So Long, Charlie

Louisiana lost a legend tonight.

Charlie Smith, the only lobbyist ever to be inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame, passed away among friends and family after a long illness.

Smith had been a fixture at the Louisiana state capitol since 1968, with a client list running the gamut from exotic dancers to charter boat captains to artists to business and industry types during his career. Most recently, Smith helped shepherd through Louisiana’s model statute outlawing Islamic Sharia law in 2010.  He was the dean of the state’s lobbyists and certainly the most colorful figure among them. In the Louisiana Senate’s Resolution No. 177 of last year’s session, Smith was described as a “a master of riding the roller coaster of legislative procedure, managing legislators like bull-riding at the rodeo; goading them as they emerge from the chute, spurs a’gleaming; sometimes making the ‘8-second ride’ and sometimes being bucked off.”

An outdoorsman, poet, playwright, novelist, radio talk show host, storyteller, humorist and historian, Smith championed libertarian causes throughout his career – taking part in legendary fights like Right to Work, Worker’s Comp Reform and Prevailing Wage legislation over the years.

“I like to describe myself as a pure lobbyist,” Charlie would joke, “but I’m told that’s a contradiction in terms.”

And Smith also managed to overcome personal demons, in the form of alcohol and drugs, which he – in his characteristic honesty, explained in quite understandable terms…

“20 years of an unlimited expense account, when you’re prone to drink, is not necessarily a good thing.”

But he came back from that. And before a duodenal tumor robbed him of his health, Smith had pulled together an interesting list of clients at the Capitol – strippers, charter boat captains, artists and even the national-security lobby, for whom he helped pass the anti-Sharia bill. He left his lobbying practice with largely the same reputation for excellent service and Louisiana style he’d had before his “self-imposed exile to the French Quarter” during the Roemer administration.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, Smith’s family moved to Louisiana when he was a child. He graduated from Slidell High School, moving on to then-Southeastern Louisiana College, where he edited the school paper. Smith graduated in 1965 with a degree in journalism from LSU, where he was president of the Young Democrats and a regular speaker at Free Speech Alley. Soon after, he became involved in politics and launched a lobbying career – initially on behalf of the Louisiana Municipal Association and shortly thereafter for the Association of General Contractors –  that ultimately saw him traveling in the circles of seven governors – John McKeithen, Edwin Edwards, Dave Treen, Buddy Roemer, Mike Foster, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and Bobby Jindal.

Gambit’s Clancy DuBos recounted a classic Charlie Smith story in a December 2010 piece about Louisiana’s most entertaining political figures…

Speaking of Charlie Smith, one of my all-time favorite phone calls was the one I got from Charlie in the late ’80s, after alcohol and drugs ruined his first stint as a lobbyist. “I’ve been arrested,” Smith growled into the phone, “for selling poetry in Jackson Square. Don’t we still have a First goddamn Amendment in this country?” We do, and Charlie beat the rap. Now he’s lobbying again — for the arts, charter boat captains and strippers. If Charlie Smith didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him.

DuBos left out the real punch line of Smith’s French Quarter Poet’s lament, which was to say that “apparently there’s no more poetic license in New Orleans.”

We’ll miss Charlie’s spirit, his sense of humor, his devotion to individual liberty and most of all his great stories.

His was a life truly lived.

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