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'America's Bubba': Is Nungesser an oil folk hero or an opportunist?

By Drew Jubera, Special to CNN
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At the office with Billy Nungesser
  • Billy Nungesser has become a kind of point man for the Gulf region's uncapped rage
  • Others call him a tyrant and hypocrite
  • "Call me a loudmouth. Call me fat," he says. "But don't go after my sincerity and integrity."

Belle Chasse, Louisiana (CNN) -- It's 8 a.m. inside the third-floor war room of the government building in Plaquemines Parish, ground zero in the three-month battle against BP's mess.

At one end of the crowded room: a wall lit by a live storm-tracking map.

At the other end, his collar open, sleeves up, filling every inch of a padded chair like some bayou potentate: Billy Nungesser, parish president and public enemy of anybody who can't get something done.

With a storm threatening, Nungesser discourses for the next 82 minutes on wind speed projections, jack-up boats, water pump replacement parts ("get a price, get 'em and we'll fight with FEMA later") and the rising anger of locals still unpaid for BP cleanup work ("'We're trying' is getting old").

Then he stops: Somebody's missing from the table. Told the missing man had a heart attack, Nungesser smiles.

"We've had three people in these meetings who've had heart attacks. Must be something in the room."

Everyone stares straight ahead. So Nungesser does what he always does: says what they won't.

"I give everyone heart attacks."

More than 100 days into this historic catastrophe, few officials or institutions have escaped Nungesser's unholstered, often heart-stopping rants. As a result, the 51-year-old Republican who made millions building offshore housing for oil rig workers has become point man for the region's uncapped rage and frustration.

Read how the Gulf became the naton's 'toilet bowl'

When outgoing BP CEO Tony Hayward doubted that oil plumes were drifting through the waters off Plaquemines Parish, Nungesser responded on national TV that he'd "like to take him offshore and stick him 10 feet under the water and pull him up with that black all over his face and ask him what that is."

He called retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen "an embarrassment" and "a cartoon character," then pronounced him "not the right man for the job."

He told President Obama the first time the two met, "There's been a failure of leadership at all levels. Who in the hell is in charge?"

What he brings to the table is something visceral and raw and brave and at times unhinged.
--Douglas Brinkley, historian

His first-responder urgency and authority-leveling bluntness, all delivered in a musical Louisiana accent, have made Nungesser a kind of fighting man's folk hero. One observer dubbed him, as a compliment, "America's Bubba."

"What he brings to the table is something visceral and raw and brave and at times unhinged," says historian Douglas Brinkley, author of "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

"He has an umpire's skill of calling balls and strikes -- he calls it the way he sees it. He's able to go after BP and the Obama administration with equal fury. People are counting on him to be the last uncompromised man in Louisiana."

In soil as corruption-rich as this state's, a word like "uncompromised" can be relative. After all, this is where convicted felon Edwin Edwards ran successfully against a Klansman for governor by appealing to voters' better natures with the slogan "Vote for the Crook. It's Important."

And while Nungesser has been battling big oil and bureaucratic inaction the last three months, he's also running for re-election in a parish known for its eye-gouging political style.

So opponents -- and he has a few -- have tagged him as everything from a tyrant and a hypocrite to an opportunist and a lawbreaker. His relationship with the parish council is described by a fellow Republican member as "war."

He's been accused of taking BP money when the oil company renovated a marina for the recovery effort in which he has an ownership share.

In June, a legislative audit alleged four possible legal and ethical violations of the parish charter and local law.

Read about the oil disaster's invisible toll

And an old story resurfaced on the internet that he was a patron back in the 1980s of a New Orleans brothel run by the infamous "Canal Street Madam."

"There's a lot of greed going on," says Republican councilman Don Beshel, an opponent. "He's very good with money -- he knows how to make sure it's going in the direction he wants it to."

Former two-term Parish President Benny Rousselle, a Democrat running against Nungesser, says Nungesser's behavior has "set the parish back many years. Whatever it takes to get votes, he'll do."

If you disagree with Billy, you're fired. Everything's around Billy. It's Billyworld.
--Benny Rousselle, former parish president and election opponent

Rousselle says he especially resents Nungesser's attacks on Allen, widely praised for leading the federal response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"Just because Billy didn't agree with him, he attacked him personally," Rousselle says. "That's the way Billy operates. If you disagree with Billy, you're fired.

"Everything's around Billy," he adds. "It's Billyworld."

Nungesser dismisses the attacks as politics as usual, and adds of Rousselle, "It's hard to make someone like you understand how evil this man is."

He says that his business interests were put in a blind trust when he became parish president and that BP renovated the marina he part-owns, without his knowledge or any discussion involving him, because it was closest to the recovery effort.

He also says the legislative audit is full of holes and half-truths that distort how parish business is done, and he has given a detailed response to each allegation.

As for accusations concerning the Canal Street brothel, Nungesser, who brought it up, shakes his head. He denies ever visiting it, adding, with a Billy-esque grace note, "I was single and didn't know it was there. If I knew at the time that it was, I probably would've went."

Nungesser says he can take as good as he gives -- to a point.

"Tell me you don't like me. Call me a loudmouth. Call me fat," he says. "But don't go after my sincerity and integrity."

Brinkley, who has appeared often with Nungesser on CNN's AC360°, allows that "there's a fear factor when dealing with Billy. He's like a talk radio guy. If he doesn't like you, he can light you up.

"There's an implied threat with everything Billy does," Brinkley says. " 'You won't get me the berms? I'm going to tell.' It gets people to jump, from Thad Allen to the president. He's a bruiser."

Nungesser downplays this side of his inside game. Then he adds, "I don't push. But I do threaten."

Seafood, oil and politics

He was raised in Algiers, the New Orleans neighborhood on the Mississippi's west bank, and grew up in the belly of the local holy trinity: seafood, oil and politics.

His father, William "Billy" Nungesser Sr., ran a canning company, and the younger Billy regularly rode with him the length of Plaquemines Parish to buy barrels of shrimp to bring back for sale. The business later moved into catering for offshore oil workers.

The chain-smoking, raspy-voiced elder Nungesser -- sometimes called the "Red Elephant" for his full head of bright hair and charging, often bruising political manner -- was a Louisiana rarity for his time: a Republican.

But he worked tirelessly to get David Treen elected governor in 1980, the first Republican to hold that office since Reconstruction. Treen appointed him chief of staff.

He was later appointed to the Louisiana Gaming Control Board by Edwards ("the Crook" needed someone respectable), and was chairman on the Orleans Levee Board, warning long before Katrina that weak levees on the Mississippi couldn't withstand a major storm.

But his tenure on the Levee Board was brief: Board members complained about his combative style; he openly accused the board of corruption.

After Katrina, Nungesser, who died in 2006, said of the board, "Every time I turned over a rock, there was something rotten. I used to tell people, 'If your children die in a hurricane, come shoot us because we're responsible. We throw away all sorts of money.' "

The younger Billy hardly seemed destined to follow in the Big Elephant's footsteps. He dropped out of college, and he lost an early state Senate bid in Algiers.

But he knew how to make money. His breakthrough: converting old shipping containers into portable offshore housing. General Marine Leasing eventually supplied 75 percent of the buildings used offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. He sold it for almost $20 million.

He raised elk on the sprawling riverbank property he'd moved to in Plaquemines. But most of the 100-head herd was lost in 2005, when Katrina virtually washed away the parish, a vulnerable 100-mile-long peninsula that traces the Mississippi to the Gulf.

Katrina was Nungesser's political wakeup call. Even today, photos of the destruction line a hallway in the parish government building. Told he should run for a council seat, he ran for president.

"I ran out of personal anger," he says. "It's disgusting, the leadership we had in place. Nobody did s--- after Katrina."

Rousselle, parish president at the time, says that's typical, self-serving Nungesser bluster.

"We did more after Katrina than he could imagine. Everything was in place when he came in and could spend the money and cut the ribbons. A lot of people put a lot of effort getting us where we were when he took over."

Out of the 8,016 ballots cast in 2006, Nungesser won by a mere 176. He was the first Republican, and first non-native parishioner, in anyone's memory to win the office.

'They keep coming back'

He's sweated through his now-signature white shirts almost nonstop since -- through the Katrina recovery, the fallout from hurricanes Rita, Gustav and Ike. Now this.

Married once briefly (nine months), he's been engaged through all the crises of the last five years. He promises that when he gets through this one, and "if we don't have another hurricane or anything else destroyed," then he'll start "planning" a wedding again.

He averages about four hours of sleep and says he's gained 75 pounds since taking the job.

"Billy's the hardest-working human being I've ever come across, and I've been a workaholic since I was 8," says Robert Isakson, managing director of Mobile-based DRC Emergency Services, which runs the spill's restoration program. "He demands perfection. He's taken the oil spill personally."

Read memories of families of oil rig victims

Following his morning meeting, Nungesser's day is an endless series of conference calls, more meetings, on-the-fly decisions, swigs of Diet Coke, lunch at his desk -- and Tourette-like outbursts against BP or the Coast Guard or anyone else who slows his momentum. The only thing he blows off without a second thought is a scheduled council meeting.

Then BP announces it is pulling equipment out of the parishes because of the potential storm. Nungesser hits the roof. On a conference call with other parish presidents and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, he jokes that he'll shoot out the tires of any truck he sees on the highway hauling away protective boom. (Later, the FBI reprimands him for the comment.)

Billy's the hardest-working human being I've ever come across... He's taken the oil spill personally.
--Robert Isakson, managing director of firm running spill's restoration program.

In the middle of it all, he learns that a man who has driven his family all the way from Kentucky just to meet him is waiting in the lobby. A few minutes later, Nungesser is taking pictures with them in his office, handing out parish T-shirts and hats, regaling them all with the bone-headedness of the offshore oil moratorium.

"He's a voice for the working people," says Michael Davenport, a Frankfort developer so moved by Nungesser's TV appearances that he decided the night before to pack up his family and drive down.

"He represents their will," he adds. "I feel that, and I'm from Kentucky."

Nungesser admits to bigger political ambitions. He flirted this summer with running for lieutenant governor and says a poll showed he had overwhelming statewide support.

But he dropped the idea, he says, because too much work remains to get the parish back on its feet. He also worried about who'd take his place.

By 5 p.m., Nungesser stands on a ferry crossing the Mississippi to the parish's east bank. He is headed to a town hall meeting to address concerns of the mostly African-American oystermen and fisherman who live there. After that, he'll travel to another appointment in New Orleans. It will go on like that until late into the night. His first appointment the next day: 6 a.m.

The ferry reaches the east bank and Nungesser continues south, driving in the shadow of an endless levee the entire way. Virtually every building he passes had to be rebuilt after Katrina, including the school where he is going to speak. Few places have been hit this hard, this often.

Yet in the gold glow of the lowering sun, people are sitting in their backyards, parked in front of churches, riding bikes.

"We're still fighting for survival, and every day getting the rug pulled out from under us," Nungesser says along the way. "But we'll survive. We're going to win this war, with or without their help."

Then he adds, "There's something special about the soil beneath people's feet here. I haven't figured it out yet. But they keep coming back, and coming back ..."

Right now, it's his world.