|Intro||American businessman and Republican politician|
|From||United States of America|
|Birth||28 January 1927, Shreveport, Caddo Parish, Louisiana, U.S.A.|
|Death||14 February 1991, Shreveport, Caddo Parish, Louisiana, U.S.A. (aged 64 years)|
George Joseph Despot (January 28, 1927 – February 14, 1991) was a businessman in his native Shreveport and a pioneer in the establishment of a competitive Republican Party in the U.S. state of Louisiana. He was the state Republican chairman from 1978 to 1985. His leadership began when the state party was so small that there was a standing joke that the Louisiana GOP could operate from a phone booth, few of which still exist, though the Republicans became the majority party in Louisiana by 2012.
Despot was born to George G. Despot (1898-1969) and Katherine "Katie" Despot (1901-1977). The Despots were Roman Catholics and Croatian; they came to the United States under an "Old World" arranged marriage. There were trials in the home, with more than one separation.
George Despot's younger daughter, Rebecca A. Despot (born 1961), reflected on her paternal grandparents: "My grandfather and his brother had a restaurant in Shreveport called "the Columbia," [which was] open twenty-four hours a day. ... It became the businessman's hangout in town. When [one sees] old pictures of Shreveport, there are always pictures of the Columbia. They sent Daddy to school when he was three because they did not know [that] they were not supposed to send him so early."
For a time, young George Despot attended a Catholic high school in New Orleans. Despot graduated from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and Louisiana State University Law Center in Baton Rouge.
Despot earned his living in the oil and natural gas business as the owner of Despot Explorations, Inc.
As state chairman
In 1960, Despot sponsored Republican advertisements for the Nixon/Lodge presidential ticket, which lost in Louisiana to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. In 1964, Despot rallied behind the gubernatorial candidacy of Shreveporter Charlton Lyons. Lyons waged the first serious Republican campaign in modern Louisiana history but fell far short of victory. Despot and a friend, Shreveport CPA George A. Burton, were named by Lyons as the campaign co-chairmen, largely because it was Despot and Burton who convinced Lyons to run for governor. The winner was Democrat John McKeithen. While Lyons was running for governor, Despot was an unsuccessful candidate for the Caddo Parish Police Jury, now known as the Caddo Parish Commission.
On November 8, 1966, Despot lost a second race — for the Caddo Parish School Board. So did his friend George Burton. Despot never again sought office himself but instead labored for other Republican candidates. Burton went on to become in 1971 the first Shreveport Republican since Reconstruction to be elected to municipal office as the citywide Shreveport finance commissioner.
In 1976, Despot was first elected by his fellow Caddo Parish party members from District 33, to the Republican State Central Committee. Two years later he was named state chairman by committee members. Chairman Despot demanded that party organizations call caucuses to endorse one specific candidate in races in which more than one Republican filed for office. This was necessary to prevent GOP candidates from diluting their strength. Otherwise, none might poll enough primary votes even to make the ballot in the general election under Louisiana's unique nonpartisan blanket primary law, in which all candidates regardless of party affiliation run on the same ballot. Then the two top votegetters, assuming that no one secured a numerical majority in the primary, meet in the general election, popularly called a "runoff."
When challenged about endorsements in a 1980 party caucus in Bossier City for a city council position, Despot thundered:
"The party endorsement is worth a great deal. Some voters will not have a chance to meet either candidate. Without party endorsement, they might not vote for either Republican. I will enforce party discipline with an iron hand across this state. If the chair refuses to call a caucus, I will remove the Political Action Council chairwoman."
Despot noted that his party could not then realistically contest all offices on the ballot: "There are just some [legislative] districts in the state where there is little opportunity for a Republican to get elected." This pick-and-choose approach was not conducive to rapid growth for the GOP but instead contributed to the partisan complexion of the legislature remaining largely unchanged even when Treen was elected governor in 1979.
Louisiana GOP removes Despot as chairman
Despot was removed as chairman in 1985 by a group identified with the "Religious Right", a number of whom had been supporters of former Governor David C. Treen though it was unclear whether Treen was involved in the plot against Despot. Despot's predecessor as chairman, John H. Cade, Jr., of Alexandria, was a leader of the anti-Despot forces at the meeting of the Republican State Central Committee.
George Despot encountered opposition from conservative groups that flocked to the Republican Party over social issues, such as abortion and opposition to homosexual preferences. Among those defending Despot in the dispute were Frank Spooner of Monroe, the defeated 1976 Republican candidate for Louisiana's 5th congressional district seat, and State Representative Charles D. Lancaster, Jr., of Jefferson Parish, who was first elected to the state House in 1972, when Treen ran unsuccessfully the first time against Edwin Edwards. Spooner called Despot "the best chairman we ever had."
In 1988, Despot lost his own seat on the GOP central committee when supporters of the presidential candidate, the evangelist Pat Robertson of Virginia, captured a third of the 144 seats on the committee. Despot wrote a prophetic internal memo at the time in which he warned that the Robertson forces wanted "to take control" of the state GOP. Beyond support of Robertson, the overriding issue was abortion. To Louisiana party loyalists, such as Despot, most of whom already opposed abortion, the challenge from the Robertson forces brought intraparty upheaval, which led to disastrous Republican election results in Louisiana in both 1991 and 1992.
According to Rebecca Despot, an unnamed aide to then U.S. Senator John Breaux told her that the outcome of Louisiana elections "right after my father was ousted would have been different had he still been the chairman. I don't think people understand the passion he felt about what he was doing and that he was a man with a mission. They took his mission away, and people will never know what that did to him."
Republicans assess Despot's record
Fellow Republicans throughout the state mourned Despot's death. Then chairman William "Billy" Nungesser of Belle Chasse in Plaquemines Parish said that Despot's political savvy, his close relationship with President George Herbert Walker Bush, and his ability to raise campaign funds would be missed by the state GOP.
Then Caddo Republican Chairman Reginald Hargrove said that the party members "all owe him a debt of gratutide." According to Hargrove, Despot had encouraged local GOP factions to mend their differences in preparation for the 1991 state and parish elections and the 1992 national elections. "He had been telling people to go out and work with us," Hargrove added.
Despot's last political role was in 1987 as an advisor to Fourth Congressional District Republican chairman Ken Frazier in Frazier's unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives. Frazier lost to the late Democrat Roy McArthur "Hoppy" Hopkins of Oil City. "George was the old master. There have been differences within the party, but they had nothing to do with personal relationships. He's been a friend to everybody, and everybody will grieve for him," Frazier said.
State Representative Art Sour, of Shreveport, who served from 1972 to 1992, said that he always found his fellow Catholic Despot to be "a good Christian man and a man of principle" despite any political differences that the two may have had. Sour said Despot's death may bring the factions together. Sour lost his seat to a Democrat, Melissa Flournoy, just nine months after Despot's death.
James Quillen Wellborn (1927-2004), a native of Daingerfield, Texas, a mathematics teacher at Bossier High School, and a chairman of the Bossier Parish Republican Party, said that Despot singlehandedly forged an effective state and local organization when registrars would routinely discourage prospective voters from registering as Republicans. Until the implementation of the nonpartisan blanket primary, registrars constantly told voters that they "would not be able to vote" in most elections unless they registered as Democrats.
According to Wellborn, Despot also helped to organize a challenge to existing political boundaries in Bossier Parish and secured redistricting of the local districts despite opposition and harassment from the parish elites. Despot had a "knack for motivating people, though at times he could make people angry as well. He moved so fast he left a lot of sand in his wake. Some people just got it in their eyes," Wellborn said.
Prior to his death, Despot had curtailed much of his local activity because he preferred to concentrate on national and state politics.
The staunchly conservative Nungesser, who himself shocked his party when he endorsed Patrick J. Buchanan for the 1992 Republican nomination, said that Despot was "strong-willed, and had his own strong ideas, but he always had what was best for Louisiana at heart." Nungesser, who was in the catering business serving ships, was the only state chairman who did not support the first George Bush in the 1992 primaries.
Despot was a member of the Shreveport Club and the East Ridge Country Club, and he was an avid golfer.
Despot died after 9 p.m. on February 14, 1991, of a blood clot in his lung. He had appeared to have been in good health despite recent minor surgery. "He was fine at five minutes after nine, and then he was gone by 9:25," said Mrs. Despot, the former Pearla Tinsley (born 1928). "He was feeling great and was looking forward to going back to the golf course," she added.
Graveside services were held on February 16, 1991, at Forest Park East Cemetery in Shreveport. In addition to his wife and daughter Rebecca, Despot was survived by his older daughter, Susan A. Despot, then of Shreveport and later of New Orleans, and two brothers, Gregory A. Despot (August 9, 1928 – May 17, 2007) and Camille C. Despot.
Honorary pallbearers included Despot friend George Burton, with whom he had long labored in Republican ranks, U.S. District Judge Tom Stagg; Shreveport businessman Dalton Woods; and Dr. George A. Belchic, Jr. Belchic and his wife, the former Harriet Cameron, worked with Despot in Shreveport Republican circles.
Despot's death untimely from political standpoint
Within a month of Despot's death, Democratic Governor Charles E. Roemer, III switched his allegiance to the Republican Party. Roemer's switch did not unite the feuding wings of the GOP. Because he supported abortion, the right-to-life contingent of the party rejected Roemer and coalesced around then U.S. Representative Clyde C. Holloway of Rapides Parish. But few other Republicans would support Holloway. Holloway did win a preference poll among Republicans attending statewide endorsement caucuses. Also running for governor was the candidate who was anathema to party leaders: State Representative David Duke of Jefferson Parish. When all the smoke had cleared, Duke eliminated Roemer from a general election berth, and Edwin Edwards staged a fourth-term victory over the unpopular Duke.
Thereafter, the bottom fell out politically for Despot's favorite, the first President Bush. Challenged from the right by Pat Buchanan and plagued by a troubling economy, Bush failed nationally and in Louisiana as well in the 1992 elections.
Both of those developments would have been especially troubling to George J. Despot had he lived.
Despot's Republican Party papers are in the archives section of Louisiana State University in Shreveport.
John H. Cade, Jr., of Alexandria
|Louisiana Republican Party State Chairman
George Joseph Despot of Shreveport
Donald G. Bollinger of Lockport