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September 2007
John Georges tackles the storm in Louisiana
He’s running for governor and planning an October surprise

By Dimitri C. Michalakis

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans John Georges was out of town, but he made sure his family was safe and then he returned to the devastated city to stay alone for almost a year and help the city rebuild.

“Holy Trinity Cathedral was under four feet of water,” remembers the 46-year-old businessman of the cathedral, the oldest Greek church in the Americas, of which he is president. “But we got it open again in three months. The Patriarch came to visit us in the fourth month.” How did he do it when most of the city was still under water? “Divine intervention,” he drawls.

Actually, he put his hard-nosed business skills to use (he runs a $500 million family business called Imperial Trading), bargained with vendors and contractors and “we were there on the spot to make quick decisions when other people in that situation didn’t know what to do.”

And now he wants to do the same for the state by running for governor of Louisiana on the Republican ticket. He announced his candidacy only a few weeks ago and it doesn’t faze him that he’s starting out with an 8% approval rating in the polls, compared to the frontrunner’s 50%. He’s planning to climb into the double digits by Labor Day and is hinting of the proverbial “October surprise.”

He thinks Louisiana needs a hard-headed businessman at a crucial time like this. “All we have is a bunch of politicians running,” he says. “I not only helped rebuild my church in New Orleans, I helped rebuild my childrens’ school, and rebuild my businesses, while the government is still taking forever to get help to these people. People are still living in trailers. I think we have a leadership void and the next step is to take a shot at it.”

How would even a seasoned businessman cut through the inevitable bureaucracy of government? “Well, I’m a little more than a businessman,” he says. “I also served six years on the Louisiana Board of Regents, which is the governing board of higher education. So I have a background in running a government agency. The Regents ran all the universities and their academic curriculum, approved all the budgets, and the construction and expansion for all of Louisiana.’

“And let me ask you something. If you had a choice for one man to lead the recovery of Louisiana, who would you choose: Barack Obama or Lee Iacocca?” Iacocca? “Well, there you go,” he says. “That’s what I tell everybody. We ask where all of our leaders have gone, and I’m telling you they come from the generation where we used to cut grass, and wash trucks, and deliver papers, and we worked. I went to Greece to stay and work with my relatives, who were very poor, every summer.”

Georges has already sunk more than $5 million of his own money into the race, hired political pros, and put up a website (where he’s shown playing basketball with his 10-year-old son, appropriately called Nike). And he’s determined to separate himself from the other candidates in the campaign by projecting a positive image.

“The others are running negative campaigns,” he says. “The Republican is typically complaining about corruption, and the Democratic party is attacking him for voting with Bush. You can’t always go with your party when you serve your state. You have to pick. You have to be the governor that everybody wants, not the governor they have to have. I think this race is about leadership, not credentials.”

Georges got his credentials early growing up in New Orleans and working with his father Dennis and grandfather Gus in the family business, a food supply company started by his grandfather in 1916. “My grandfather came when he was 17, but actually there were Greeks in New Orleans even before the Civil War,” says Georges. “And they’ve always been prominent. New Orleans is a very European city. It’s one of the most interesting cities in America and has a lot of culture, history, and very beautiful architecture.”

Growing up, he says, “I went to work with my dad on Saturdays to wash trucks and I loved it. The business was small then, and it went through cycles of success. Our family is an American success story now in its fourth generation.”

When John took over he diversified the company into everything from real estate, to gaming, to shipping and to the oil business and the company is now a half-billion dollar powerhouse in many fields.

So why give that up now and go into politics?

“A couple of things happened,” says Georges. “My father died of a brain tumor in 2002 and you start to wonder what more can I do. I’ve made enough money. And I want to do something charitable. So I ran for the board of the church and became president. And when my business was doing well, I decided to fund my campaign and run for governor and that’s where I am.”

He says other successful businessmen are doing it all over the country and cites former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg as prime examples, though he admits the timing for such high-profile campaigns is risky.

“The timing usually never works out for these people,” he admits. “And the timing is not perfect for me, either, because it’s hard to get people to look at all the candidates: they get fixated on one. So you have to establish your own brand without taking the other guy down.”

In that light, he praises his opponent, Rep. Bobby Jindal, for being a “decent” person and says he wants him to stay a congressman so he can continue to help Louisiana and the Republicans hold on to their shrinking minority in Congress.

“He is a smart guy and he’s a good guy and he’s an honest guy,” Georges says, damning his opponent with positive spin. “But he’s needed in Washington right now.”

But won’t the next governor of Louisiana need to know his way around Washington and politics himself to get anything done for Louisiana at such a crucial time?

“Who said I don’t know politics?” Georges counters. “I’ve been in politics all my life. I’m a Greek.”

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