Updated

The GOP was on the rise in Louisiana when Roger Villere was elected to chair the state Republican Party in 2004.

But it wasn’t all champagne and roses. So-called “country–club” Republicans, the business types who had held sway for years, were clashing with the religious conservatives who had grabbed the reins of power. Shouting matches between the two sides sometimes marred party meetings.

Villere, the owner of a florist shop in Metairie that he founded in 1969 with his wife Donna, set out to smooth relations and oversee the party’s continued ascension. He succeeded — big-time.

During Villere’s 14-year tenure, which ended Saturday, Republicans took nearly all of Louisiana’s statewide elected offices and congressional seats, and they assumed control of the state Legislature for the first time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

“We’ve turned a blue state pretty solid red,” Villere said. “We went from a solid Democrat to a majority Republican. We’ve come a long way.”

At 68, and holding the distinction of being the longest-serving GOP chair in state history, Villere chose not to seek an eighth two-year term this year for the volunteer position. The members of the party’s state central committee elected Louis Gurvich, who owns New Orleans Private Patrol, a security firm, to be his successor, at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge.

A college dropout who grew up in a modest family in New Orleans, Villere comes from the religious-right wing of the party. Along with his pro-business and anti-tax views, he’s pro-life and opposes gay marriage.

“He’s not afraid to talk about his relationship with Jesus Christ and be a Bible student,” said Ross Little Jr., who serves as one of the state party’s two national committee members.

But Villere, genial and unpretentious, has been able to work with all factions within the party, and he brings a similar spirit to his business. Despite his sharply conservative views, he employs gay people and welcomes all customers to his flower shop.

“We’re all God’s children,” Villere said in an interview at the florist shop. “I don’t jam it down people’s throat. I have friends who are Muslim and Jewish. I don’t worry about what religion people are. What matters is in their heart. Some of my best friends are black and Hispanic.”

When party leaders elected him chairman in 2004, Democrats held five of the six statewide elected offices and five of the nine congressional seats. Democrats held a 67-37 advantage in the state House and a 25-14 advantage in the Senate.

In 2004, more than twice as many registered voters were Democrats, 57.6 percent, as Republicans, 23.5 percent.

More voters continue to be registered as Democrats, but Republicans have shrunk that advantage to 43.8 percent to 30.2 percent.

Republicans now hold five of six statewide elected offices and seven of the eight congressional seats, and they hold a 61-41 advantage in the state House and a 25-14 advantage in the Senate. They also hold majorities today on the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which sets policy for K-12 schools.

“Roger, being a big-hearted, kind person, is what we needed during that time of growth,” said Timmy Teepell, who worked closely with Villere as the chief political strategist for Bobby Jindal when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as governor.

“I would hear stories in other states about how Republican governors weren’t able to work with their state parties. I’m just thankful that during the years I was active in government, Roger was a good partner.”

How much credit Villere deserves for the dominance of the state GOP is debatable. To be sure, larger political forces played a major role in the Republican rise in Louisiana and indeed throughout the South, beginning with President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to push Congress to approve civil-rights legislation in the 1960s and President Richard Nixon’s strategy to harness the resentment of Southern whites.

“Louisiana tipped Republican right at about the same time as Mississippi. That’s not an accident,” said Michael Henderson, an assistant professor at LSU’s Manship School. 

Still, Henderson added, “Anybody involved in the management of political organizations on the ground deserves some credit.”

Villere said he focused on recruiting candidates and raising money. He said he makes three to five calls a day, six days a week, to raise the $1,000 or so a day needed to finance the party’s activities.

“We developed strategies to identify issues that the majority of people felt strongly about — the Second Amendment, traditional marriage, smaller government, pro-life,” Villere said. “We found candidates to run in races to run with vulnerable Democrats or open seats. We tried to recruit people we knew who had been involved at the local level for the Republican Party. We didn’t just wait for them to come to us.”

Rodney Alexander telephoned Villere during Alexander's first term in the U.S. House of Representatives, as he mulled whether to become a Republican.

“I wanted the assurance that everyone would be welcome in the party,” Alexander said. “Roger was always willing to make me feel comfortable. Roger’s words were very important. I felt like what he was saying was genuine.”

Reince Priebus, who chaired the Republican National Committee, said he valued working with Villere.

“He understood what party committees are all about— the ground game, data, voter identification and turnout,” Priebus said. “It’s a lot of hard, thankless work. It’s something that Roger did for many years.

"Roger was one of my best chairmen in the entire country. I wish we had 50 Roger Villeres."

Jindal and former U.S. Sen. David Vitter also played important roles in building the Republican Party, along with former state Rep. Jim Tucker, who served as speaker of the House during Jindal’s first term, 2008-12.

Both Jindal and Vitter left office with damaged brands, but Villere has mostly positive memories of both.

Jindal inherited a $1 billion surplus in 2008 and bequeathed a $2 billion deficit in 2016 to Gov. John Bel Edwards.

“I think he (Jindal) really helped the state move forward by allowing businesses to grow,” Villere said. Asked about the financial mess, he said about Jindal, “He might have been a little distracted running for president.”

Edwards, who had been an obscure state House member, handily defeated Vitter in the 2015 gubernatorial election.

About Vitter, Villere said, “I liked the way David voted.” Asked about Vitter’s problems that led to his surprise loss in the race for the state’s top office, Villere said, “I would just say that David had a different way of — well, he wasn’t warm and fuzzy. Let’s just leave it at that.”

In 2007, Villere backed Vitter after the senator admitted to having committed a “very serious sin” in the face of records showing he had made phone calls to the so-called Washington, D.C., Madam, who ran a notorious escort service.

But in 2014, Villere called for the resignation of Vance McAllister, then a freshman Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, after an office video camera captured McAllister in an amorous embrace with a staffer.

Critics pounced on Villere’s disparate reactions.

“It was a completely different situation,” Villere said. “Let’s just say there was a lot more to Vance McAllister than came out.” (McAllister didn’t return phone calls from The Advocate seeking a response.)

Though he was repeatedly elected party chair, Villere did not find success as a traditional political candidate. He finished fifth in a 1989 state House primary in a race won by David Duke, and he finished fifth in a 2010 primary for lieutenant governor in a race won by Jay Dardenne.

Dardenne, a Republican who now serves as the top budget officer for Gov. Edwards, said he thought Villere should have resigned as party chairman to run. But he added that he and Villere made up after the race.

“He deserves a great deal of credit for the growth of the party,” Dardenne said.

Edwards is the only Democrat who holds statewide office, but Villere said he has no desire to see him switch parties.

“I don’t think his core values are our core values,” Villere said. “He believes in higher taxes.”

As party chairman, Villere said he has worked 20 to 25 hours per week at the flower shop and 30 to 40 hours per week on party business. “I sleep only three to four hours per night,” he said.

Villere is forming a political consulting firm to elect Republicans, along with former Kenner Mayor Phil Capitano and insurance executive Danny Riehm. Their first client will be an African-American who in 2018 will challenge U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.

“I think I’m helping out my state and country. I really do,” Villere said of his work for the Republican Party over the years. “I’m worried about the future of my country. I’m worried about the free enterprise system. Most Democrats believe in socialism or Communism.”

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.