Back in 1985, when then-Mayor Dutch Morial was trying to change the City Charter so that he could run for "Just 3" terms as mayor, I introduced visiting NBC correspondent Ken Bode to one of Morial's confidants, a rotund political operative named Maurice "Hippo" Katz.
"So tell me, Hippo," Bode asked, "what job will you be getting in the third Morial Administration if this thing passes?"
Hippo, who stood all of about 5 feet 8 inches, drew himself up and said, "Mr. Bode, I don't want a job ... I want a position."
The response was vintage Hippo — and vintage New Orleans politics. Bode told that story whenever he gave a speech in or about New Orleans, much to Hippo's delight.
Hippo died at his home last week at the age of 76. He was one of a kind. A Runyonesque character who never forgot that the essence of politics is people, Hippo had a heart as big as himself. He liked everybody, and everybody liked him.
In political circles, Hippo was famous — or infamous — for backing several candidates at once, and for changing teams. In the 1987 governor's race, he harangued his friend Bill Schultz, who was then a neophyte political consultant, for hours one day about how urgent it was for Schultz to sign on as then-Congressman Billy Tauzin's New Orleans campaign manager. Schultz finally acquiesced. "Call him right now and tell him," Hippo beamed, and Schultz complied. Less than an hour later, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards announced he would seek re-election. Hippo immediately turned to Schultz and said, "Your man can't win."
He got the nickname "Hippo" as a boy — from his mother. "I used to sit on the front porch eating ice cream every day after school, and one day she told me, 'You better stop eating like that or you'll be as fat as a hippo,'" he once told me. "I kept eating, and the name stuck."
The first time the late Iris Kelso mentioned Hippo in one of her Times-Picayune columns, she assumed it was a derisive twist on his real name. She thus referred to him, intending to be respectful, as Hippolite Katz. We all laughed out loud at that one.
Back in the 1980s, when I was between marriages, I hosted a bourré game every Sunday night. The players came from all sides of the political spectrum, and Hippo rarely missed a game. In addition to being a great card player, he always gave us the official spin from the Morial camp. In fact, spreading rumors for Dutch was pretty much Hippo's job description. Near the end of Dutch's tenure, Hippo confirmed a story for me that the mayor didn't like — and the mayor fired him. On the pink slip, Dutch wrote, "Loose lips." Hippo was furious. He told Dutch that if he didn't take that back he would tell me everything. Dutch relented, and to this day Hippo remains the only guy I ever knew who made Dutch Morial back down.
In recent months, Hippo's name was mentioned in the budding Jefferson Parish insurance scandal, but he swore he was not implicated in any wrongdoing. I believed him, because I never knew Hippo to be greedy or corrupt. I imagine him now playing bourré with another rotund friend of his, the late Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, trading favorite political stories — and hedging his political bets.
So long, Hippo. You finally got a position.