Cover Story

Citizen Georges

by Jeremy Alford

After years of corporate success and civic involvement, John Georges is spending millions in his bid to become Louisiana's next governor.

John Georges appears shirtless on his campaign Web site more than any other candidate for governor. With the images of a youthful and tan Georges surrounded by a picture-book family, is he trying to convince voters he's young and in shape and equipped to take on the demanding job of governor? After ordering a soda from Faye's Subs and Salads in downtown Baton Rouge and leaving a few bucks in the tip jar, Georges laughs at the line of questioning. He shouts a few feet away to a staffer, who arrives promptly. "When you came over to the house and looked through all the pictures for the Web site, what selection process did you use?" he asks.

The assistant, somewhat taken aback, offers a meager answer. "We just tried to pick the best ones," she says. Georges appears satisfied.

That's the man, or, better put, the New Orleans business tycoon running for governor as an independent. He'll answer almost any question straight up, even a few you don't ask. Georges, 46, admits without prompting that he has never smoked a cigarette (despite selling them through his distribution company), doesn't particularly like gambling (although he once owned a video poker business) and has never ingested an illegal drug (thus sayeth the self-described child of the '60s). "I'm an enigma," Georges ponders aloud.

True to his Greek heritage, Georges talks a great deal about destiny ' his destiny, in particular. Hoarse from a litany of statewide campaign events and the debate hosted by the Baton Rouge Press Club earlier in the day, he recounts how he was president of his high school and fraternity; boosted his family's flagship Imperial Trading Company from $29 million to $500 million in annual sales; garnered praise from the Greek mainstream press; and was appointed to the state Board of Regents, which guides higher education, and the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad. "I've been a leader my whole life," he says. "Everything has been building to this moment. I was born to become governor."

Georges presents himself to reporters and voters as an open book. Investigate me, he urges. Look at the work I've done. Review the causes I'm associated with. Here are all the important people I know. Talk to them. Georges is a walking, breathing civics lesson, a quasi-average citizen who decided to grasp his democratic right to run for governor. He's a new face to voters, but Georges has eased the introduction by investing $7 million of his own money in the campaign to pay for aggressive television advertising and targeted outreach. He frames himself as a wealthy businessman who has helped folks from all walks of life, a powerful man with friends in all the right places.

But he also expresses a burning sincere desire to help Louisiana, more so than any other major candidate for governor ' possibly because he has never held elected office and thus can remain an energetic and optimistic dreamer. To put it in cinematic terms, John Georges is Mr. Smith goes to Washington meets Citizen Kane.

An enigma, indeed.

Georges waited until the final day of qualifying last month to announce he was resigning from the Republican Party and running for governor as an independent. He also claims the GOP encouraged him to run for lieutenant governor instead, which the party denies. The relationship between Georges and the GOP was never perfect. He couldn't make headway with party regulars, who were solidly behind the frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal of Kenner. The party, meanwhile, was flabbergasted that Georges would even consider running, guaranteeing that votes would be siphoned away from Jindal.

"I didn't relish leaving the party, but it ended up being the happiest day of the campaign," Georges says. "I'm free to take any stance I want now."

Asked if he was taking stances he didn't believe in before making the party change, Georges answers indirectly: "I make my own decisions."

Conservatives have had more than a bit of fun with the switch. "Not since Hamlet uttered his famous question, 'To be or not to be?' has one man struggled so hard with indecision," says Michael DiResto, a spokesman for the state GOP. "Not since Don Quixote tilted at windmills has someone succeeded so valiantly in a realm of his own imagining."

Georges insists there's little tilting going on and that he's comfortable with who he is. More important, the switch could play out swimmingly for Louisiana if he is elected. "I'm an independent now. I can do whatever I want," he says. "I'm for Louisiana first. In the mornings, I can call up [Democratic House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and in the evenings [Republican President] George Bush."

Georges doesn't stick to the usual political rules anyway. For instance, he is the first conservative, white (formerly GOP or otherwise) statewide candidate to reach out to black voters in a real way in recent memory. Most contenders of his ilk would ignore the base, usually committed to well-known Democrats, and avoid expending resources on something they're not going to capture. But not Georges. He has paid for direct mail pieces in New Orleans highlighting his hiring of minorities and his assistance to the community. The Crescent City once housed a reliable bloc of 300,000 black voters, although that might has been untested since Hurricane Katrina emptied out key Democratic areas like the Ninth Ward.

That's why many politicos have turned to north Louisiana, where recent elections show a newfound base of black votes, most noticeably during last year's Shreveport mayoral election. The Louisiana Democratic Party spent in excess of $30,000 on the final day of the Shreveport contest, paying 75 election workers $50 or more each to get people to the polls. The party used buses to transport voters and spent thousands of dollars on advertisements on urban radio. It's a formula that worked in New Orleans for generations.

If the entire Shreveport region can be managed the same way this fall, says Elliott Stonecipher, a local demographer and political analyst, there could be as many as 50,000 black votes from Bossier, Caddo, Ouachita and Rapides parishes. Georges seems to know the potential of the region and hasn't been shy about courting support. He has spent considerable resources, calling Shreveport-Bossier the "most unified part of the state." He has made funding for I-49 North a top priority.

Georges was also the only major candidate for governor to visit Jena last month as the nation converged to protest the controversial prosecution of six black high school students for beating up a white student. Most politicians treated it like a hot potato, but Georges dove right into the fray. "I want to be a frontline governor," he says. "My candidacy is a lot like my own personal life. I get along with people from all social classes. As governor, I want to create a multi-cultural commission that would be involved with decision-making and would be able to get out in front of issues like this."

Even though he has been described in media accounts as a billionaire ' he would only say his personal wealth is "over $1 million" ' and he still owns his highest-performing company, Georges says he plans on taking a salary as governor. "I'm going to need it, especially after selling my [video poker] business," he says.

State Sen. Walter Boasso, a newly converted Democrat via the GOP, is pumping millions of his own cash into his campaign as well but has vowed not to accept a salary. He says he will donate it instead to a worthy cause.

The two self-made titans seem to have a tit-for-tat going on. Georges dedicated a significant amount of time to slamming front-runner Jindal during the Baton Rouge Press Club debate and during interviews for this story. "Walter has been ribbing me about not taking it to Jindal more," he says. "I'm doing that to show Walter I do have an opinion."

Following the Press Club debate, the two men unexpectedly found themselves face-to-face under an awning during an afternoon rain shower. Boasso smiled brightly at Georges, then made a quick reference to the number of campaign workers coming onto his payroll. "I think we're outbidding you on the street," Boasso says.

"Did you notice I didn't even respond to him?" Georges asks a few days later.

But it's not Boasso that Georges wants to be connected with, or Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell of Bossier Parish, the other major Democrat in the race. Georges wants voters to pair him with Jindal, helping them imagine a runoff scenario. "Bobby Jindal is the issue in this race," Georges says. "People just want to hand the election over to him. I'm not going to attack Bobby Jindal, though. I prefer to differentiate myself against him."

Georges blames Jindal for not gleaning enough money from Congress for recovery efforts, decries the Republican's insider status and scolds recent attack ads launched by Jindal's campaign against the other contenders for governor. "Great leaders do not say disparaging things about other people and call them corrupt," Georges says. "I don't think [Campbell or Boasso] are corrupt."

Like Jindal, Georges has a glossy, full-color plan of attack that covers several pages. The plan calls for ethics reform and reminds readers that Georges is the only major candidate for governor to endorse the far-reaching agenda of Blueprint Louisiana, a group of business and civic leaders that hopes to impact the fall elections and subsequent policymaking. He promises to promote from within state government, streamline management programs and delete duplications. While vowing to rein in spending, the Georges plan also proposes massive funding for coastal restoration, supported by bond sales, an increase in federal royalty sharing and an expected $1 billion surplus in next year's state budget.

On rebuilding, he would appoint a "recovery czar" to become the point person on all things hurricane related. Chief among the job duties would be reforming the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which is charged with guiding the recovery effort. Georges says he has a few people in mind but won't elaborate. "You notice all of a sudden [that LRA Director Andy Kopplin] is everywhere in the press since I started talking about a recovery czar?" Georges says. "He can apply for the job if he wants. He can try and sell me on it."

Among his more interesting proposals for education, he calls for laptop computers to be integrated in classrooms for every public elementary and high school student. He acknowledges he is still working on a plan to pay for it but suggests children could get part-time jobs mowing grass "just like I did." A company could be talked into a donation, he adds, or the state could purchase them and take ownership. "It's not that much money," Georges says. "If a parent can afford to buy their child a PlayStation, they can buy them a laptop." (The latest Sony PlayStation 3 base model retails for roughly $500. Best Buy's retail Internet site lists at least three laptop computers for less than that.)

On the green front, Georges wants to be the "environmental governor." He wants the state's fleet of vehicles to be replaced entirely by hybrids by 2012 and is exploring ways to increase recycling. As for his own daily life and home, Georges can't point to one low-energy device or green adaptation. "Nothing," he says. "We weren't raised with an awareness about this, but we can start raising a whole new generation to pay attention right now."

Georges could call his recent efforts "My Big Fat Greek Campaign," in reference to the 2002 indie smash hit movie. He speaks the language fluently and practically has olive oil flowing through his veins. He can trace his roots back to Greece just one generation back. His father fought against German Nazis in his homeland during World War II before immigrating to America and marrying his mother. Growing up, Georges returned to the Old Country regularly to work on the family's farm during the summer and, much like Al Pacino's character in The Godfather, discovered himself among the rolling hills where his own father once ventured.

The candidate's 10-year-old son (he also has two girls ' Zana, 14, and Liza, 13) carries the name of the Greek god of victory, Nike, although it was actually bestowed upon the boy in honor of Georges' late brother, who was killed in a car accident. Along with his wife of 16 years, the former Dathel Coleman, Georges raises his children in the same Greek orthodox way he was reared.

The cultural pride has spilled over into business as well. Georges is funding a book on the Greek resistance during World War II. Former New Orleans resident and well-known author Douglas Brinkley has signed on to pen the nonfiction work.

It's on his mother's side, however, with the Pelias family, where Georges truly cut his corporate teeth. The Imperial Trading Company had been in the family since 1916, evolving over time to become a major product distributor in the New Orleans area and around the state. He started out washing delivery trucks as a teen but took over the company in 1990, overseeing an expansion that jolted the employee count from 50 to 600 and expanded Imperial's manufacturers' list to about 500 businesses that make or distribute everything from drugs and tobacco to potato chips and toothbrushes.

Georges also tried his hand at minor-league hockey, buying into The New Orleans Brass alongside a number of investors including New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. He admits the decision might not be deemed a "success" in the way of profit margins and sustainability, but "a few years of New Orleans Brass hockey was better than nothing," he says. The Brass isn't the only connection Georges has to Nagin. Georges' name is listed in documents on file with the Louisiana Board of Ethics as helping fund a series of last-minute attack ads that put to rest the 2002 mayoral bid of then-state Sen. Paulette Irons of New Orleans. Georges, who was never fined or penalized in connection with those ads, says the ethics paperwork being passed around by Jindal supporters is much more than it seems. He says he donated money to a political action committee to help influence the outcome of city council seats, not the mayor's race. In short, his money wasn't used the way the PAC promised, which is why the PAC ' and not Georges ' took the heat in the end.

Dolphin Marine International, one of Georges' more successful ventures, provides towing services for the offshore industry. Before he bought in, the company was called Gulf Dumar Inc. and was run by Andrew Martin, who was also executive assistant to former Gov. Edwin Edwards. Prosecutors argued that Martin and Edwards intended to use the tug company as a way to channel bribes for awarding riverboat licenses. When he took over, Georges says he politely asked Martin to resign and had no further contact with him. Edwards later was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges related to the scheme. Georges has no other connection to the case aside from attending Edwards' criminal trial once, for what he characterized as "historical purposes."

But thanks to attacks from both of the state's mainline parties, most voters know Georges' business dealings with video poker the best. The day he switched to independent, Georges also sold all of his holdings in AMA Distributors, which moves pool tables, arcade games and video poker machines. Georges is financing the sale himself, leaving DiResto and other GOP talking heads to criticize and conclude that he still has a stake in the success of the company. Despite the stigma voters might associate with the legal gaming trade, Georges has embraced the connection, arguing that gaming could be an economic development tool for Louisiana ' if managed correctly. But he doesn't support giving tax breaks to gaming companies or forcing the business on parishes that have voted it out. "I'm not afraid to talk about gaming," he says.

Behind the scenes of the campaign, and actually out in front as well, Georges is in charge. He has strong instincts but also relies on the opinions of others. He hired famed Florida pollster Verne Kennedy and has sought advice from practically every living Louisiana governor not in prison. As for the campaign itself, Georges brought on veteran Shreveport Times political reporter John Hill as a consultant. Hill says Georges pursued him, even on his vacation, after he retired from the newspaper business in August. Earlier in the year, Georges made another surprising decision when he tapped Dan Forman, previously the New Orleans area manager for Lamar Outdoor Advertising, as his campaign manager. It's certainly not politics as usual on the Georges team.

"John [Georges] wanted to hire a businessman to manage the campaign," Forman says. "[He] is not afraid to try something new and is used to overcoming the negativity that seems to plague our state."

There was also an ad posted on ' apparently by the Georges campaign ' to hire "on-camera speaking talent" for a "political shoot" at a day-rate of $200. "That ad was not authorized by our campaign," he says. "It was sent out by the production team we were working with. Besides, political candidates use professionals all the time for voiceovers and background and everything else."

Georges says he is not a career politician and that his run for public office is a "one-shot thing." Nonetheless, he's pulling out the heavy guns, spending loads of cash and name-dropping at every opportunity. He talks about Greek shipping magnets and international politicians that know him by name and about his membership in the exclusive Young Presidents Organization, which requires ownership or stewardship of a company that averages annual assets between $8 million and $160 million or more. "These are the most powerful people in the world, and I know them," Georges says. "Even if you wanted to know the membership of the YPO, you couldn't see it. You can't even find it on the Internet. But trust me, these are powerful people."

He could flood his campaign reports with Greek money and high-powered donations, he contends, but doesn't want to be beholden to anyone. "It's not relevant to me," Georges says. "The media thinks donations equal success. It's more important for me to have more friends on [the social Internet portal] MySpace. I have 3,000 friends online. That's more than anyone else running against me." (For the record, Jindal is the closet virtual competitor with about 1,200 online buddies.)

Georges often gets lost in his own metaphors when he tries to explain himself. It all goes back to the enigma comment. His opponents keep linking him to video poker and convicted associates, but no one mentions that his brother is a federal prosecutor. Georges has donated millions to charity and at the time insisted he receive no name recognition or signage, but now, as a gubernatorial candidate, he needs the attention to help voters get to know him.

On his campaign Web site, he lists two favorite movies that go together like oil and water: Animal House and The Sound of Music. He also notes that he rescued '70s rock icon Peter Frampton after a 1978 car wreck. "I happened to be coming down the road when it happened, and I stopped to help. At the time, I had no idea it was Peter Frampton. We have kept in touch to this day, and I enjoy seeing him play whenever he is in Louisiana."

When he feels people don't "get him," Georges becomes visibly frustrated. He's fast-tracking a first introduction to voters and wants everyone to know about his Greek heritage and Peter Frampton and his economic development plans for gaming, but he knows that isn't possible. Still, he's willing to work tirelessly against the odds. "I feel like my life has been leading up to this," Georges says. "This is the moment I've been preparing for."