New Orleans lost one of its political legends last week. Eddie Sapir, who led the City Council through the uncharted aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and was a fixture in local politics for five decades, died on Feb. 6. He was 86.

The late Mayor Moon Landrieu, a close friend and ally, once called Sapir “one of the best retail politicians I’ve ever seen.”

Sapir actually had two distinct council careers — the first from 1967 to 1974 representing District B, and again from 1998 to 2006 as an at-large member. In the intervening 24 years, he served as a Municipal Court judge.

A lifelong Democrat and tireless people helper, Sapir began his public career as a long-haired, pro-civil rights state lawmaker representing several of Uptown’s racially mixed neighborhoods in the mid-1960s. He loved engaging with people from all walks of life, which earned him a loyal following among Blacks and Whites at a time when race frequently divided voters.

Sapir 2001

Eddie Sapir in 2001?

In his first council career, Sapir persuaded his colleagues to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Council Chamber — after first removing it himself when no one was looking. A few years later, he convinced them to enact a public accommodations law. He also led the charge against a proposed new Mississippi River Bridge at Napoleon Avenue and a proposed a riverfront expressway that preservationists said would have ruined the French Quarter.

As an at-large council member a quarter-century later, Sapir was both a senior statesman and a masterful coalition builder. He became a trusted ally of Mayor Marc Morial and then a prescient critic of Morial’s successor, Ray Nagin.

Most impactful of all, Sapir led the council through a minefield of legal and political challenges presented by Katrina.

Working behind the scenes with then-Entergy New Orleans president Dan Packer — who died a week before Sapir passed — and a small cadre of council and Entergy consultants, Sapir quarterbacked the effort to bring ENO out of bankruptcy. He quietly convinced key members of Congress to allocate millions of dollars to the local utility's recovery, which stabilized it and cost ratepayers only a 7% rate increase — instead of the 100% hike predicted by many “experts.”

“He was unflappable,” recalled Rod West, who led Entergy New Orleans' efforts to restore power after the hurricane and later became CEO of the utility.

“Eddie was a beacon of light in the middle of Katrina’s darkness, because it was never about him,” West added. “He was one of the few politicians I’ve known who didn’t need a poll to determine what was the right thing to do — and his word was his bond. For Eddie, the whole point of public service was about helping people, and after Katrina, it was always about getting the city back up and running.”

As a city judge, Sapir could keep his law practice on the side — and he excelled as an agent for celebrities and sports figures. His clients included local television anchors as well as New York Yankees manager Billy Martin.

When Sapir returned to the council in 1998, he initially found himself in the minority bloc. By the end of 2000, however, he led a 5-2 majority that worked closely with Morial.

Morial, who now leads the National Urban League, praised Sapir for his “unflinching partnership with Black New Orleans before it was popular.”

District E Council member Oliver Thomas, who served with Sapir from 1998-2006, said, “Eddie was to New Orleans was Edwin Edwards was to Louisiana.”

“Every month, he’d visit barber shops and beauty salons,” Thomas recalled. “He’d tell folks, ‘If you know somebody who needs help, call me. I’ll do what I can.’ That made such an impression on me that I’ve incorporated that into my own politicking.”

Even amid the muted pace of Municipal Court, Sapir retained his sense of flair. His fundraisers were not-to-be-missed political galas that typically packed close to 1,000 people in the old Fair Grounds clubhouse (before the track burned to the ground in 1993).

Those events featured notable musicians — including Fats Domino — as well as lavish spreads of food and drink, and celebrity guests. Sapir would work the crowd like he owned the place, which, on those nights, he pretty much did.

In five decades, Eddie Sapir never lost a race.

More importantly, he never forgot the importance of helping ordinary folks whose only access to the levers of power were his occasional visits to their favorite barber shop or beauty salon.

Clancy DuBos is Gambit's political editor. You can reach him at clancy@gambitweekly.com.