It was 1972, and Mike Walker didn’t know what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
He was a political science major at LSU who had volunteered with Mayor-President W.W. “Woody” Dumas giving speeches to young voters.
Then Dumas asked him to be chief administrative officer — a close adviser of the mayor who often operates as second in command of the city-parish.
Walker was only 23.
He never finished college, but Walker says those four years with Dumas were the best education he could have ever received — learning the ropes of the city-parish government, attending meetings as the mayor’s proxy and dealing with constituent issues.
Forty years later, Walker, now 63, is on the campaign trail to fill Dumas’ shoes.
He said he decided to run last year because he was concerned about the direction of the parish and the decisions and behavior of his one-time ally Kip Holden, who is seeking a third term as mayor-president.
But Walker admits he first entertained the thought while working for Dumas, the mayor-president of 16 years, when he started hearing whispers that Dumas saw Walker as a worthy successor.
“Everyone kept telling me, ‘That’s why he got you,’ ” Walker said. “He was grooming me to be mayor.”
Instead, Walker left city-parish government to help his father’s real estate business.
“It’s the only reason I left Woody, otherwise I would have never left,” Walker said. “Who knows, I may have run for mayor then in the ’80s, when Woody retired.”
Now, Walker, a Republican, faces Holden, a Democrat, and two no-party candidates — businessman Gordon Mese and lawyer Steve Myers — in the Nov. 6 election for mayor-president.
Walker frequently talks about Dumas as a role model and political influence. One of the most important lessons he learned from Dumas, Walker said, is being accessible. He frequently touts his open door policy in his Metro Council office in City Hall and has promised to remove the locked doors that prevent council members and others from having access to the mayor’s suite of offices.
Former Mayor-President Tom Ed McHugh went through the same exercise when he succeeded Pat Screen as mayor.
Walker also talks about the importance of trusting in young talent, much like Dumas did for him. His campaign manager, Chris Boudreaux, turned 30 in August, and his campaign office manager, Mallory Kennedy, is 25.
Walker, with his white hair and blue eyes, is a self-described people pleaser.
When talking about himself, he winks almost compulsively in an effort to keep things lighthearted. He often finds himself apologizing for referring to women as “darling” and “sweetheart,” a Southerner’s habit he said he’s had a hard time breaking.
Walker says he’s guided by his Southern Baptist value system, which he inherited from his loving yet nontraditional upbringing.
Walker was born in Shreveport to an unwed 16-year-old.
“She had a choice, and she chose life,” Walker said.
He said was first adopted by his grandparents, then at the age of 14 was adopted a second time by his biological mother’s sister and her husband.
His aunt and uncle adopted him after his grandparents became unable to take care of him because of their age. His adoptive parents brought him to Baton Rouge, where he has remained since.
Walker said he’s close to all of the members of his family, who have given him love and instilled values. He often quotes his biological grandmother’s motto — “Be Kind” — as his own moral compass.
Walker’s friend of 14 years and legislative aide Zona Pickens said she knows Walker and his wife Marie to be deeply compassionate and family-oriented people.
“Over the years since I’ve known him, they’ve taken in a teenage grandson who needed some help and they had him stay for a couple years and saw to his education,” Pickens said. “Part of Mike’s personal make-up was that he wants to help people.”
Walker was elected District 8 Metro Councilman in 2000. He was unopposed in 2004 and won with 70 percent of the vote in 2008.
Because of term limits, Walker cannot run for re-election as a councilman.
Walker gave up his real estate practice to focus for the past 12 years on what is technically considered a part-time job.
“This has been my only job; there’s nothing else I wanted to do,” he said.
Buddy Amoroso, the Metro Councilman-elect set to fill Walker’s vacant council seat January 1, said Walker has set a “very high standard” for him.
Amoroso, who has known Walker for 30 years, describes the candidate as a consensus builder, always willing to consider different perspectives when debating an issue.
He recalled meeting with Walker several years ago when the Metro Council was considering a parishwide smoking ban in public buildings, including restaurants and bars.
Amoroso said he disagreed with the ban at the time, which Walker supported, because he felt it was a property owner’s right to decide.
“We have always been able to have civil conversations,” Amoroso said. “Mike stood his ground when it was a matter of principle. He never took it personal that we disagreed. I look back now and say, ‘Mike, you were right, the restaurants are a lot better.’ ”
While Walker is typically known for his warm demeanor, he has demonstrated flashes of temper — most frequently reserved for Holden but sometimes directed at others.
He once got into a shouting match with Councilman Scott Wilson just outside the council’s chambers after a stormy meeting at which Walker had erupted in anger at Wilson and Chandler Loupe. He later publicly apologized to both, saying: “I interrupted, I insulted, I ridiculed and I criticized two of my colleagues in a manner that I should never have done.”
Both Wilson and Loupe have endorsed Walker for mayor.
More recently, after a tense June 27 Metro Council meeting, Walker became visibly angry with Downtown Development District officials who approached him after he voted against a routine personnel approval for their agency. Walker threatened to vote against any future downtown projects.
“Don’t give me any static,” Walker told DDD officials Davis Rhorer and Chris Nichols, “or I will vote no, no and no ... I won’t vote for anything on downtown.”
Walker said he’ll leave his council post most proud of the road projects under way across his district and securing the Fairwood Branch Library for his district.
Walker says his biggest mistake as a councilman was co-sponsoring a resolution expressing tolerance for people of all “colors, religions, sexual orientations, nationalities, and people of all walks of life.”
After the resolution failed in 2007, with Walker voting against it, he brought it back up in 2010 for the new council’s consideration.
“I thought I wanted to say that I didn’t discriminate against anyone,” Walker said, adding that he was inspired by his grandmother’s words to “be kind.”
“What I did not understand was that it totally goes against my spiritual and personal beliefs,” he said, citing its tolerance of homosexuality. “After reading the wording thoroughly and understanding what was truly trying to be said, I disagreed with it.”
But Joe Traigle, a gay businessman who spearheaded the effort, noted that Walker himself was responsible for some key language changes he said would help garner council support.
“Mike Walker was totally, completely awake, engaged and supportive of the resolution until the day it was to come up for a vote,” Traigle said.
Traigle said he was disappointed in Walker’s lack of resolve and accused him of bowing to pressure and “pandering” to conservative Christian groups that opposed the resolution.
Walker’s campaign is in full gear, complete with a phone-bank headquarters, regular weekend canvassing trips and a significant presence on social media.
Walker has joked before at campaign events that people need to watch for his competitive side: “If I see two ants walking down on the street, I’ll bet on one of them,” he laughed.
Walker started aggressively campaigning in February and says he has knocked on more than 10,000 doors and put out 1,500 signs.
“Please understand,” Walker said. “We intend to win. We’re going to do what it takes legally, morally and ethically to win. I know no other way. I have no other motive. I have no other goal.”
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