Bryan Wagner, the first Republican to serve on the New Orleans City Council since Reconstruction, died Sunday in Atlanta. He was 75.
For Republicans in a city that hadn’t seen one of their own on the council in over a century, Wagner's 1981 election to the District A seat marked a turning point. Members of the GOP would go on to represent the district, which includes much of Uptown and Lakeview, for the next 25 years.
“If it hadn’t been for Bryan Wagner, I’m not sure there would be much of a Republican Party in Orleans Parish,” said Jay Batt, the last Republican to hold the District A seat and the current head of the Orleans Parish Republican Executive Committee.
The District A seat has been held by Democrats since 2006, when Shelley Midura unseated Batt.
Wagner’s immediate successor in the post was Peggy Wilson, who replaced him when he stepped down in 1986.
Wilson partially credited her win to Wagner’s support. She said the two first became close when she ran against him.
“He was very nice to me the whole time that we ran, which was unusual,” Wilson said of her campaign against Wagner. “He sent me flowers the day after the election when I had lost to him.”
That’s just the way Wagner was, Wilson said, and he lent that happy spirit to every one of his passions, from politics to horse racing.
“He had a very rich, full life and was a brilliant guy,” Wilson said. “He understood politics better than anyone I ever met.”
Wagner would apply those talents supporting numerous other Republican candidates through his life. He helped pull off what seemed like an impossible upset in 2008, when he served as campaign manager for a little-known Vietnamese immigration lawyer named Joseph Cao.
With Wagner at the helm of his campaign, Cao knocked off the nine-term incumbent, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, who had been weakened by scandal. Cao was the first Republican to represent Louisiana’s 2nd District since 1891.
Wagner would later be a major and early supporter of U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, as he rose in stature from the Louisiana House to a seat in Congress and the No. 3 position in the House, majority whip.
And while Wagner was always true to the GOP in electoral combat, party affiliation didn't matter when it came to friendships.
“We were on opposite sides of the aisle but we got closer than some on the same sides,” said Lambert Boissiere Jr., a Democrat who represented District D on the council from 1981 to 1994. Boissiere, now the 1st City Court constable, also ran for mayor and served for years as a state senator.
For Batt, few people meant more to him than Wagner.
“I loved him like a father,” Batt said.
Wagner, an Uptown native and graduate of Tulane University, is survived by his wife, Judy; a son, Bryan, a daughter, Leslie; and a brother, Wiltz.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.