Billy Nungesser, a rotund and feisty millionaire-turned-politician from Louisiana's bayou, hasn't been afraid of taking on everyone from big oil to big government since crude started washing up on his coast.
The blunt-spoken president of oil-soaked Plaquemines Parish has been the voice of thousands of coastal residents, his sometimes unpolished demeanor capturing their angst. His voice has often echoed across the Gulf louder than bigger power players — Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Mary Landrieu and Congressman David Vitter among them.
When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration missed the mark predicting where oil from the massive Gulf of Mexico spill would go, he didn't hide his anger. The agency "should know when a snail farts with all the crap they have in Washington," he bellowed.
Nungesser, 51, has said the federal government's point man, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, isn't the right man for cleaning up the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He suggested President Barack Obama scrap the team he has working on the mess set off by a drilling rig explosion April 20.
And BP PLC chief executive Tony Hayward was "lucky he got out of here alive" when he came to Louisiana and denied large oil plumes were lurking beneath the Gulf, he said.
He's criticized the response from BP and the federal government as being too slow, and testified during a congressional hearing: "I have spent more time fighting the officials of BP and the Coast Guard than fighting the oil."
It's a message that has resonated across the region.
"He has been one of the true local government leaders. He's articulated in true Louisiana fashion the concerns of his constituents to BP and the federal government," said Escambia County, Fla., Commissioner Gene Valentino.
Mike Strohmeyer, the owner of Lighthouse Lodge in Venice, La., called Nungesser a "political fisherman."
"He's up before the sun comes up and he's working when the sun goes down," Strohmeyer said. "He's like the Energizer bunny."
The White House and Allen's spokesman declined to comment about Nungesser, but it's clear their partnership has been testy.
The day after Nungesser called for Allen's ouster, the admiral showed up at Myrtle Grove Marina in Plaquemines. Nungesser was not there; his staff said he was sick.
Indeed, history shows disasters can strain relationships and make or break a leader.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was praised for his leadership after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, but Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco was seen as ineffective and didn't seek a second term.
Plaquemines, a sliver of delta dirt near the mouth of the Mississippi River south of New Orleans, is neither well-known nor well-populated.
It's a place where families of fishermen live next door to oil patch workers. It's also where the BP oil first made landfall.
Nungesser, a Republican who built his fortune in the oil service industry, has little to lose in his dust-ups with spill bureaucrats. He could retire quietly to his sprawling mansion, or devote time to a horsemanship program he founded for physically and mentally challenged people.
He does have critics, though, like Rocky Ditcharo. The shrimp dock owner from Buras was concerned that Nungesser is part-owner of a marina used as a staging area for oil response workers.
He knows Myrtle Grove Marina may be the closest point from which workers can get to the oil and has open spaces for staging equipment. That doesn't matter to him.
"BP's got to realize that you can't give a contract to an elected official," Ditcharo said.
Other Plaquemines residents don't see it that way.
Bob Boudet, 67, said no other local marina could accommodate such a large operation.
"It was a no-brainer," Boudet said.
Nungesser said he had no knowledge of the deal because his financial interests are in a blind trust. All he said he's asked BP for is "to prevent the oil from killing our marsh."
Long before running for office, Nungesser made money in offshore catering after a couple of semesters at Louisiana State University and the University of New Orleans.
He hit it big in the 1990s when he started a company to convert metal shipping containers into living quarters for offshore workers. General Marine Leasing Co. reached $20 million in annual sales before Nungesser sold his stake and made millions.
Politics also is in his blood. Nungesser's father was chief of staff for former Louisiana Gov. David Treen in the 1980s. The younger Nungesser's office is adorned with pictures of him and former presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Nungesser won election in 2006 in Katrina-shattered Plaquemines. He said the aftermath of the storm was embarrassing, and some parish leaders fled, leaving residents to fend for themselves.
Although he may seek re-election and says some political leaders want him to run for lieutenant governor, the spill consumes him for now. Yet he maintains a sense of humor about it.
His wedding has been put on hold by several disasters, beginning with hurricanes, Nungesser said. A reporter recently asked him if God was trying to tell him something about the engagement.
"Maybe," Nungesser said.
The day Nungesser's fiancee saw the article, there was a bowl of dog food with a fork in it waiting for him on the dinner table.
"I told him he was in the doghouse," said Cher Taffaro, though she says it was all in fun.
"That's the thing about him, he makes everybody laugh," Taffaro said. "He wakes up in the morning happy, singing in the bathroom."
Associated Press writer Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Fla., contributed to this story.
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