NEW ORLEANS — Jimmy Fitzmorris, the affable two-time lieutenant governor who narrowly lost his long-sought-after bids for New Orleans mayor and Louisiana governor, has died. He was 99.
Fitzmorris died Wednesday night, his son-in-law Bruce Clement announced on his Facebook page Thursday.
“The contributions made by former Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris to Louisiana are too many to be mentioned & too great to be measured,” Gov. John Bel Edwards, a fellow Democrat, said in a statement.
Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said Fitzmorris was a mentor. “His ability to unite differing views for a common good is what made him so effective for our state,” Nungesser said in a Twitter post.
Fitzmorris’ popularity and drive were such that even his opponents sometimes wondered how he missed the political brass ring.
He lost one mayor’s race by 150 votes and was nudged out of the 1979 runoff for governor by just over 2,000 votes out of the nearly 1 million votes cast — results he unsuccessfully challenged.
Fitzmorris started a career in 1940 as a messenger boy for Kansas City Southern Railroad, and was a vice president by the time he retired in 1972.
He was elected to the New Orleans City Council in 1954 and served for 12 years. He ran twice for mayor and lost the first time by a narrow margin to Victor Schiro in 1965. A 1969 race against Moon Landrieu was not as close.
Fitzmorris bounced back and was elected lieutenant governor in 1971, a job he held for two terms.
While the flashy and popular Gov. Edwin Edwards got the spotlight, Fitzmorris was on the move, seeking new industry and cutting ribbons around the state.
When he first won the office, the lieutenant governor’s post was a powerful one. The holder of the office also presided over the state Senate. That changed in 1975 when the new constitution ordered that the Senate choose the president from among its members.
In 1979, Fitzmorris decided to make a run for governor in an open race with a field of nine after Edwards was barred from seeking a third consecutive term.
In the nonpartisan primary, Republican Congressman Dave Treen was the leader. Unofficial results put Fitzmorris second, forcing the two into a runoff.
Fitzmorris had edged out fellow Democrat Louis Lambert, then chairman of the public service commission, by about 2,400 votes in the unofficial election night count. Days later, the voting machines were opened and Lambert was ahead of Fitzmorris by about the same margin.
“It is extremely difficult for me to believe or accept the idea that I went from a lead of more than 2,300 votes Sunday morning when the vote was first tabulated to a deficit of more than 2,400 votes by Tuesday of the same week,” Fitzmorris said.
He filed suit, the first in modern Louisiana history to charge voting irregularities in a governor’s race. The courts found no irregularities and the runoff went on without Fitzmorris. Treen won and became the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
The glad-hander from New Orleans’ Irish Channel couldn’t stay away, accepting a position as an industrial recruiter in the new Treen administration.
“My profession is politics and my hobby is people. That’s my life,” Fitzmorris said.
For a time, Fitzmorris was targeted by reports of a federal investigation that he received a $10,000 campaign contribution in his race for governor in exchange for the promise of favors. No charges were ever filed.
During the federal corruption trial that was dubbed Brilab in the early 1980s, a tape of New Orleans mob kingpin Carlos Marcello was played to the jury in which Marcello said Fitzmorris would not be any good in a corrupt scheme.
“Say, ‘Here’s a million.’ He’ll say, ‘Man, get away from me. Please get away,’” Marcello, who was convicted, was heard saying.
In 1983, Fitzmorris tried to regain the lieutenant governor’s job, losing to Bobby Freeman. After that, Fitzmorris became a private consultant and eased out of the spotlight.
Fitzmorris’ wife, Gloria, died in 1995. The two met during World War II when he was an officer getting a physical checkup in New Orleans. She was a medical technician. He is survived by their daughter, Lisa Clement. Funeral arrangements are pending.