Georges hopes to parlay business success into political win
One in a series of profiles of the candidates in the Oct. 20 governor's race.
Associated Press Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ John Georges has never been an elected public official. Instead, he's been making millions in the business world. And he wants to make sure voters in the governor's race know that.
The information is in every campaign ad. It's sprinkled throughout his speeches. He mentions it in every conversation about the Oct. 20 election. He grew his family's New Orleans area grocery distribution company to a $500 million business and expanded into other industries, and that's how he sells himself as the next leader of Louisiana.
“I have the skill set. I have the credentials. I have the background,” Georges, a registered independent gubernatorial candidate from Metairie, told a small gathering at a cafe in New Orleans' Museum of Art.
“We want a Lee Iacocca to lead the state,” he said, referencing the storied former leader of automaker Chrysler.
Louisiana voters have embraced the “businessman for governor” concept in past elections, giving Mike Foster two terms in the Governor's Mansion. But political watchers consider Georges a long-shot in a governor's race with four major candidates and 13 candidates total. Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco isn't running for re-election.
Despite the naysayers, the serious and methodical Georges is pouring millions of his own dollars into his gubernatorial bid and talking himself up as a contender for the job.
A 46-year-old New Orleans native, Georges grew up in the family business that was started by his maternal grandfather, a Greek immigrant. Imperial Trading Co. - - a wholesale distribution company that supplies supermarkets, drugstores and convenience stores with food, drinks and cigarettes - - has expanded to eight states and 10,000 trucks.
“I took it from $29 million to half a billion,” Georges said.
Along the way, he added other business interests to his list, including real estate, tugboats, oil and gas services.
“He takes companies that are basically broke and turns them around. He's been very successful at it, as was his father,” said Bob d'Hemecourt, once chief of staff for former Gov. Edwin Edwards and a friend of Georges' family for three generations.
Those who know Georges say he delegates authority and runs his businesses well.
“He's not shy. He has a strong self-image. He believes himself to be very capable. I think he has indeed, in business matters, proven that to be true,” said lawyer Paul Andersson, who knows Georges' family through the Greek church they attend.
George's ties to his Greek heritage remain strong. His father was a Greek immigrant who founded a popular Greek Festival in New Orleans. Georges speaks fluent Greek and he is a leader in his Greek Orthodox church who led efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina flooded the cathedral.
Long active in civic organizations, the only political post Georges has ever held was a seat on the state Board of Regents, which governs public colleges in Louisiana. He toyed with a political campaign before, filming TV ads for the governor's race in 2003 before bowing out.
But d'Hemecourt said Georges got the fever for politics right out of college. Georges has donated to a slew of candidates over the years and has been involved in political strategy behind the scenes. “All Greeks are political at some level. It's in the soul. It's in the chromosomes,” Andersson said.
This time, Georges said he's in the race to stay, and he's putting up a powerful amount of his own money to fund the campaign. He said he has spent at least $3 million of his cash on the race so far and plowed another $4 million into his campaign warchest. Also, with gambling still a controversial business for some voters, Georges said he sold his video poker businesses on the day he formally signed up for the race.
When poll numbers showed him with higher support as an independent, he changed his party in the hopes of distinguishing himself from the pack, becoming an independent after spending his entire adult life as a registered Republican. He will be listed on the ballot as “no party.”
Georges had gotten nowhere with the state's leading Republicans in his bid to become governor because the GOP leadership aligned itself behind the front-runner in the polls, Republican U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal.
Political analysts don't think the party switch will do much for Georges because of the state's unique open primary system, where candidates for state offices, regardless of party, all run against each other at once.
“Everybody jumps in at the same time, so really, unless somebody is just blindly voting based on the party, I don't really see an advantage,” said Glenn Antizzo, a political scientist at Nicholls State University.
But Georges uses his party switch to pitch himself as a leader, rather than a party acolyte.
“I'm looking to unite this state and work with both parties at this point in our state's history,” Georges said in Baton Rouge.
He views Jindal's support as soft and prides himself on nearing double digits in polls. Besides Jindal, his main opponents include two Democrats: state Sen. Walter Boasso, of St. Bernard Parish, and Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish. A runoff in the race, if needed, will be Nov. 17.
Georges' campaign platform is jumbled so far. He talks of the need to fight crime, improve schools and health care, and clean up Louisiana's image. He said he supports toughening the state's ethics laws and wants to do away with state income taxes for people 65 years old and older. He plans to hire a “recovery czar” to help the state rebuild after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
In a candidate survey for the nonpartisan Council for a Better Louisiana, Georges said he backs voucher programs that would funnel state education money to private schools that accept students from families who can't afford tuition and supports the repeal of several taxes on businesses. He talks of taking “power away from government” to help end corruption.
The nuances of his plans, he said, will be revealed in a 30-page document within the next week. He told the audience at the New Orleans museum that if elected, he would bring together representatives of government watchdog groups to help him craft his agenda.
“I don't have a constituency that I'm going to be accountable to. I'm going to be accountable to the general public,'' Georges said.
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