Washington Mardi Gras: The swamp becomes crowded

By: - January 27, 2023 11:10 am
The Guardian or Authority of Law, created by sculptor James Earle Fraser, rests on the side of the U.S. Supreme Court on September 28, 2020 in Washington, DC.

U.S. Supreme Court (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – The Washington Hilton lobby was wall-to-wall with Louisiana elected officials, lobbyists, and business leaders Thursday afternoon as more Washington Mardi Gras attendees arrived ahead of the first official night event of the week’s festivities.

The Hilton’s ground floor bar – renamed the “65th Parish” for the next few days in honor of Louisiana  – was so crowded that it was hard to purchase a drink. Fortunately, someone (Washington Mardi Gras organizers? The Hilton?) planned ahead and set up a temporary cash bar a few feet away in the lobby  – because it’s never a good idea to get between a group of festive Louisianians and alcohol.

Thursday’s new arrivals included Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, wearing a leather vest and cowboy hat, and New Orleans City Council Vice President Helena Moreno, who’s holding a Washington Mardi Gras event Friday afternoon. Former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu was also chatting up attendees. House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, who had a midday fundraiser, and Senate President Page Cortez were also present.

Several members of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration also made the trip. State Police Superintendent Lamar Davis and State Public Defender Remy Starns were in Thursday’s crowd. Edwards Health Secretary Courtney Phillips was seen walking down a hallway with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s former Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, who now works for Ochsner Health.

Speaking of Ochsner, the health care system can not only be found in every region of the state, it can also be found in every corner of D.C. Mardi Gras.

The Mystick Krewe of Louisianians lists Ochsner Health as one of four named sponsors on its website. Hilton hotel workers were also seen wearing Ochsner-branded Mardi Gras beads while helping out guests. Ochsner is also the only stand-alone business to host a Washington Mardi Gras hospitality suite, which typically provides free food and alcohol to attendees. 

Ochsner is Louisiana’s largest health care system, with hospitals in the New Orleans area, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Shreveport, Monroe and Lake Charles. As such, it’s also one of the biggest private beneficiaries of government funding in the state. The governor and legislators – many of whom partake in Washington Mardi Gras festivities – allocate hundreds of millions of public dollars to Ochsner every year.

Other named sponsors of D.C. Mardi Gras include lobbying firm Jones Walker, jewelry store Lee Michaels and The Magnolia Companies of Louisiana, a business conglomerate owned by state Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, and his family.

Jay and Jennifer Connaughton’s communications firm, People Who Think, is also listed as a sponsor. Jay Connaughton is working as a political adviser to Attorney General Jeff Landry’s 2023 political campaign. 

They took the train

While it’s reasonable to assume that most Louisianians attending Washington Mardi Gras flew on a plane to our nation’s capital this week, about 25 people took Amtrak instead.

Schexnayder said he organized a group of mostly legislators to make a day-long train ride “just for fun.” It included state Rep. Larry Bagley, Baton Rouge Area Chamber President Adam Knapp and Baton Rouge Area Foundation President John Spain. Bagley arrived in D.C. wearing an Amtrak-branded baseball cap.

Spain and others are part of a group fiercely advocating for more passenger rail in Louisiana, particularly between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Schexnayder insists the Amtrak trek wasn’t made with an eye toward that project, but if a New Orleans-Baton Rouge rail line gets off the ground, it’s supposed to include stops in Schexnayder’s home of Ascension Parish. 

Will a woman return to statewide office this year?

Two political candidates working the festivities the most at Washington Mardi Gras are state Sen. Sharon Hewitt and Solicitor General Liz Murrill, Landry’s top deputy. Hewitt is running for governor and Murrill is running for attorney general. The two Republicans look to be Louisiana’s best chance to return a woman to one of its seven statewide offices.

Louisiana hasn’t had a woman serving statewide since U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy unseated Landrieu in 2014, nearly a decade ago. The top female elected officials in the state currently are Congresswoman Julia Letlow, Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

If Murrill wins her election, she’ll be the first woman ever to serve as attorney general, she said Thursday. Hewitt could follow the late Kathleen Blanco, the only woman to ever be Louisiana governor. 

Hewitt and Murrill face a number of Republican male opponents in their races. Hewitt is running against Landry, State Treasurer John Schroder and state Rep. Richard Nelson in the governor’s race. Two Democrats, Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson and state Democratic Party Chair Katie Bernhardt, could also get into the race, though Bernhardt sounds less likely to run in recent days

Murrill faces state Rep. John Stefanski of Crowley, former West Baton Rouge Parish prosecutor Marty Maley, and northeast Louisiana District Attorney John Belton. Stefanski and Maley are Republicans.

Belton, one of the state’s few Black district attorneys, doesn’t affiliate with a political party. He works in the state judicial district that covers Lincoln and Union parishes, and gained attention for pursuing the prosecution of state police troopers over the death of Ronald Greene, a Black motorist who died after a state police traffic stop. Belton is also attending Washington Mardi Gras. 

Insurance special session chatter

Too many legislators to count are attending Washington Mardi Gras, and very few seem to be focused on the special session that starts Monday.

Lawmakers will return to Baton Rouge to consider a $45 million allocation to a special fund meant to attract more property insurance companies to Louisiana. Several homeowners, particularly in south Louisiana, are struggling to find affordable insurance for their houses following major hurricanes in 2020 and 2021.

Lawmakers at Washington Mardi Gras seemed inclined to vote for the allocation, though they weren’t necessarily confident the $45 million infusion would pass. Legislative leaders said it is also up to Republican Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon to make sure he has enough votes in the House and the Senate to approve the funds transfer. Republican leaders in both chambers don’t intend to be very active in securing the votes, they said.


Correction: The article originally said that a train ride taken by lawmakers from Louisiana to Washington D.C. was 26 hours. Schexnayder said the ride was shorter than that time frame. 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.