Dennis Persica column for Jan. 10, 2013

Remembering a man who made a difference

When Albert Beshel died last week on New Year’s Day, his obituaries duly pointed out that he had served in Plaquemines Parish government. But what they didn’t note was the role he’d played at a crucial point in parish history.

For most of the 20th century, Plaquemines Parish was run by Leander Perez Sr., a man who was called “judge” even though he had served only a short time as one. His opposition to school integration gained him national attention and excommunication from the Catholic Church. He was one of a number of Southern politicians who became famous during the sunset of the Jim Crow South, when small men cast long shadows. He joined the likes of Ross Barnett, George Wallace and Lester Maddox – the governors of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, respectively – in that group of public officials who opposed integration.

One son, Leander Jr., succeeded him as district attorney; another, Chalin, inherited the office of president of the parish ruling body. In this Delta version of “King Lear,” however, things eventually fell apart and the two brothers feuded. Former allies peeled away, most notably Luke Petrovich, a member of the Commission Council.

At one point a runaway parish grand jury wanted to indict the Perezes, until Leander Jr. shut it down. That led state Attorney General William Guste to seek to have his office supersede Perez’s and take over the thwarted investigation. You’d think a process like that would be simple: The state’s top attorney should be able to override a district attorney. Actually, though, doing so required a trial first.

Every day, high-powered attorneys — Guste and his assistants representing their office, former U.S. Attorney Gerald Gallinghouse and others representing Leander Jr.’s — would drive the twisting highway that hugs the Mississippi River from New Orleans to the courthouse at Pointe a la Hache to argue the case.

Beshel was not directly involved in those proceedings, but another palace intrigue was in the works at the same time. Chalin Perez had always gotten his way on the five-member Commission Council because he had three votes locked up; that is, until another Perez ally peeled away, flipping his vote to the other side.

In Plaquemines Parish, where time seems to move slowly, all of a sudden history rushed forward to slam the parish into the present. On Feb. 24, 1982, the judge ruled in favor of letting Guste’s office supersede Leander Jr., and a newly formed three-vote alliance on the Commission Council removed Chalin as president.

Beshel was one of those three votes, lining up with Petrovich and another member, Michael Kirby. What happened that day wasn’t just a chink in the Perez armor; it was a cannonball through their fortress walls.

Much happened after that. A larger council was created, making room for something that probably had the elder Perez turning in his grave: An African-American council member. The parish went after the oil royalties they said the Perez brothers had stolen, eventually leading to the restitution of $12 million. Even small things changed: Neighboring St. Bernard Parish decided that Judge Perez Drive, a major thoroughfare there, should be renamed after a different Judge Perez.

We shouldn’t crown Beshel in glory for all this; the real heroes of this story are those who opposed the Perezes early on, at great personal risk. But we can at least take note of a point in Beshel’s life when he did the right thing.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.