Shortly after I told my friends I’d booked a last-minute plane ticket and a hotel room at the Washington Hilton for this year’s 68th annual Washington Mardi Gras, I realized I’d just admitted to being a crazy person. No one wanted to fly into Washington, D.C. on the eve of the largest snowstorm in the city’s history. Flights were going out, not in. I was almost certain to be trapped there, and I eventually was, along with nearly 3,000 other Louisianians willing to throw caution to the wind (and the snow).
It’s pretty easy to criticize the whole charade: Thousands of Louisiana politicos, their families, lobbyists, reporters, and wannabes (myself included) descending on the nation’s capital for a brief weekend, dressing up in tuxedos and gowns and elaborate costumes, drinking to excess, dancing until the small hours of the morning, and pretending as if they’re really all somehow on official state business. It’s ridiculous. For a state grappling with a $1.9 billion deficit, it may seem like a complete waste, and for the dozens and dozens of elected officials traveling on the public dime, it may seem insulting.
That said, I arrived a cynic, having never attended before, but I left a true believer.
I hated the entire spectacle when I arrived on Thursday night, the only person clad in layers of fleece in a crowd of formal wear. What was I doing? What was anyone doing?
A few hours later, after changing into something slightly more presentable, I sipped a bourbon at a hotel bar called (only for the weekend) the “65th Parish” with an African-American planning director from a major national city and a white mayor of a small city in Louisiana, and I listened intently as they hammered out a plan to bring Harvard University graduate students to help map out a plan for the revitalization of a street named after Martin Luther King, at no cost to the public. The next day, I learned of an effort to revitalize an abandoned rural hospital, a private-sector deal that had been structured over breakfast and Bloody Marys.
Washington Mardi Gras meant more when federal elected officials had earmarks at their disposal. Today, the deals are less high-profile but even more complicated. Still, though, they’re important, and it is equally as important to recognize the enormous benefits of having a critical mass of decision-makers held captive for one solitary weekend.
Washington Mardi Gras, I quickly realized, wasn’t just a stupid party; it was a workshop. In future years, organizers should consider structuring the daytime programming around policies and not personalities; it’d be even more productive.
Regardless, what impressed me most about the event was its spirit of bipartisan cooperation. We would be wise to import some of that back home.
And perhaps due to the fact that we were all snowed in together, I had the opportunity to forge lasting friendships with progressive allies like Caroline Fayard, who is currently contemplating a run for U.S. Senate, and conservative advocates like Charles Boustany and Royal Alexander, who I learned to be men skilled at disagreeing without being disagreeable, despite what I’d written about them nearly a decade ago.
I somehow even snagged a selfie with David Vitter, who, despite everything, was still a good sport.