Hank Braden, former state senator and Barthelemy aide, dies at 68

Hank Braden
Hank Braden

Like so many friendships in New Orleans that blossomed into political alliances, this one started in high school, at St. Augustine. There in the front row of the class, all four years, sat Lambert Boissiere Jr., Paul Beaulieu and Hank Braden.

“Boissiere, Beaulieu and Braden — we sounded like a major law firm,” recalled Boissiere, the former City Council member who would later join his classmates at the Urban League and work with Braden as members of COUP, the 7th Ward political organization.

With Braden’s death on Monday at age 68 from congestive heart failure, the teenage triumvirate lost one of its former members. And New Orleans lost a memorable behind-the-scenes player who helped shape politics in the city and at the state Legislature for a generation — an accomplished fundraiser, lobbyist and loyal aide who helped put some of the city’s first black politicians in office.

Braden was perhaps best known as an unofficial but close adviser to former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy — who graduated a year ahead of Braden at St. Augustine — but he started off working for local advocacy organizations at the tail end of the Civil Rights era, first for the anti-poverty group Total Community Action Inc. and later the local branch of the Urban League.

At the latter, he helped organize the integration of southeast Louisiana’s trade unions, part of federal affirmative action plan under President Richard Nixon that required federal contractors to hire minorities for the first time. He ran the Labor Education Advancement Plan, which recruited and trained students to take entrance exams for the various trades.

Later, as an organizer for COUP with Boissiere and Barthelemy, he earned a reputation for his prowess raising political dollars as the group threw its weight behind Moon Landrieu’s run for mayor, then launched Barthelemy’s elected career with a successful run for the state Senate.

“His passion really was politics,” Barthelemy said. “He loved the whole process of government.”

Henry “Hank” Braden IV was born Aug. 24, 1944, the son of Henry Braden III, a prominent and politically active physician for the city’s Longshoremen’s union.

He graduated from St. Augustine High School in 1961, then LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1965. At the Urban League he tapped his former friends Boissiere and Beaulieu to help with the group’s integration efforts.

Boissiere said it’s a part of Braden’s career that often gets overlooked, but that did substantial good. With funding from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Urban League “got thousands of young kids in 11 trade unions across southeast Louisiana,” he said.

After COUP and other black political groups helped get Landrieu elected as mayor, Braden took a job as director of manpower and economic development, part of the first class of black officials to wield power at City Hall.

At the same time, he took classes at Loyola University, earning a law degree in 1975.

He helped Barthelemy, who also worked in the Landrieu administration, become the first black state senator in 1974.

And four years later, when Barthelemy won an at-large seat on the City Council, Braden made his first and only run for office, winning Barthelemy’s old seat in the state Senate in 1978 with just a handful of votes over Louis Charbonnet, who was backed by the rival political faction led by the city’s first black mayor, Dutch Morial.

Braden held his spot in the Legislature for only a single term, however. Always more comfortable behind the scenes and without much inclination for the glad-handing that comes with being a candidate, he lost his spot to another of Morial’s allies, Dennis Bagneris.

From then on, Braden played a less direct but no less active role in politics, serving as a member of Barthelemy’s informal “kitchen cabinet” at City Hall and making a living as a skilled lobbyist in Baton Rouge.

Senate President John Alario remembers Braden as particularly active on issues related to the city’s convention center, tourism and the Saints. “He was so easy to work with, so likable and intelligent,” Alario said. “He was a big fighter for the working people of the state.”

Even after Barthelemy left office in 1994, Braden stayed active as a fundraiser for local candidates, serving as finance chair in Ed Murray’s brief mayoral campaign in 2009 and advising judicial candidates, including Paulette Irons and Kern Reese.

Braden’s law partner, Romi Gonzalez, said that he was still making regular lobbying trips to Baton Rouge right through this year’s legislative session, though he had been ill for several years.

It was not until about a month ago that heart and kidney problems began to slow him down, Gonzalez said.

Braden is survived by his wife, Michele Braden, his sons Hal and Nicholas Braden; daughters Heidi and Remi Braden; and one grandchild, Jack Cooper.

Funeral arrangements, which are being handled by Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home, have yet to be announced.