Over the weekend, the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame righted a wrong and inducted two men into the hall who should have been there years ago.
Former Speaker of the House and judge Jim Dimos of Monroe and West Monroe Mayor Dave Norris took their place alongside dozens of Louisianians who previously had been recognized for their contributions to Louisiana politics.
Now 78 years of age and retired from the Fourth Judicial District Court bench for a decade, Dimos got into politics in earnest in 1975 when he was elected to the House of Representatives to represent part of Ouachita Parish, including what is described as old north Monroe. His mild-mannered demeanor was the right fit for a district that prided itself — and still does — as being above the fray.
Known as a reformer, Dimos didn’t make many waves in his first three terms in office. His desk was in the back of the chamber when I worked there as a page in the summers of 1986 and 1987. I don’t recall him lighting one of those long cigars he always had in his mouth while he rocked back and forth in his chair but you could spot Dimos from a distance by that stogie. He was pleasant and he didn’t say much, but when he rose to question legislation the House was debating or took that long walk to the well of the House to speak, lawmakers listened. He was respected. His opinion mattered.
Obviously Dimos mattered enough for Gov. Buddy Roemer to tap him to serve as Speaker of the House in Roemer’s one and only term as governor. A lawmaker rarely becomes speaker without the governor’s blessing. That was especially the case in 1988 when Dimos landed the gig, for the year before Roemer rode a wave of voter discontent to temporarily derail Edwin Edwards’ reign over state politics.
There was a buzz in the air in that summer of ’88 in Dimos’ first year as speaker. Even as an 18-year-old aide for Rep. Al Ater of Ferriday, also a member of the hall of fame, I sensed it. Eventually, it was not to be because Edwards still held sway over a host of lawmakers who weren’t on board with the Roemer Revolution. By 1992, Roemer was out and Edwards was back in. Dimos was no longer speaker but he remained a member of the House until his election to the district court bench in 1999.
Dimos didn’t serve on the bench for a long period of time (about eight years), but when he served the Fourth Judicial District Court was widely regarded as one of the better judicial districts in Louisiana. Jurists like Dimos were cut from a different cloth, so to speak. Perhaps his immigrating to America from Yugoslavia at the age of 12, not knowing the English language, had something to do with it.
In 2006 as Dimos was about to retire from the bench, he told The Ouachita Citizen, “The law is a fascinating profession. You’ve got to enjoy it to be in it, and I enjoyed it.”
Norris was an economics professor at then-Northeast Louisiana University when he, at the age of 35, ran for mayor of West Monroe. That was in 1978. Bert Hatten, who had served as mayor since 1966, didn’t seek re-election.
West Monroe was still a somewhat sleepy mill town back then. Tight-knit and blue collar. Conservative Democrat was everyone’s politics.
But obviously West Monroe was ready for a change of pace because Norris is not what you would describe as blue collar and there’s absolutely nothing about him that’s conservative.
Except in the manner in which he handles the city’s money.
Though West Monroe’s population has remained largely unchanged during Norris’ stint as mayor, the city has evolved into a retail hub, serving not just the city’s residents but also the tens of thousands of people who now call western Ouachita Parish home. To surmise, as Monroe took on a more urban feel, western Ouachita Parish grew, and the city of West Monroe benefitted from it.
Like any small city anywhere in America, West Monroe has faced its fair share of problems over the years. Whether it was inadequate drainage or water and sewer systems that needed to be overhauled or streets that needed a fresh coating of asphalt, Norris has always been one step ahead of the pack in recognizing what West Monroe needed to do to improve its infrastructure in order to meet its residents’ needs as well as handle growth in commerce that seems to never end.
Today, West Monroe is in the midst of an ongoing endeavor to replace its water and sewer lines as well as rework city streets. The city took on millions of dollars in bonded indebtedness to do it. And Norris, somehow in an anti-tax environment, convinced city residents to approve a new sales tax to pay for it.
That’s an example of a community having faith in its leadership to do the right thing.
It’s easy to overlook the progress West Monroe has made in the 10 terms that Norris has served as mayor. You don’t necessarily notice it when you see it every day. Yet, it’s all around you.
To me, I find it remarkable that West Monroe has achieved what it has without drowning the city in debt while levying one of the lowest property tax rates in the state. Perhaps the solid working relationship Norris has with his Board of Aldermen has played a role in it. Perhaps the city’s residents supporting every major endeavor Norris has proposed over the past 40 years has had something to do with it.
I believe honesty is what it’s all about. And Norris is honest. Obviously, his constituents know it.
When public officials have served in an elected capacity for as long as Norris has served, it’s not uncommon for the people to tire of them. In some cases, the voting public decides it’s time for them to retire. It’s not until after they’re gone that the public realizes they lost a good leader. Then you’re likely to encounter remarks such as “that’s not the way Dave did it” or “that’s not what Dave would have done.”
Mark my word, the same will be said of Norris when he retires as mayor.
Like Dimos, Norris has made his mark.
Being inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame was a nice feather in their caps, but their inductions fail to adequately pay tribute to the contributions both men have made to their state and their communities.
Sam Hanna Jr. is publisher of The Ouachita Citizen, and he serves in an editorial/management capacity with The Concordia Sentinel and The Franklin Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org