bidder.