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Cargo ships pass Pilottown, La., Monday, June 14, 2021. (Photo by Sophia Germer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

For the past two years, Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder has arranged for his top lieutenants to embark on a retreat, giving lawmakers an opportunity to talk shop and bond before the legislative session kicks off.

The location for both trips: Pilottown, a remote outpost at the mouth of the Mississippi River where river pilots sleep and eat as they wait to board the massive foreign ships that they get paid to navigate up the tricky river.

Besides Schexnayder and Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, the river pilots hosted the chairs of each House committee at their far-flung camp, which is miles from the nearest road and whose permanent population is zero. Pilot leaders showed the lawmakers videos explaining their industry and efforts to dredge the river to allow bigger ships. The legislators got the opportunity to join the pilots in climbing rope ladders to get onto massive vessels. They drank cocktails late into the night and discussed legislative strategy. One year, legendary former Saints running back Deuce McAllister gave a speech on leadership.

“We go there because it’s away from everything,” said state Rep. Larry Bagley, chair of the House Health and Welfare Committee. “There’s no one there but us.”

When the Legislature this year debated a bill pushed by the pilots’ enemies -- the oil and petrochemical industries, who often try to block efforts by the well-compensated pilots to further increase their pay -- Schexnayder and Magee both voted against the pilots. That helped the industry bill advance to the Senate, with the minimum 53 votes it needed. The bill would have reworked the membership of the pilots’ oversight board to include outsiders, as well as require the pilots to disclose political and familial ties of new members, among other things.

But the bill by Rep. Thomas Pressly was summarily killed in a Senate committee.

Whether it was ever in real danger of becoming law is unclear. But the political savvy of the river pilots, who are organized as an obscure but powerful group of unions, is not in dispute, and their annual hosting of legislative leadership is just one strategy in their winning playbook. The pilot groups also tap their members for big political contributions, and dole the money out generously to politicians across the political spectrum. They also employ some of the best lobbyists roaming the Capitol, and they regularly welcome politicians to Pilottown to show them around. While the pilot organizations are a notoriously insular fraternity, relatives of key politicians have had unusual success in gaining membership.

In the final days of session, industry groups pushed for a resolution to study the pilots’ regulatory oversight, nepotism and other longstanding issues. It was a consolation prize after they lost the fight over Pressly’s bill. But the pilots killed the fallback measure too.

The pilots’ political organizations spread money liberally at a scale that rivals some of the powerful industry groups who frequently do battle with them. Since 2020, the political groups of the Crescent pilots and New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association (NOBRA) have spent north of half a million dollars to wine and dine lawmakers, sponsor fundraisers and cut campaign checks.

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Their committees have also amassed a far bigger warchest than their two main adversaries, the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Chemical Association. The industry groups complain about rising fees from the river pilots’ ever-increasing pay, and argue they shouldn’t be self-governed and make decisions on things like river traffic and new pilots without input from outsiders. Pilots argue the existing regulatory structure gives industry enough input on the fee commission and an umbrella oversight board. 

The PACs for Crescent and NOBRA had a collective $1.8 million on hand as of May, the last report available. By comparison, the political wings of the Louisiana Chemical Association and Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association collectively reported $537,058 on hand.

“It’s a very powerful group,” said Bagley, the chair of the House Health Committee.

Bagley said he didn’t know much about pilots or what they did before spending time at Pilottown at the legislative leadership retreat last year. Bagley hails from the opposite end of the state: Stonewall, near Shreveport.

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Aside from the legislative strategizing, Bagley said the members spent the retreat shooting the breeze over cocktails in the modest living quarters at Pilottown. But he said it was important to get a full understanding of what pilots do - and he did.

“I had no idea what that was like. (The pilots) said $700 billion a year goes up and down that river. That’s unfathomable,” Bagley said. “You get a better idea of why they get paid so well. There’s a lot of responsibility.”

Bagley said no one asked him to vote a certain way on Pressly’s oversight bill, which the pilots vehemently opposed, adding the pilots would “never ask me for anything.” Even so, he voted against the bill, along with 46 other House members.

When the bill was being debated in the House, in mid-May, several Black lawmakers decried the lack of diversity in the overwhelmingly White and male pilot ranks. A couple weeks after the House vote, the Crescent River Port Pilots Association Local PAC paid $1,600 to sponsor the Legislative Black Caucus staff appreciation dinner.

River pilots face familiar complaints of nepotism, lack of diversity as Legislature debates bill

Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said the pilot groups met with Black lawmakers to try to smooth over concerns about the diversity issue. The groups brought in a couple Black pilots to talk about how to attract more Black candidates, and to explain the education and training required to become a pilot.

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Pilotage is a perennial hot-button issue in part because it’s so lucrative. Most of the Mississippi River pilots get paid north of $500,000 a year, making it one of the most highly paid blue-collar jobs available. There are only a few hundred spots, and historically pilots have tended to hire their relatives and people who are politically connected.

James said the meetings between Black lawmakers and pilots helped lawmakers get questions answered. He noted that pilots employ a small army of well-known lobbyists that members know and trust.

The pilots have been politically connected for longer than most current lawmakers can remember. Kevin Alario, the son of John Alario, who served as both House speaker and Senate president over a storied career, is a NOBRA pilot who sits on that group’s oversight board. Six relatives of the longtime lawmaker-turned-lobbyist Francis Heitmeier are also NOBRA pilots. Neither NOBRA’s president nor Heitmeier returned messages seeking comment.

Michael Bopp, president of the Crescent Pilots and chair of its political operation, said the group is politically active because it has to be.

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“We kind of live and die in the Legislature,” Bopp said. “We’re very well-regulated by the state in every respect. I have to have access to the legislators. Because you have to educate them. And you have to have the ability to lobby. And you have to teach them and show them what you do for the state.”

“The other side does the same thing,” he added.

Bopp said the legislative retreat, and various other trips he takes with lawmakers to Pilottown, are crucial to educate lawmakers, especially now that term limits have ushered in newer and newer members.

“I bring them to Pilottown, they see the ships’ any of them who want to ride a ship,” he said. “The most educational thing is to climb up the ladder and see the enormous ships we’re doing.”

Magee, the speaker pro tem, joined the pilots on a massive Greek shipping vessel, where the captain treated him to an extremely strong cup of Greek coffee.

While campaign contributions and fancy dinners with lobbyists are key to the political hustle, Magee said educating lawmakers on an industry is a “huge part of the battle.” Magee said only two groups have gone to comparable lengths to educate him about their industries: the pilots and Shell Oil, which took him and other elected officials out to a Gulf of Mexico rig once.

The pilots also benefit from only having one or two issues, whereas oil and other industry groups have “thousands of issues,” Magee said. The pilots are primarily concerned with their own regulatory oversight, including their pay, and the effort to dredge the river, which is mostly a federal policy topic.

“They home in like a hawk,” Magee said. “It’s all they talk about, that and dredging.”

While the pilots won in the Legislature this time, there are signs the fight isn’t over. In the Senate committee hearing where the bill died, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, vowed to join Tyler Gray, the head of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, at the table next year if pilots didn’t work to fix what she sees as problems.

Namely, “it’s been governed by a good-old boy, White boy system,” she said. “The system needs to be changed for the greater good of this state.”

Gray said in a statement that “since the Legislature did not pass any laws, rules or resolutions relating to the regulation and oversight of pilots this session, the path for improvement is not clear. Therefore, LMOGA will continue to work with all stakeholders and pursue all avenues to ensure fair, transparent operations on the Mississippi River, so that Louisiana can be a competitive option for the oil and natural gas industry.”

The pilots say their safety record speaks for itself. They point to the billions in commerce they facilitate on the river, with Bopp calling the pilots a “great asset” to the state. Bopp said any oversight issues can be hashed out on the existing review board, which was dormant for years until recently, when new appointments from the governor revived it.

On the last day of the session, Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, the chair of the powerful House Commerce Committee, brought up the resolution calling for public hearings on the river pilots for a House vote. Rep. Joe Stagni, a Kenner Republican, objected, and the House defeated the measure on a 46-48 vote.

Stagni, in an interview, said the House “did not want to hear that issue again.” He said he has consistently opposed the effort by industry to overhaul their regulations. None of Stagni’s relatives are pilots, he said.

“I’m not sure the chemical association tinkering with the river pilots is a solution to anything,” Stagni. “It’s a highly successful industry. It is a gateway into the United States and we have a safety record of over 99%.”

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