By Frank Mccormac
May 15, 2017
The year was 1956, and Earl Kemp Long—known simply as “Uncle Earl” throughout much of Louisiana—had just begun his third nonconsecutive term as governor of the Bayou State.
One day after taking office, Long was stumping for members of the state legislature in Convent, about halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. A high school-aged Joe Accardo traveled to the site with his father to hear Long speaking from the back of a pickup truck.
“That was my first brush with politics on the state level,” Accardo said.
But it would be far from his last: Accardo would go on to serve 24 impactful years in the state’s House of Representatives, after which time he served as executive director of both the Port of South Louisiana and the Ports Association of Louisiana (PAL). On April 30, Accardo officially retired from PAL after 12 years as executive director. He was succeeded by Gary LaGrange, former president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans.
Long before all that, though, Accardo grew up on a small vegetable farm in Belmont, La., along what’s known as the Belmont Crevasse area of St. James Parish. The Accardo family owned about 100 acres and leased another 40 or so for farming. In those days, Accardo said he doesn’t remember seeing many ships or tankers pass by his house, but he does remember playing along the batture and swimming in the Mississippi River near his home.
“The Mississippi River was our swimming pool,” Accardo said.
He attended Louisiana State University (LSU) and lived in the famous North Stadium dormitory. According to Louisiana legend and history, in 1936 the state budget had money earmarked for additional dorm space at LSU but no money for a stadium expansion. To achieve both ends, Louisiana Governor Huey Pierce Long (brother of Earl Long) and LSU athletic director Skipper Heard devised a plan to build dormitories adjacent to the north end zone of LSU’s football stadium, with new bleachers built over the dorm.
After six months in the Army Reserve, Accardo returned to LSU to study law. During that time, Accardo said, he and his classmates would frequently go down to the state legislature to observe lawmakers in session.
He graduated in June of 1965 and passed the bar exam that August. Accardo said at the beginning of his time in law school there were 154 students in his class. Four were women. Fifty-two finished in 1965 with their law degrees, including all four women.
Accardo first practiced law in Luling, and in 1967 he moved to LaPlace, where he lives to this day. He recalled putting down roots in LaPlace and establishing his law practice.
“You developed your business by getting involved in the community,” Accardo said. “That’s how you drummed up business.”
That community involvement also laid the foundation for Accardo running for an open seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1971.
“I won the election by 400 or 500 votes in 1971,” Accardo said. “I took office in 1972, and Gov. [Edwin] Edwards was the governor.”
Talking with Accardo, it’s easy to see that he’s not only proud of his time in the legislature—he enjoyed it as well.
Accardo remembers well the first vote he cast as a member of the House of Representatives. Bubba Henry was Speaker of the House during Accardo’s first term, and Accardo recalled that as a time of reform for the House of Representatives.
“There was a time when people could walk right up to a legislator’s desk and talk to them,” Accardo said. “The first vote I ever made as a member of the house was to institute Rule 1, which essentially said only legislators could be on the floor of the House while they were in session. … It essentially pushed lobbyists and others outside the rail. It was the start of a whole list of interesting reforms in the legislature.”
There was a constitutional convention in 1975, with a new constitution passed in 1976. Accardo was appointed chairman of a subcommittee tasked with drafting a code of ethics for all Louisiana public servants.
Accardo was elected without opposition in 1975. In that term, he served on the House Transportation Committee. He won re-election in 1979 with only one opponent. During that term, he was made chairman of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, where he served for two terms.
It was in the mid 1980s when Accardo—unknowingly at the time—began in earnest his transition to the maritime industry. At that time, the Godchaux sugar refinery in Reserve, La., owned by the Hunt Brothers, had filed for bankruptcy. As a member of the legislature and representative of the area, Accardo worked alongside the Port of South Louisiana to help save the refinery, which had operated in Reserve since the mid 1800s. It was Accardo’s first direct involvement with the port. Unfortunately, the banks involved rejected offers to keep the refinery in business. Accardo said one such offer was from New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson to purchase the refinery.
“We were not successful in saving that refinery, and 400 people lost their jobs,” Accardo said.
Much of the sugar refinery was sold to a California company, transformed into Riverplex International Inc., and operated as a terminal. That venture only lasted about five years, and in 1992, the Port of South Louisiana purchased the property and redeveloped it into what’s now known as Globalplex.
In the meantime, Accardo worked hard on legislation that dealt with Louisiana’s Uniform Commercial Code, which sought to improve access to insurance for people with pre-existing conditions. He was also part of the legislature that established the Louisiana Port Construction and Development Priority Program. He concluded his 24 years in the legislature with finally seeing in 1995 the completion of the Veterans Memorial Bridge spanning the Mississippi River between Gramercy and Wallace.
After retiring from the legislature, Accardo continued serving as counsel for the Port of South Louisiana. In 1998, he was made in-house counsel and intergovernmental affairs director of the port. Then when Gary LaGrange left the Port of South Louisiana for the Port of Gulfport in late 1999, Accardo was hired as executive director. He served in that role for five years. In April 2005, he became executive director of the Ports Association of Louisiana, where he served until the end of April.
For decades, Accardo has been an impactful and much loved person at the state capital, and that won’t change in the near term. Looking to the future, Accardo knows he’ll still be present and active in the ports association and in politics in general. He still serves on some boards and committees, and he’s an honorary member of PAL. He’ll be present for the May 9 Ports Day at the legislature.
But he’s also looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Catherine (to whom he will have been married for 50 years in November), his three children and six grandchildren.
“It’s been a good life, frankly,” Accardo said. “God’s been good to me and my family. The only question now is how much time do I have and what difference can I make.”