State of the Union Congress

In this Jan. 21, 2018, photo, lights shine inside the U.S. Capitol Building as night falls in Washington. President Donald Trump will deliver his first State of the Union address Tuesday night but, as always, lawmakers are angling to steal part of the spotlight. Many female Democratic lawmakers plan to follow the lead of celebs at this year’s Golden Globe Awards by wearing black to the State of the Union. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

A lot of Mississippi history walks out the door Sunday, as aging and reportedly ailing U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran formally vacates the seat he’s held for four decades. Some important Louisiana history does, too.

As chairman of the Appropriations Committee when hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck, Cochran was a major behind-the-scenes player in steering desperately needed federal funds toward the Gulf Coast. And despite some major partisan and interstate tensions at the time, those involved in the long recovery slog found him a productive and generous ally.

To set the scene: When Katrina hit in August 2005, Mississippi bore the direct brunt but Louisiana saw widespread devastation from not only the hurricane’s natural force but also the failure of federal levees. Mississippi also had not only a Republican governor at the time but a close ally of President George W. Bush in Haley Barbour, while Louisiana was led by Democrat Kathleen Blanco, with whom the White House quickly developed a finger-pointing relationship. Republicans also controlled Congress, putting Cochran in the power position and Louisiana’s main appropriator, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, in the Democratic minority. So while it was infuriating that the first major block grants approved that December gave Mississippi proportionately more than Louisiana based on the damage, it was understandable.

Yet while it was easy to point to Cochran’s home-state politics as the root of the disparity (although Landrieu said recently that she thinks it was more Bush and Barbour), Louisiana lawmakers gave the senator credit for advocating for the region as a whole too.

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On the Senate floor soon afterward, U.S. Sen. David Vitter had this to say about Cochran: "Of course, he had all the motivation in the world, coming from Mississippi, but he has also reached out to all of us from all of the devastated areas, certainly me and my colleague Mary Landrieu from Louisiana. … I want to thank him for all of his great work and for being so generous with his time, thoughts and efforts with regard to helping us meet our Louisiana needs as well."

By all accounts, Louisiana’s comparatively powerless delegation needed that help back then and continued to benefit from a partnership going forward, even years later.

Landrieu, who served with Cochran on the committee for years, said that Louisiana was ultimately treated equally after that initial shortchange.

“It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, but it was corrected fairly quickly,” she said recently. “It would not have been corrected without the support of Sen. Thad Cochran. Thad Cochran was an empathetic, intelligent and compassionate advocate for all the victims and survivors of Katrina and Rita. He always tried to find a way to say yes, in a very quiet and unassuming way.”

That continued for years after the storm, she noted. Cochran once again assumed the committee chairmanship in 2015, and Landrieu pointed out that one of his last acts in Congress was to successfully advocate for long-sought disaster loan forgiveness for Gulf Coast historically black colleges and universities. That forgiveness was included in the budget deal that President Donald Trump signed in February. The beneficiaries are Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and Dillard University, Xavier University and Southern University at New Orleans in Louisiana.

As for that initial Mississippi-friendly allocation, Andy Kopplin, the first executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said it ultimately wound up benefiting Louisiana too. Cochran made sure that Mississippi got the $5 billion that Barbour considered the bare minimum in community development block grants that the state needed, and to do so, included a provision that no state should get more than 54 percent of the $11.5 billion total. So while Louisiana got more money, it got less per capita when the damage was calculated.

Yet Louisiana was able to point to the formula that gave Mississippi the $5 billion to make the case that the state objectively deserved more, and those efforts were ultimately successful.

“He was helpful to us in getting the rest of the money,” not just for housing but also for rebuilt levees, Kopplin said. “He never stood in our way. He took care of home first, but he understood what he had done and allowed Sen. Landrieu and our delegation to fight for what we needed.

“I think we owe him thanks in the billions of dollars,” Kopplin said.

Email Stephanie Grace at sgrace@theadvocate.com.


Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.