Over the last four dozen years, hundreds of legislators have come and gone in Louisiana.
Seven people have held the state’s top office.
But one constant has remained at the center of Louisiana politics: John Alario.
He began representing Westwego in the state House in 1972, when Richard Nixon was president. Now, almost 48 years later, no one else in the 207-year history of the Legislature has served longer than Alario.
During that tenure, he has amassed unrivaled power. No one has served as both speaker of the House twice and president of the Senate twice — serving as the speaker as a Democrat and as Senate president as a Republican.
For decades, Alario has been at the center of every important political deal cut in Baton Rouge, including the last four years as the Republican state Senate president and chief legislative lieutenant to Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.
But is it finally time for him to go?
His advancing age and the state constitution say yes.
The tears, John Alario said privately beforehand, began the previous day, as he was contemplating what he would say during his farewell speech…
Alario, a tax accountant, is 75. Cancer claimed his beloved wife, Ree, 13 years ago, and he underwent a seven-bypass heart surgery in 1995. Term limits are forcing him out of the state Senate in January. On some days, he thinks it’s time to retire.
But on other days? As Alario ponders his future, he pushes aside his empty plate of chicken a la grande at his favorite restaurant, Mosca’s, near Avondale on Jefferson Parish's West Bank.
Under the law, he could run this year for his old House seat.
He notes that term limits are depriving the Jefferson Parish legislative delegation of seniority, and, with it, the ability to deliver road, sewer and other construction projects. If he doesn’t run, he says, “I would feel like I’m letting people down.”
As he thinks about returning to the House, Alario acknowledges he is eyeing the speakership once again. That news will inflame his party’s right flank, which vilifies him for working closely with Edwards to raise sales taxes and spend more government dollars on public education and health care for the needy.
Alario’s return also could prompt grumbling from good-government types, who have long complained that lobbyists regularly pick up his meal tabs in Baton Rouge and that he uses a hefty but rarely needed campaign account to lease his car and to attend LSU and Saints games.
State Capitol veterans remember that as House speaker under then-Gov. Edwin Edwards in the early 1990s, Alario conducted the most controversial legislative vote in decades — on a gambling bill for New Orleans.
Legislators revere him, however, because he keeps his word, smooths the passage of legislation, uses well-timed quips to break tension and takes the time to learn their political needs. He never asks legislators to take a vote that will hurt them back home and maneuvers whenever possible to help others score at least a partial victory.
“Alario never demands allegiance 100% of the time,” said former state Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond. “What he does demand is 100% of your allegiance when you give your word to him.”
Along the way, Alario has showered his working-class West Bank district with schools, playgrounds and better roads. With a developmentally disabled daughter, he also has consistently championed steering more money to the neediest members of society.
During the leisurely dinner at Mosca’s, Alario discusses his future in a quiet, sentimental voice. He acknowledges that his indecision is bothering him.
“I’ll have a talk with myself,” he says, leaning back, arms folded, at his corner table. “I have a helluva decision to make. I’ve been doing it for 48 years. I don’t know anything else, other than my tax work.”
As he drives back to his office off the West Bank Expressway, Alario notes that he needs to decide soon. Aug. 6-8 is the deadline to qualify for the Oct. 12 primary. He says he expects that he’ll announce his decision by the end of July.
“I’ve had sleepless nights over it,” he says. “It’s the biggest political decision I’ve ever had to make.”
An unplanned career
John A. Alario Jr. said he never planned to pursue a career in politics.
His father left school after fourth grade to help his father, a commercial fisherman. His mother left after the eighth grade. She eventually became a homemaker and later worked at a shoe store. Money was always tight.
Young John showed his leadership traits at an early age. He was senior class president at West Jefferson High School and captain of the football team.
Several years after graduating from Southeastern Louisiana University, he ran for the Legislature. Two political groups controlled Jefferson Parish politics then. Alario ran independently of both and won.
“I knew a lot of people in Westwego,” he said.
Upon arriving in Baton Rouge, Alario, a Democrat, became one of the so-called Young Turks. He and like-minded legislators wanted to sweep away the ossified state constitution and an outdated system that concentrated power in the hands of the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker.
They found allies in Gov. Edwin Edwards and House Speaker Bubba Henry, of Jonesboro. Alario was elected as one of the delegates who helped produce a modern constitution that voters approved in 1974.
Alario was learning quickly. In his second term, Henry named him to chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which handles tax legislation for the House and drafts the House plan on how to spend state construction dollars. Alario kept the position in 1980 when David Treen, a Republican, became governor and installed a Democrat as speaker.
After Edwin Edwards defeated Treen in 1983, he named Alario speaker. Four years later, Buddy Roemer knocked off Edwards to become governor. By then, Alario had lined up his colleagues’ votes to continue as speaker.
But Roemer decided to choose a legislator from Monroe. Alario cried when Roemer broke the news.
“I didn’t like to lose,” he said recently.
Edwards reinstalled Alario as speaker after winning the 1991 governor’s race.
“I remember watching him (Alario) in conversations with Edwin Edwards at the Governor’s Mansion about the bills of the day and marveling at how well he knew who could and could not be for certain measures,” said Kim Hunter Reed, then the governor’s press secretary and now Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education. “He knows their districts and uses that information to make sure he takes care of them and the business of the state.”
During those years, Alario palled around with then-Rep. Noble Ellington, a cotton merchant who represented rural Winnsboro in the House.
“I found him to be one of the most competitive guys I was ever associated with,” Ellington said. “It didn’t matter whether it was tennis or anything else, he was just about always going to beat you. He didn’t always do it with his athletic talent. Sometimes he could do it with his head. I was a better tennis player, but I don’t know if I ever beat him.
“He gets along with people extremely well, but at the same time he has a way of getting you to do what he wants you to do without having to act like he’s lording over you.”
Twenty-six years ago, the speaker of the Louisiana House engineered the most controversial vote in the state Legislature in decades when he sh…
But Alario could play hardball. He and Ellington still joke about it now, decades later, but Alario angered his friend several times in the early 1990s by refusing to acknowledge Ellington’s requests to speak on the House floor, in opposition to Alario.
In 1992, Alario orchestrated the most disputed legislative vote in years.
The issue was whether to legalize a single land-based casino in New Orleans, an issue that stirred passions on both sides. Edwards wanted it badly, but the bill failed on its first attempt after anti-gambling legislators teamed up with the anti-Edwards crowd.
During the House vote, several anti-gambling legislators initially punched the green voting button on their desk, meaning they supported the bill. This led the vote count, visible only to Alario and the House clerk, to rise above the 53 votes needed to pass the measure. But several seconds later, just before the clerk closed the voting period, those legislators switched to the red button, and the count dropped below 53.
Alario had had several reluctant yes votes in reserve and was prepared to signal that they were needed. But the last-second trickery by the anti-gambling members prevented him from doing so.
Three days later, Alario devised a plan to pass the bill on a second vote but told only the bill’s sponsor, then-Rep. Raymond “La La” Lalonde, D-Sunset, and the House clerk, Alfred “Butch” Speer.
On that afternoon, the House took up a labor-backed bill that would overturn the state’s right-to-work laws, which allowed workers to refuse to join unions at unionized shops. After a hard-fought debate, business interests won. Then-Rep. Emile “Peppi” Bruneau, R-New Orleans, was among the legislators who walked to the rear of the chamber to celebrate with business lobbyists. The group included several anti-gambling legislators.
Alario then played his card, matter-of-factly calling up the next bill out of order. It was the New Orleans casino legislation.
To reconsider a bill that had been defeated required 70 votes in the House. Alario was far short of that number. But the 70-vote threshold mattered only if someone objected to bringing up the bill.
By the time Bruneau and the others realized what Alario had done, Lalonde had begun speaking in favor of the bill. It was too late for the opponents to object.
The gamesmanship wasn’t over. Just before debate ended, Alario quietly told Speer to take the extraordinary step of manually closing the voting machine early — as soon as the vote count hit the magical 53, but before all legislators had the time to vote.
When Speer complied, at least one anti-gambling legislator got caught having hit the green button, before he could switch to red. The bill passed with the minimum 53 votes. An uproar roiled the House. But the outcome stood. The Harrah’s casino in New Orleans might not exist but for Alario’s guile.
He smiled when asked recently about the vote, remembering how his trickery had won out.
Becoming a Republican
Alario stepped down as speaker after Edwards left office in 1996 but not before the House named an expansion of its committee rooms as Alario Hall. Although no longer speaker, he continued to wield considerable power. Under then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, from 2004-08, Alario chaired the Appropriations Committee, which writes the House’s version of the budget.
In 2007, Alario, term-limited in the House, won a Senate seat, though an outside conservative group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defeat him. Alario became a Republican in 2010, and the following year Gov. Bobby Jindal disappointed some conservatives by choosing Alario as Senate president.
Alario fell into line with the anti-tax and anti-spending policies that Jindal pushed the Legislature to enact.
“He understood there was a level of fiscal conservatism in the House and Senate that he couldn’t change,” Paul Rainwater, then a top aide to Jindal, said recently. “Sen. Alario didn’t want to cut as deep as things were cut, but in some cases he had no choice.”
By 2013, with the public beginning to rebel at the magnitude of cuts to higher education and health care, and Jindal’s political power waning, Alario worked behind the scenes to restore some funding. Though it mitigated some of the damage, it exacerbated the yawning budget deficit that Jindal bequeathed to John Bel Edwards.
Edwards retained Alario as Senate president because he knew no one could more ably help him accomplish his legislative agenda.
Alario, Edwards said recently, is “the most committed professional and dedicated public servant that I have ever known.”
Some leaders exercise power through force and intimidation. Alario, by contrast, builds bridges to his colleagues and makes deft moves that leave footprints visible only to insiders.
Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Shreveport, is one who has felt Alario’s lash.
When Peacock campaigned in 2011, he promised he would not vote for Alario as Senate president.
“It was the perception of him of not being on the up-and-up in the way things operate,” Peacock recalled. “That perception, when you’re not in here, is what you hear.”
Peacock kept his campaign promise. The vote for Alario as Senate president was 38-1.
Alario signaled his displeasure in an unmistakable but quiet way.
The Senate president usually awards every senator the use of an apartment at the state-owned Pentagon Barracks next to the Capitol and names every senator to three legislative committees. Alario gave Peacock no apartment and only two committee assignments.
But Alario allowed Peacock’s bills to receive a fair hearing and treated him respectfully.
“Once I get even, we’re even,” Alario said, recalling the incident. “We can start over. Then folks know not to take advantage of me thinking I’m just a nice guy.”
By 2015, after winning re-election, Peacock had joined Alario’s legislative team. The Senate president rewarded him by giving him an apartment and naming him chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee, an area of expertise for Peacock, a financial investor.
“He’s a trusted friend,” Peacock recently said of Alario.
When he was elected to the Senate in 2015, Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City, also had doubts about Alario.
But Alario reached out to him, and the two men bonded over their developmentally disabled daughters. Jan Alario, now 51, functions on about a second-grade level and attends the St. Michael Special School in New Orleans. She lives with her father in his ranch-style Westwego home.
Gatti’s daughter, Rebecca, battled a birth-related brain injury for 10 years before dying in 2017.
“He’s only shown me compassion, honesty, integrity and how to maintain the course God has put you on, no matter what anyone else says or how loud they’ve said it,” Gatti said. “He’s a good shepherd. A good shepherd cares for his flock and anticipates its needs.”
Alario anticipates those needs by organizing small gatherings where he lets his colleagues do what they like to do — talk.
As Senate leader
During the legislative session, Alario meets every Tuesday morning with all 17 committee chairs. Afterward, he meets with all 17 vice-chairs.
“I want to be on top of what’s going on,” he said.
He hosts senators and other insiders at regular informal dinners at his apartment at the Pentagon Barracks. Lobbyists sometimes provide the food, or sometimes Alario cooks. Senators have a standing invitation to stop by for Blue Bell ice cream for dessert.
“I like people,” Alario said. “I like listening to them. I like laughing with them. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed crying with them. But I have cried with them. If I have one asset, I’m a good listener and help them solve their problems.”
During the current term, for the first time, Alario has had a roommate, Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, a freshman Democrat from Lafayette.
Boudreaux was floored when the Senate legend invited him to take his second bedroom. “It automatically gave me credibility for those who have been around the process for some time,” he said.
Boudreaux, who is African-American, didn’t know that Alario had grown up attending all-white schools.
“He doesn’t look at race and culture,” Boudreaux said.
Alario simply said: “It’s good to have somebody late at night to talk to.”
Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, has had a close-up view of how Alario operates since Alario named him to chair the Senate Finance Committee. LaFleur is the only senator who has an office in the Senate president’s suite.
“He doesn’t come in here and say, ‘This doesn’t happen,’ ” LaFleur said. “He’ll talk about why it should die and why it’s bad policy. It’s a persuasive approach and a way to get the other person onto the team. Some leaders don’t do that. They might say, ‘Here are my marching orders. Get it going.’ He gets you to buy in, and then you become passionate about it.”
During his 34-minute farewell speech to the Senate on May 31, Alario spent most of his time thanking other elected officials, his family and legislative staffers. He didn’t tout his accomplishments.
“It’s very hard for me to talk about myself,” he said at Mosca’s.
But he was happy to show off some of his projects during a recent drive through his district with Rep. Robert Billiot, a Democrat and former Westwego mayor who replaced Alario in the House.
There was the top-rated Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Academy, Delgado Community College’s River City and Advanced Manufacturing Center, the TPC Louisiana golf course, Bayou Segnette State Park, the Westwego Museum, the Westwego Performing Arts Center, the Westbank Community Center, which provides care for developmentally disabled children, and the John A. Alario Sr. Event Center, named after his father.
“We’re in the process now of building baseball and soccer fields to entice tournaments to come,” he said as Billiot drove past an open field under construction in Westwego. The cost: $24 million for the 90-acre project.
If Alario retires from the Legislature, he said he would take a short sabbatical from politics. But he’d be open to helping the next governor, whether it’s Edwards or one of his Republican challengers, on a part-time basis. Alternatively, a lobbying firm could woo him. Ethics laws would prohibit Alario from lobbying legislators for two years, but he could lobby the executive branch.
Moon Griffon, the Lafayette-based conservative talk-radio host, regularly excoriates Alario on the air and says he ought to stay in Westwego.
“It’s real simple,” Griffon said in an interview. “Everybody thinks he is the big dog. Lobbyists, elected officials, the media — they all say he’s the man. If he’s the man, why are we last in so many things? What has he accomplished in education? In the economy? In the population outflow? He’s brought money to his district. Tell me what John Alario has accomplished for all Louisiana residents.
“He is not only part of the problem. He is the problem.”
State Sen. John Alario was recently honored last week for his 48 years of service in the Louisiana Legislature. On the one hand, his accomplis…
Alario said he won’t apologize for steering millions of dollars to Westwego.
“We had been neglected for quite a number of years,” he said, adding: “If we listened to people like Moon, we wouldn’t have done much for education.”
Alario’s former House district is not designed to elect a Republican. About 57 percent of its residents are African-American, and John Bel Edwards and Hillary Clinton easily won the district in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Still, Alario said he would win if he runs.
“I’ve had different conversations with people in that community,” he said. “The response so far is that the 'R' after my name doesn’t matter to them. I’ve conducted myself in such a way that they know the way I am.”
Perhaps a bigger question is how he might fit in the House, which is more conservative and more partisan today than when he served there.
Bubba Henry, who served two terms as speaker during the 1970s, said he used to have a dream that he had returned to the House as a backbencher.
“It was a nightmare,” said Henry, now a Baton Rouge lawyer and lobbyist. “But John has a different personality. He has a gauge on himself that he can turn up or down. He doesn’t need to be speaker anymore. He’s been to the top of the mountain.”
Alario concurred that he doesn’t have a burning desire to become speaker again.
“I’ve done the job,” he said. “It’s a very difficult job. Things have gotten harder because of the divisiveness.”
But if Edwards wins re-election, Alario would have a path to be speaker: the support of 40 or so Democrats, three or four independents and a dozen Jefferson Parish and moderate Republicans elsewhere whom the governor could sway.
“Mathematically, it’s very possible,” Alario said.