No one in New Orleans or Louisiana politics has known as much electoral heartbreak as former Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris. In 1969 he was upset by the younger Moon Landrieu in a cliffhanger race for mayor of New Orleans, and ten years later the governor's race was, in the opinion of many, stolen from him.
Through it all, Fitzmorris retained his indomitable spirit, clinging to the notion that the measure of the man is not how high he climbs but how many times he can get back up after being knocked down.
Nobody has gotten back up more than Jimmy Fitz, and few have climbed higher. Two weeks ago, hundreds of friends from his five decades of public life packed the Mount Carmel High School gym to wish him a happy 80th birthday. The party was supposed to be held in the school auditorium, which bears his name, but so many people RSVP'd for the party that it had to be moved to the larger gymnasium. That, too, is a measure of Jimmy Fitzmorris.
I admit to a bias in favor of Fitz. It goes all the way back to my childhood, when I would listen to my father discussing politics with the men of the neighborhood. My dad was one of the few business owners in our little community. He had been active in groups such as the YMBC (back when it was huge, in the '50s), and he knew most of the established as well as aspiring political leaders of his day. Other men in the neighborhood naturally sought his opinion at election time. He loved to talk politics, but there were few politicians whose integrity he would vouchsafe unconditionally. Jimmy Fitzmorris was one of them.
I remember seeing TV coverage of Fitzmorris' stunning defeat in the 1969 mayor's race. What I remember most was a very gracious concession speech.
Two years later he bounced back and became Louisiana's first full-time lieutenant governor. He was elected along with a young reformer from Crowley named Edwin Edwards, the state's new governor.
Fitzmorris served as lieutenant governor from 1972-80, heading up Louisiana's economic development efforts. It's hard to imagine now, but back then our state was tops in the nation in economic development.
At the end of Edwards' first two terms, Fitz was a leading candidate for governor. Unofficial returns on the night of Louisiana's first statewide open primary showed him second, behind then-Congressman Dave Treen and less than two thousand votes ahead of then-Public Service Commissioner Louis Lambert. Over the next two days, at various precincts carried by Lambert, vote counters found 100-vote "errors" in Lambert's favor -- just enough to put him ahead of Fitzmorris.
This time, Fitz fought back. He challenged the official tally in court, but lost. He and many others still believe the election was stolen. He would have been a heavy favorite over Treen in the runoff.
He bounced back again, though, joining other Democratic runners-up in endorsing Treen. The new governor put him back in charge of economic development.
Fitzmorris, whose non-stop style and never-say-die attitude earned him the nickname "Mr. Dynamo," retired from full-time politics in 1984. But he did not leave public service. He formed a consulting company, Fitzmorris and Associates, and still heads it today at 80.
When it came time for his remarks at Mount Carmel, he joked that the real reason everyone had been gathered was to hear him announce his candidacy for mayor. The crowd roared.
Happy birthday, Fitz. And thanks for always getting back up.