Kenneth Francis "Kenny" Bowen, Sr. (February 9, 1926 – May 2, 2002) was a three-term Democratic mayor of Lafayette, Louisiana, the fourth largest city in the state, according to the 2000 census. His tenure, which some assessed as distinguished and others as a failure, extended from 1972–1980 and again from 1992-1996.
Bowen was Lafayette's first and last mayor under the city's mayor-council form of government, which was used for the 24 years between 1972 and 1996. He was elected mayor with 62 percent of the vote in the 1972 Democratic primary, in which he defeated three opponents, and he was elected again in 1976 and 1992. When Bowen left office in 1996, the City of Lafayette and Lafayette Parish combined their governments, much as Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish had done years earlier. The mayor then became the "president" of the combined government.
Early years, education, military
Bowen was born in New Orleans to Joseph F. Bowen and the former Hazel McNulty. He served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. On his discharge in November 1945, he relocated to Lafayette to attend the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (then Southwestern Louisiana Institute). He obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in music in 1948. He later received a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University in New York City. He taught in the Lafayette Parish school system for eleven years and was known for his direction of choral organizations throughout his life. His passion for music, for instance, led him in the 1980s to organize a community singing group called the Soundwaves.
From 1955-1961, Bowen was executive vice president of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce. In 1961, with a large family to support, he joined Robert Angers, then publisher of the Franklin Banner-Tribune of Franklin in St. Mary Parish in the opening of their own advertising firm, Angers, Bowen and Associates. Angers sold out his interest in the company to Bowen in 1962.
Bowen was once awarded the French Legion of Merit for his work in promoting the use of French in Louisiana.
Three Bowen administrations
Bowen's tenure is remembered for controversy, for he often squabbled with city council members and police chiefs. In the third term, pro-Bowen and anti-Bowen factions clashed so frequently that municipal government was in frequent deadlock. Bowen nevertheless obtained the conversion of the former Evangeline Hotel on Jefferson Street into apartments for senior citizens. There were downtown street improvements too, but cost overruns led to several indictments.
In actuality, the third term almost did not happen. In the primary held on March 10, 1992, in conjunction with the presidential primaries in Louisiana, Bowen trailed his fellow Democrat, former State Representative Ronald J. "Ron" Gomez, Sr., 10,301 (34 percent) to 12,127 (40 percent). Two other candidates also ran, Democrat Kathy Ashworth, with 7,344 (24 percent) and Republican Emile Vidrine, with 603 votes (2 percent). In an all-Democratic general election allowed under the Louisiana jungle primary system and held on April 11, Bowen defeated Gomez, a former journalist, by 166 votes. The tabulation in 78 Lafayette precincts was 14,677 for Bowen and 14,511 for Gomez. Whereas Bowen was a former Republican, Gomez later switched his party affiliation and served on the Lafayette Parish Republican Executive Committee.
A year later, the former chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, Charles deGravelles (1913–2008), who had labored with Bowen in the GOP vineyard in the 1960s, launched an unsuccessful recall effort against the mayor. DeGravelles said that he tried to recall Bowen because of the mayor's "micromanagement" of city affairs.
Many of the construction projects in early 21st century Lafayette were conceived by Bowen. Elmo Laborde, who served on the council during Bowen's final term, cited the fruits of Bowen's work as the Camellia Bridge and the Lafayette Convention Center, which opened the week of Bowen's death. Urban renewal and the expansion of the city utilities system were other Bowen accomplishments, Laborde said.
Former Democratic State Senator Edgar G. "Sonny" Mouton, Jr., of Lafayette said that Bowen was not "concerned about reelection. He was concerned about serving." In the funeral service, Mouton quipped that "Kenny will now rest in peace with the Lord, But I'm not so sure the Lord will have much peace," referring to Bowen's passion for politics. Mouton and fellow Democrat Edmund Reggie of Lafayette (formerly of Crowley) were among honorary pallbearers at Bowen's funeral. Reggie is the father-in-law of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Bowen hired the first blacks to work in professional capacities in Lafayette City Hall. "When he came to office, no people of color were working for the City of Lafayette other than on the back of garbage trucks, in public works, and the police department. The only black person working in City Hall was a janitor," said Anthony Navarre, a former city police officer who was a frequent guest on Bowen's Let's Talk television program. Bowen, and his Republican successor, William Dudley "Dud" Lastrapes, Jr. (pronounced LA STRAPS), encouraged women to reach the higher ranks in city administration.
Tommy Gilbeau, another former councilman and Bowen friend, recalled the former mayor as having a caring and feeling side that identified with the underdog and ordinary citizen: "He had a zest for life and a love of politics that was unmatched as mayor of Lafayette."
As mayor, Bowen served a term as president of the Louisiana Municipal Association from 1977-1978. He was also active in the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Bowen and the GOP
Bowen had been the Republican mayoral nominee in 1968, the last in Lafayette under the commission form of government. He lost the general election to Democratic incumbent J. Rayburn Bertrand (October 1, 1918 - March 6, 2005). Bowen had been a delegate to the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, where he cast his ballot for the party's nominee, then Senator Barry M. Goldwater.
Ironically, Bowen was defeated by a conservative Republican Lastrapes in 1980. In that election, Bowen barely polled a fourth of the ballots cast. A Lafayette insurance agent, Lastrapes would serve three consecutive four-year terms through 1992. Lastrapes also defeated Bowen in 1988.
Bowen's obituary and legacy
Bowen did not run for the mayor-presidency in the elections held in the fall of 1995, which corresponded with the statewide officers, but the new post went to his fellow Democrat, Walter Comeaux (pronounced CO MO).
Before his death, Bowen fought liver cancer. A longtime friend Stanley Brosky told the Lafayette Daily Advertiser that the illness made Bowen more spiritual . . . and ready for the end. . . . People would be surprised in the end how spiritual he had become and what an inspiration he was."
He had fifteen children with his wife Ruth Butcher Bowen. Thirteen of those survived their father. He was preceded in death by his parents, a brother, and the namesake son, Kenneth F. "Kip" Bowen, Jr., and daughter Kamille. Bowen had forty grandchildren, and one great-grandchild at the time of his death.
Services were held on May 4, 2002, at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension Columbarium on Johnston Street in Lafayette, with the Reverend Russell J. Levenson, Jr., the church rector, officiating.
Four months prior to his death, Bowen was inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield.
In the funeral, his son Kris Bowen recalled his father as "an agent of change" for the city that he loved. "The proof of his efforts -- like the Camellia Boulevard bridge project, the Cajundome (completed in 1985 under Lastrapes), and the Convention Center -- are visible throughout Lafayette. History will treat him well, not for the bricks and mortar he laid, but the lives he changed along the way."