Political Horizons: Crawfish and computers

by mark ballard

mballard@theadvocate.com

Quite a few New Orleanians of a certain age can still recall the address of a seafood store on North Broad that closed 20 years ago.

The relentless commercials of Al Scarmuzza and “Seafood City, very pretty” are part of the reason why crawfish boils are now such a hallmark of Louisiana culture. Once only the centerpiece of springtime afternoons in Atchafalaya Basin communities, crawfish became ubiquitous Louisiana through complementary efforts by politicians, professors and entrepreneurs.

The take-away from the crawfish story is that harmonizing labors from individual sectors create sustainable industries that can survive the sweeping ups and downs of broad national and international business cycles. Former Gov. Buddy Roemer says lessons of the crawfish tale should be studied by Louisiana’s government officials, particularly since the state is presumably on the verge of an economic boom similar to the 1960s and 1970s.

Now a Baton Rouge banker, Roemer presided as governor during the late 1980s collapse of Louisiana’s last economic upsurge. He says rapid economic expansions and declines come in cycles that are controlled by broad international forces over which state officials have little impact.

Good times cover up lazy organization and poor planning. “Adding value is the secret to longevity and sustainability,” Roemer said.

State government now should focus on spending tax dollars on higher education projects, state incentives and the business community in a coordinated way to build up businesses that are unique to Louisiana, he said.

Author Glen Pitre in 1993 gave Elvis Presley the credit for turning crawfish from a Lenten treat in a few parishes to, first, a statewide pastime and, then, an international industry. In his “The Crawfish Book,” Pitre tied the growth in interest to an a capella duet in the 1958 Presley movie “King Creole.”

The next year, Louisiana House Speaker Bob Angelle got then-Gov. Earl K. Long to sign a proclamation naming Breaux Bridge, a town so small it didn’t appear on road maps, the “Crawfish Capital of the World” and establishing the town’s now-famous festival.

Angelle then arranged for Breaux Bridge to be the summer kickoff to statewide election campaigning, said author Sam Irwin, who is writing a book about the history of crawfish that is scheduled for publication around Mardi Gras 2014. The event attracted all the leading politicians of the day, including Long and Jimmie Davis, whose speeches, sprinkled with glowing references to the crustaceans, were reported in all the major newspapers across the state.

“The politicians of the day were the stars of the state,” Irwin said. “My contention is that the event brought a lot of attention to Breaux Bridge and to crawfish.”

In 1960, Scarmuzza, needing to move a temporary overstock, ran a television spot with two comely blondes refusing steak, but dancing at the arrival of boiled crawfish. “Next day the store was packed,” Scarmuzza told Pitre.

To be commercially viable enough to meet the increased demand created by entrepreneurs like Scarmuzza, crawfish needed to be available all the time, not just when the Atchafalaya floods. The Wildlife and Fisheries Commission created a pond specifically for farming crawfish. LSU standardized the procedures that individual farmers used for raising crawfish in flooded fields after rice is harvested in August. The efforts dramatically increased production and allowed for year-round supplies.

Louisiana’s now-international crawfish industry sort of fell together as the different sectors, while not necessarily working together, undertook complementary projects.

Roemer says coordination is the key. Tax policies and incentives should harmonize.

Texas taxes energy reserves and dedicates that money to state universities. “Energy should pay its fair share in these good times to strengthen the state and these funds should be used to … diversify our economy to fill in the gaps when energy conditions fall, as they surely will,” Roemer said, adding that oil and gas will always be a very important part of Louisiana’s economic mix.

He gives high marks to the Jindal administration for agreeing to spend $14 million over the next decade to shore up LSU computer science programs, which would benefit the IBM new software development center coming to Baton Rouge.

“Now, we need to follow up,” Roemer said. “One system, not five.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.