RABALAIS’ POLITICAL HISTORY: The Consultant Who Could “Garontee” A Win

Justin Wilson will always be remembered for his spicy Cajun cooking, trademark red suspenders and the collection of funny anecdotes he told audiences over years of public television broadcasts. The beloved personality had the unique talent to tell a tale just as easily as he could stir roux on his LPB set. Often, Wilson’s jokes and stories were filled with just as much flavor and color as the dishes on his stove.

But before became an icon in kitchens across Louisiana, Wilson criss-crossed the state as a young man getting a rough-and-tumble education in Long populism, Cajun oratory and Bayou State politics.

Wilson was born in rural Tangipahoa Parish in 1914. He was the son of Harry D. Wilson, a two term state representative who later served 32 years as commissioner of agriculture. As a young man, Justin often attended campaign events with his father, learning the art of public speaking and storytelling out on the stump.

Even though he had been re-elected repeatedly with cross-factional support, Harry Wilson was affiliated to the Long political machine. The commissioner’s loyalty had been beneficial for his son. For instance, in the 1930s, then-Gov. Huey Long appointed the teenager to a state job inspecting warehouses throughout South Louisiana.

When Earl Long ran for a second term as governor in 1948, he decided to hire Wilson and use his natural comedic talents to help the campaign. Wilson could do a decent imitation of Long’s opponent, former Gov. Sam Jones. When Earl found out, he had Wilson dress up as Jones and drive across the state, promising to raise taxes.

By the time that the next election cycle rolled around in 1952, Wilson had moved up to manage Lt. Gov. Bill Dodd’s bid for the big chair.

By this point, Wilson had developed his signature Cajun routine, but preformed it mostly as a side hobby. But Dodd, a Sabine Parish native, needed an entrée with voters in Acadiana. After “Couzan” Dudley LeBlanc turned down an offer to join the ticket, Wilson was dispatched to the bayous and backroads to drum up support.

Out on the campaign trail, his oratory was often peppered with his catchphrases of “how y’all are” and “I garontee!” Wilson also had a few tricks up his sleeve: In a 1990 interview for LPB’s Louisiana Legends, he admitted to sometimes paying people to heckle him during campaign stops to “gain the sympathy of the audience.”

Despite their best efforts, Dodd’s bid became bogged down as he battled over the Long faction of voters with several other candidates. Meanwhile, the sole anti-Long candidate, Bob Kennon, already appeared to have enough support to secure a spot in the runoff. Realizing that the Dodd campaign faced certain defeat, Wilson decided to bring a couple of the other candidates down with them.

Wilson called a press conference in Baton Rouge and alleged that the Long family had orchestrated a conspiracy to keep their hold on the Governor’s Mansion, despite the fact that Earl was term-limited. By putting two of their hand-picked candidates in the race, he said, the Longs had ensured that they could hold power. Because the governor backed one candidate, and his nephew, U.S. Sen. Russell Long, backed another, reporters and voters found Wilson’s theory plausible.

With his opponents fighting off Wilson’s charges and the accompanying bad press, Kennon won the governorship in January of 1952.

By the next cycle, Wilson was out of the political consulting business, with his career in comedy and cooking taking him to national audiences every week.

Later reflecting on the race in his memoirs, Dodd wrote, “Justin, if he ever wants to claim the credit, is responsible for old Bob getting a lot of votes.”

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