Cover Story

Big Walter

by Jeremy Alford

Whether he's crafting a multimillion-dollar business deal, building a ranch for exotic animals or launching a strikingly independent bid for governor, tough guy Walter Boasso thinks big.

Walter Boasso motions with his fork to come over. He's at the far end of a boardroom table hunched over a lunch plate smothered with red beans and rice. The fork goes back to working a large lump of turnip greens while his other hand holds a half-eaten piece of cornbread. A binder sits in front of him, divided by topics on education, health care, insurance and other issues. The big guy is multi-tasking. After a few more bites, he makes eye contact and offers an oversized hand, pulling while shaking and using his immense bulk to exert dominance, not unlike the way former President Lyndon Johnson used his height to make others feel inferior. Boasso's a big Italian with Cajun and Creole mannerisms, and he doesn't mind admitting as much.

He's at home eating his Monday red beans, but would be just as comfortable with meatballs and spaghetti, with his huge grin, incessant joking and unbuttoned white Oxford giving way to puffs of chest hair. "Our last names were originally Boassiano," he says with a laugh.

He jokes around frequently, as his staffers can attest. He sometimes refers to his press secretary Brian Welsh as Ron White, the drunken comedian known best for his role in the Blue Collar Comedy troupe, although Boasso contends he's the "guy from Def Comedy Jam." He's also proud. His birth date marked 200 years in St. Bernard Parish, right across the river from the Crescent City, for the Boasso family line.

His father was a union electrician who became disabled while Boasso was still very young. His mother did her best to help out, but Boasso was compelled to start working at the age of seven. He sold newspapers, picked shallots, did yard work and anything else to turn a dime. It proved to be a solid foundation for a young boy who would eventually grow into a wealthy self-made man. If you catch Boasso in a particularly reminiscent mood, he might tell you what it was like to be an altar boy back in the day when suffering built character. "I had to walk to mass every morning, and I didn't have a bike," Boasso says. "Whether it was cold or raining or whatever, it didn't matter. I was at 6 a.m. mass."

The 47-year-old Boasso is sharing his life story with anyone who'll listen, telling complete strangers about his wife, (the love of his life of 25 years), and his three children and which ones like to fish. He entered public life four years ago by running for and winning a Senate seat. After only one term in the state Senate, the self-proclaimed "doer" is running for governor and can legitimately frame himself as the anti-career politician. For starters, Boasso contends he will drop out of politics altogether if he does not win the gubernatorial election. "If that happens, I'm done completely," he says. "I'm not a career politician."

Furthermore, Boasso says he will not take a salary as governor if elected; the money will be donated to a cause or charity. Former Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican who enjoyed two terms, did the same. It's an easy decision for Boasso, a self-made multimillionaire, and he won't miss the cash. He recently sold his shipping-industry company, Boasso American, to Florida-based Quality Distribution for $60 million. "I really don't need a paycheck," he says.

As for branding, the Suburban-driving Boasso is playing up the size factor leading up to the primary ' he could easily pass for either a former pro football player or an extra on The Sopranos. His television commercials frame him as a "Big Guy" who can tackle "Big Issues," in contrast to frontrunning U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Republican portrayed in the spots as a life-size cardboard cutout that Boasso carries around with ease. Most recently, his campaign also printed up bumper stickers declaring "I'm For the Big Guy." It's a theme you can expect to hear a lot more of in coming weeks. "Everybody calls me the 'Big Guy,' so it seems like a natural thing to do," Boasso says.

His entire life has been defined by bold moves, from business to politics, and it's evident in his personal life as well. Boasso is an outdoorsman and an animal fanatic; he planned and built a mammoth ranch/compound/zoo on a site 85 miles north of his native Arabi in lower Mississippi. There are 14 different species of animals Boasso has procured living on the ranch, from zebras to wildebeests to Pere David's deer from China. A full-time staff cares for the animals, and Boasso says two tons of protein are needed daily to keep the operation running. He refers to himself as a "father" when talking about the baby animals born on the ranch and boats about his 65-acre pond stocked with bass and bream.

These days, however, Boasso is more concerned with capturing a spot in the runoff against Jindal, where the contrasts between working man and Rhodes Scholar would certainly flourish. He also has Foster Campbell and John Georges to contend with, but Boasso has shown he is more than willing to hustle and shake to become Louisiana's next governor.

On this particular Monday, Boasso is holding court in the Baton Rouge office of Ourso Beychok Johnson, a high-power firm exclusive to Democrats that has experience in national races. They're new friends, but intense campaigning ' and a few million dollars (the Boasso campaign has likely dropped $2 million to $3 million by now) ' has brought the brood together. Until April, Boasso was a chest-thumping Republican.

In the state Senate, he had wisely allied himself with conservative icons like the late John Hainkel of New Orleans and now-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne. In his early bid for governor, Boasso couldn't get the state GOP to stop obsessing over Jindal, so he jumped ship. In the process he lost campaign manager Brian Lanza and press secretary James Hartman, who resigned after he switched parties. It also drew expected criticism from conservatives who labeled Boasso as a flip-flopper and opportunist. "The people of Louisiana deserve better than another politician saying one thing and doing another," says Roger Villere, chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party.

But Boasso gained a new sense of independence by not having as much at stake if he lost Jindal's religious right and GOP core ' and now says he should have made the switch sooner. Boasso notes this soberly, then closes his Styrofoam container of red beans. He leans his chair back and swings two legs like oak limbs atop a nearby buffet table. "Hindsight is 20-20," he says. "I made that decision on my own. Did you know that I didn't even meet the executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party [Chris Whittington] until two weeks after I made the announcement? I did this for me and no one else."

The decision put Boasso on eye level with Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell of Bossier Parish, with the Democratic party core asking one question: "Who is the real Democrat?" The Louisiana Association of Educators symbolically split their endorsement between the two, while the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, linked to the AFL-CIO labor group, backed Campbell, forecasting union support as well, for whatever that's worth these days. "I don't think there's any question who the real Democrat is," Campbell says. "I have 32 years of helping people as a Democrat and I have never thought about switching parties. I'm one of the strongest white Democrats you'll find in Louisiana," he said at a fundraiser earlier this summer.

State Rep. Juan A. LaFonta, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and a Democrat from New Orleans, says he hasn't seen Boasso or Campbell emerge yet as a frontrunner in African-American strongholds. Boasso, though, isn't ignoring the party's traditional base. He's been meeting regularly with black mayors around Louisiana and a series of endorsements are expected. Earlier this year, Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden introduced Boasso for his announcement speech, the two having become friends in the upper chamber.

Boasso has an extremely conservative voting record ' and silk socks, as the populist Campbell might say ' which is why a side-by-side showdown on traditional liberal issues isn't a scenario that benefits Boasso. But Boasso's been unafraid to take on President Bush and his increasingly unpopular Iraq war in his campaign commercials, likely earning him some points with the Democratic base. Boasso's strategy, though, has largely been to contrast his candidacy against Jindal's, hoping that voters will see the pairing and put them both in the runoff. Oddly enough, both men are currently reading the same book ("The Purpose-Driven Life"), but it's doubtful that reading the same faith-based book will prevent either candidate from pulling punches before the primary ends on Oct. 20, leading to an increasingly likely Nov. 17 run-off.

The cardboard cut-outs that Boasso uses to lampoon Jindal in his television commercials are spread out among different offices at Ourso Beychok Johnson. There are at least two ' one has a set of broken fingers and the other seems pristine. (An Independent Weekly photographer tried to land some playful poses with the prop, but was shot down by Welsh's Jindal-sharing rule: "If I let you use it, I have to let every other photographer use it.") Jindal has shot back by depicting Boasso, along with Campbell, in one of his commercials as a band of smoking, dancing, laughing clowns. "These guys are no different from the old clowns," a voice says in the spot, "the ones who let corruption take over."

The state Democratic Party, however, is a bit gun shy after launching an attack on Jindal's religious beliefs that earned widespread criticism. When asked if any other spots are going up anytime soon, officials balked. They'll take advantage of free media opportunities, pointing out discrepancies in Jindal's armor through press releases and the like, but that's it for now. "We don't have anything planned for the immediate future," says Julie Vezinot, party spokesperson.

That leaves the two leading Democrats to do the heavy lifting, and Boasso has the most money by far (he spent $1.6 million during the second quarter of this year alone, largely on advertising). His media strategy has been to stay continuously up on the air, and he doesn't plan to deviate, mixing in issue spots with attacks as needed. "We'll do whatever it takes," Boasso says.

Boasso can lead. That much was proven in the dire days following Hurricane Katrina. After losing his home and one of his local offices to the storm surge, Boasso shuttled back and forth between the emergency operations center in Baton Rouge and the makeshift hub that had been created by locals in Chalmette for search and rescue. Each day brought Boasso to Baton Rouge at some point, often wearing the same blue fishing shirt and sweating and screaming mad. Communications were literally under water and Boasso was delivering the first news of just how bad it was in St. Bernard Parish, and not just New Orleans.

He developed a lifeline of not only communications, but food, ammunition, water, medicine, clothes and other badly needed supplies. He would fill trucks, put them westbound on I-10, then on a ferry at Algiers Point, then by bass boat or other means into Chalmette, and finally by hand at Camp Katrina, a massive warehouse on the Mississippi River where thousands of people sought refuge and where dead bodies were stored. On the ground, Boasso and a state trooper even hot-wired a school bus to move evacuees around. As such, ABC's Nightline Report, as well as other news outlets, dubbed Boasso a "hero" in the wake of Katrina.

Not surprisingly, Boasso's central campaign issue and his policy introduction to voters through television has been homeowners' insurance reform ' the sleeping giant in Louisiana, especially following the 2005 storm season that sent underwriters packing and rates skyrocketing. Boasso's plan focuses on leveling the playing field between the homeowner and insurance industry. Key among the elements are requiring insurance companies who sell auto policies and the like to also offer homeowner policies, and instituting stricter criminal penalties for insurance executives who delay and deny claims in bad faith. "For years now, we have been bending over backwards for the insurance industry," he says. "And all that has gotten us is higher premiums, fewer policies being written and an outright abuse of the homeowner when it comes to filing claims."

Boasso tried taking this fight to the people last year with the formation of a nonprofit called "Get It Done," which was intended to be citizen-driven. He commissioned what had to be a costly campaign, with a multi-faceted Web site, radio spots and other outreach material. But it has been dormant for months, producing no real results. Opponents claim it was an early vehicle for Boasso's gubernatorial ambitions, but Boasso refutes the accusations. "I didn't even know at the time I was going to run for governor. Everything you do people will say is politically motivated. I got into politics with a mission," Boasso says, adding Get It Done has been "put to rest."

While he was in the state Senate (he relinquishes the post at the end of the year), Boasso cultivated a reputation for taking on colossal issues that no one wanted to touch. He fought like an educated cur dog on every account, with mixed results.

When Boasso tried to install reforms in the teachers' retirement system, opponents surprised Boasso by distributing a misleading flier late in the campaign, and he shelved his legislation. He tried to bring equity to the riverboat pilot system, previously a legal racket, but was shoved aside by special interests who opted for more gentle but nonetheless noteworthy changes. After Katrina, he pushed a bill to consolidate the levee districts in southeast Louisiana, long tagged by corruption, but that effort was watered down as well as parochial politics chipped away at the proposal and created two boards. "I've learned a great deal from the process over the past few years and I know that it's going to take uniting the Legislature to get anything done," Boasso says.

He also voted in favor of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry 86 percent of the time while he was in the Senate. There's a theme in that statistic, as Boasso has certainly built up more credibility as a businessman than a politician ' not unlike the other major candidate for governor, John Georges of Metairie, who is running as an Independent after leaving the Republican party. In 2002 alone, Boasso was given the C. Alvin Bertel Award for his outstanding maritime industry work, recognized by the Small Business Administration as "Louisiana's Young Entrepreneur of the Year" and selected as the "Ernst & Young, LLP, Entrepreneur of the Year." Hefty titles, indeed, but it all started from humble beginnings.

At the age of 14, Boasso landed his first steady gig as a janitor at a grocery store, which was followed by a number of other tasks: Shucking oysters by day and loading trailers at night, bank teller positions, payroll clerk, and so on. Boasso's family was getting by on food stamps at the time, and work was as constant as school. But his first real "money-paying job" was at Louisiana's very first Popeye's. "Man, I did everything there," he recalls. "I seasoned the chicken, took the orders and cleaned the floor."

Boasso's own commercial, the one that introduced him to voters earlier this year, tells the rest of the story: "I graduated college (University of New Orleans) and with a box of Tide and a garden hose, I started my business cleaning shipping containers. Big challenges? Sure! But I'm proud today that my business employs over 500 people. Now I'm running for governor to fight for the little guy ' because for too long the rich and powerful have gotten their way in Louisiana."

Of course, Boasso isn't on food stamps anymore. When asked what his total worth is, Boasso acts coy. Is it in the tens of millions? "Let's just say I've been blessed," he responds.

The company he refers to in his ad, Boasso America, was recently sold to Florida-based Quality Distribution for $60 million. It's one of the few sources of negative attacks on Boasso that the Louisiana Republican Party has attempted. The GOP argues the jobs and business could go out of state, following Quality Distribution back to those east coast beaches. They're also aiming for guilt-by-association, sending out press releases that detail how the Florida company "failed to renew certain insurance policies, but continued to collect premiums" in 2004, according to news reports. To keep things interesting, the party also points out a vote that Boasso made in the spring regular session to support a bill that would have doubled insurance liabilities for drivers. (It was not originally sold to lawmakers that way, and Blanco eventually vetoed the legislation.)

He isn't making a big circus out of it, but Boasso contends that the next governor will have to make tough decisions ' so tough, they should kiss off re-election. If he can truly swallow his campaign debt and forsake fundraising should he be elected governor, Boasso could potentially be the real deal, as could fellow millionaire Georges. But there are a lot of "if's" being thrown around in that theory. "I'm not getting elected to get re-elected," he says. "In my heart, I know I'll be doing the right thing, and there will be unhappy people at the end of it all."

If elected, Jindal says the first thing he'll do is call a special session on ethics reform. Campbell will push a controversial processing tax on oil in exchange for eliminating income taxes. As for Boasso, he's reaching back deep and proposing an overhaul of the Louisiana Constitution. The pitch is somewhat conceptual at this time, but Boasso has been presenting the idea to voters around the state. There's always a question-and-answer period following the talks, and Boasso prides himself on taking all comers, even hecklers, who he has challenged more than once to make their own bid for governor. A publication in Shreveport dubbed it "Boasso Unplugged," and the tough talk is catching on. "If I'm going to be governor, I should be able to take anything you throw at me," he says, a subtle dig at Jindal's notable absence to date from forums and debates.

Government has grown since Katrina, ranging from a bloated budget to the number of new bureaucracies formed, and Boasso wants to scale it back. He tends to speak in general terms, without specifics, but says a series of plans encompassing everything from economic development and senior citizens to education and recovery will soon be released. As for bringing in new department heads and key personnel across the board, Boasso says he wants to keep the state's institutional knowledge in place. The figureheads are to blame, he insists. "Those are my people on the front line," Boasso says. "Those people are frustrated right now because they're not allowed to do their jobs. They have to dance to a political tune."

Boasso doesn't seem nervous to have millions of his own dollars invested in the campaign and his second-place position in most polls is encouraging, despite being dozens of points behind Jindal in a few showings. He brings up the speckled trout fishermen chase on Louisiana's coast and talks about casting into the wind. A single defeat might be around the horizon, but he's doing it up in a big way and there's more than a month of campaigning left to do. "If I lose, I'll have more time to go fishing with my son," he says. "What's so bad about that?"