(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on Parish President Mitchell Ourso, who recently marked the end of his 20th year in office.)
Mitchell Ourso, the son of longtime Iberville Parish sheriff Jessel M. Ourso Sr., had no intention of entering politics and yet when the parish made the change from a police jury to home rule charter, he decided the time had come.
His father had spent many years in office and it was Ourso’s beloved mother, the late Eula Mae LeBlanc Ourso of Baton Rouge, did not want her children to follow in his footsteps – and for a mother, it was with good reason.
“After Daddy’s funeral and everybody settled down afterward, my mother called us all to the house and made us promise that as long as she had a breath in her that none of us would ever get involved in politics and we lived up to that deal,” Ourso said, although he wondered why and asked.
“She said, ‘I could handle putting up with all of that with your daddy and all of his political business – the good and the bad – and I can accept that but I can’t accept my children being in politics because it’s a little more sensitive to me, what with everybody talking about my children,” he continued.
His parents married in 1952 and Ourso was born in 1953, the first of six children, three sons and three daughters. The family lived and reared their children in Plaquemine, in a house on Plaquemine Street, Ourso fondly remembers.
He has a love for his parish that is obvious any time Iberville is mentioned and he would eventually go into politics after all, following in his father’s footsteps – but in a different direction.
“We, one of my brothers and I, were in private business,” Ourso said, explaining the two ran a trucking company and a small oilfield business that were thriving.
His mother died in 1996 after an on-again, off-again battle with cancer. “She was only 62-years-old,” said her faithful and loving son. “By that time, I was 43.”
“At the time, the Police Jury was contemplating the change to a home rule charter form of government,” Ourso said, a proposition that was approved by the voters soon after his mother’s passing.
“I got a few calls at the end of ’96, the beginning of ’97, telling me that I ought to think about running for the parish president’s seat,” he said.
Ourso thinks most people who know him expected he would spend his life in law enforcement. He did spend a brief stint as a deputy under his father’s command. “I never really had any intention or ambition to ever be sheriff or anything else.”
For the elder Ourso, though, it was a different story.
“My dad was a career law enforcement officer,” he said. “After he got out of Korea in ’53, he was discharged and his first job in his law enforcement career was with the Baton Rouge Police Department for four or five years.”
Ourso said his father’s next career move was as a trooper with the Louisiana State Police, in time becoming the state trooper for Iberville Parish.
“After his time with the Louisiana State Police, he ran for sheriff here in 1963 or ’63 and was elected to an office he held until his death in 1978, Aug. 28, 1978, to be exact,” Ourso said.
The decision to run for parish president was not an easy or casual one for the man who passed his 20th anniversary in the seat Oct. 31, though.
“I had fulfilled my obligation to my mother,” Ourso said. “I will say that had my mother still been living in ’97, I would not have been a candidate for this job.”
His personal life was also at a critical point at the time – he had two young children at the time and the family had just moved into a new home.
“After talking to my wife Jelina and my brothers and sisters, I decided I would run in April of 1997,” Ourso said. “It was my first and only decision to run for office. As the old saying goes, ‘Go big or stay at home,’ I went big.”
“My brothers and sisters were very important in my first election,” he said.“I couldn’t have done it without them.”
“That first election was probably the best election that I ever went through,” Ourso said of the three-man race. “At the end of the day, as election day came, we worked our tails off, my campaign workers, my family and friends and I.”
“I was convinced that whatever the outcome was that I’d done everything I could to get elected and I was fine with whatever the result was going to be,” he continued.
“I’m going to be absolutely honest – I was completely surprised that while there were three candidates running and I thought there would be a runoff, I was victorious in the primary,” Ourso said.
“Two weeks later, I was sworn in. It was Halloween, Oct. 31, 1997,” he said.
(Part II of Ourso’s story will talk about the parish president’s trials, tribulations and accomplishments over his 20-year tenure.)