Dennis Persica column for Jan. 17, 2013

Last week, New Orleans marked the 40th anniversary of the Howard Johnson’s sniper incident. While that event was horrific, it also was the capstone of a strange but history-making six-month period that kept Louisiana and New Orleans in the nation’s eyes.

It started on July 27, 1972, when U.S. Sen. Allen Ellender died. The death of an 82-year-old senator is not an unexpected occurrence. But what made Ellender’s death something beyond the ordinary was that it left challenger J. Bennett Johnston without opposition. Qualifying had already closed for the Democratic primary for that race, so when Ellender died, Johnston automatically won the primary.

Democrats were still dominant in the South then, so winning the primary made victory just about inevitable for Johnston in November. He won easily over New Orleans attorney Ben Toledano, a Republican, and former Gov. John McKeithen, a Democrat who entered the race as an independent after Ellender’s death.

That experience eventually led to a change in state law, requiring candidate qualifying to be reopened if one of the candidates dies before the election.

Another piece of history was made with Ellender’s death. To serve out the remaining few months of the Senate term, Gov. Edwin Edwards appointed his wife — the first one, Elaine — as senator. Elaine Edwards was only the 11th woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, and the second one to represent Louisiana. The first was Rose Long, appointed to replace Huey Long after his assassination in 1935.

As of today, 44 women have served in the Senate; 20 of them are in office now, including Louisiana’s third female senator, Mary Landrieu.

That period was a high-water mark for Louisiana’s clout in Congress. Ellender was the president pro tem of the Senate at the time of his death. On the House side, U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs was the majority leader for the Democrats and was in line to become House speaker.

But Boggs would be taken away from his constituents as well. On Oct. 16, 1972, Boggs’ chartered flight left Anchorage, Alaska, headed for Juneau on a campaign trip with U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, D-Alaska. Their flight never reached Juneau. The search for their plane went on for more than a month before it was finally called off.

Boggs’ death meant that Louisiana would send another woman to Congress. His widow, Lindy, was elected to his seat and served a total of 18 years in the House.

On Nov. 29, 1972, New Orleanians were transfixed by the news of a fire in the 16-story Rault Center in the Central Business District. Five women leapt or fell to their deaths trying to escape the flames. The blaze led to a state statute three years later requiring sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings.

As the year was ending, Mark Essex was gearing up. In an attack on New Orleans Police headquarters at Tulane Avenue and Gravier Street, Essex killed Alfred Harrell Jr., a 19-year-old police cadet. Later that same New Year’s Eve, he shot Officer Edwin Hosli Sr., 30, who died weeks later.

On Jan. 4, 1973, St. Louis Cathedral was the site of a tribute to Hale Boggs. A host of Washington notables attended, including First Lady Pat Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew, House Speaker Carl Albert and former president Lyndon Johnson, just 18 days before his own death.

Then, one Sunday morning three days after the Boggs memorial, Essex started on his way to the Downtown Howard Johnson’s hotel.

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.