New Year’s Eve 2008 only had about 20 minutes left. Revelers at one St. Charles Avenue mansion occasionally glanced at their watch. Servers were starting to pass out flutes of Champagne. At one spot next to the stairwell a spontaneous ceremony was coming together. Someone sitting on the steps remembered that with the New Year, the city’s politics was going to be a little different. It had long been the practice for the local government to have lots of elected positions. That was likely created in the old days of machine politics so the bosses could control more jobs. There were seven assessors each with their own slice of the city. There were also clerical positions such as “Recorder of Mortgages,” and something called “Register of Conveyances,” which dealt mostly with real estate issues. Since 1978 the latter job had been held by a colorful public servant with a passion for politics named Gasper Schiro.
Shiro was an affable man who overcame the political liabilities of a slight speech impediment and a limp as he made his way running for elective office.
There was a time in big city politics nationwide that political “machines” controlled elections. In New Orleans the most powerful was a group called the Regular Democratic Organization; commonly referred to as the RDO or, more commonly as the “Old Regulars.” Machines typically built their power base among immigrants who were often in need of guidance in a new land. Of the arrivals, Italians, especially Sicilians, had many votes to be mined.
From 1936 to 1946 the RDO had almost absolute control as one of its own, Robert Maestri, was mayor. Like many machine mayors he held more power than he probably should have, but he was effective at getting things done.
Gradually politics would change. A strong reform movement counterbalanced the machines. And, with the expansion of the Black vote after the passage of the voting rights act in 1965, new groups of political leaders emerged.
By the time Schiro got involved in politics the RDO was in its twilight years. It no longer controlled wards and precincts like the group once did, and some of the reliable Italian votes had relocated to the suburbs. Nevertheless, old-timers met as though they controlled the world. They would endorse candidates and distribute election day endorsement ballots. Schiro would eventually become RDO president. For whatever issues he would face, no one could take away that he was the last of the Old Regulars.
In 1975 when he was first elected to the office of Register, it was a surprise. Three times in the future he would have opposition for re-election but managed to win each contest. He lived his life hobnobbing in the community, and it paid off.
Proving himself to be invincible at the voting polls, he could not survive another force, the legislature. As the city rebuilt after Katrina there was talk about restructuring government. Having so many elected offices just didn’t make sense. So, the seven assessors were whittled down to one, and the Register of Conveyances, along with Recorder of Mortgages were all put under the jurisdiction of the Civil Court Clerk’s office. That night on St. Charles Avenue, the new year was approaching quickly. As the Champagne was poured, Schiro’s career, which had been built on ballots, ended with bubbles.
He would be retired from elected office having served 30 years in a citywide position. Only former coroner Frank Minyard’s 36 years would surpass that.
Though no longer having the swagger of an elected official, Schiro continued to live as though on the campaign trail. He and his biggest blessing, his wife “Mel” (Romelia Boyer), were often seen about town. They could be spotted on the floor at the Rex Ball and in a convertible being lobbied for cabbages during the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. He loved Mardi Gras, though he was disturbed when parades that traditionally rolled along Canal Street, including Carrollton, Mid City and Okeanos, shifted to the St. Charles Avenue route. He wrote angry letters, but not even the powers of the Register of Conveyances could change parade routes.
Gasper Schiro (86) died July 22. Visitation was at St. Pius XII church. Near the entrance were pictures of his life. Something common to most photos was him celebrating at some event and there was always a smile so big that the edges seemed to curve to his temples. Mel recalled him frequently saying that because of his political calling he had to get out in the community as much as possible. That he did.
At the time of his retirement, Schiro said this about his career: “It’s been a life full of prayers, parties, parades and politics.”
And, also, his name on a street sign: Schiro’s family was among early real estate developers in Jefferson Parish. He was always proud of a street in Harahan called “Gasper Place.”
According to Voterecords.com, 12 registered voters live there; five are Republicans, one is a Democrat.