Dennis Persica: ‘America’s Bubba’ makes return to spotlight

CNN deemed him “America’s Bubba.” It was meant as a compliment, a kind of Ralph Kramden of the delta lands, big and garrulous, but more likely to be driving a high-water vehicle than a bus.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser achieved national fame after the BP well explosion in April 2010. His parish, the state’s southernmost, was in the front lines as the crude washed up on the American continent. Back then, Nungesser was kind of a precursor of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Both had nice things to say about President Barack Obama’s response to their crises — Christie’s being last year’s Hurricane Sandy.

Christie got in some hot water with fellow Republicans because his comments came so close to the presidential election and seemed to give Obama a boost against his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In contrast, Nungesser’s comments about Obama were largely ignored. As the leader of a remote, sparsely populated parish, he carried less clout. Besides, he also became a symbol of opposition to the feds when he and Gov. Bobby Jindal continued to push a plan to build sand berms in the Gulf of Mexico that they thought would stop some of the oil.

A December 2010 report from the national commission formed to investigate the leak and its response called the berm plan “underwhelmingly effective, overwhelmingly expensive,” trapping maybe 1,000 barrels of oil out of a total of 5 million spilled. The commission did concede, however, that the berms may have some coastal-protection benefits.

Nungesser got another turn in the national spotlight after Hurricane Isaac, and this time the tragedies were personal. His home was damaged by the storm, and his mother, Ruth, died less than a week later.

With flood insurance rates a hot topic lately, Nungesser’s profile has risen again. Last week, he was in New York at the invitation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, to speak at the governor’s Building Back Better: NY Rising Storm Recovery Conference.

From there, he went to the National Association of Counties convention, held over the weekend in Fort Worth, Texas. On Monday, he tweeted that NACO had unanimously adopted a resolution seeking changes to the Biggert-Waters Act.

Biggert-Waters, if you haven’t been paying attention, are the two words that have been on the lips of just about every politician in New York, New Jersey and Louisiana in recent months. It is the legal mechanism through which flood insurance rates are set to increase drastically over the next few years.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Republican running for Landrieu’s seat in 2014, have both pushed measures in Congress to delay the insurance increases. Nothing has made it to the president’s desk yet, and with the paralyzed state that Congress is in lately, there’s no telling if anything will make it there in time to help flood policyholders.

In other election news, meanwhile, Nungesser says he will run for lieutenant governor again, as he did unsuccessfully in 2011. The news section of his website, www.billynungesser.com, still shows as its most recent news release an announcement from late October 2011 that Tony Perkins, leader of the conservative Family Research Council, endorsed Nungesser. Among other strange bedfellows on the Nungesser bus back then, according to the website, were Republican Sen. David Vitter, the Louisiana Weekly newspaper, singer Sammy Kershaw and Mardi Gras impresario Blaine Kern Sr.

Bubba’s coalition was a motley one, for sure.

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.