Billy J. Guin
Billy James Guin, Sr. (born November 14, 1927), is a semiretired Shreveport businessman and engineer who was a pioneer in the development of the Republican Party in Louisiana. He was one of the first three Republican members elected to the Caddo Parish School Board, having served from 1964-1970. From 1977-1978, Guin was the last elected Shreveport commissioner of public utilities. He is a former member of the Republican State Central Committee and the Caddo Parish Republican Executive Committee.
Early years, education, military, and family
Guin was born in El Paso, Texas, to James Frank Guin (1882-1930) and the former Bessie Reeves (1898-1991), both originally from Bienville Parish. The senior Guin contracted tuberculosis while in the U.S. Army during World War I. Thereafter, he and Mrs. Guin relocated to El Paso, with the hope that the semiarid climate would make his disease less burdensome. At the time there was little treatment available; sulfa drugs were still in the future. James Guin died in El Paso when his son was not yet three years of age. Mrs. Guin and Billy then moved to Ruston, the seat of Lincoln Parish, Louisiana, to live with Mrs. Guin's mother, Mrs. Reeves. In 1934, Mrs. Guin married an older man, James E. Fitch, a native of northern Ohio, and the new family relocated to Shreveport, the seat of Caddo Parish. Fitch made his living as a car salesman for the still extant Red River (Chevrolet) Motors in Bossier City, across the Red River from Shreveport.
Guin grew up in a middle-class home. He attended Line Avenue Elementary School and graduated in 1944 from C.E. Byrd High School, considered a model academic institution at the time and named for prominent educator Clifton Ellis Byrd. In the fall of 1944, Guin entered Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1950. During his VMI service, he was activated into the United States Marine Corps for two years. Although World War II had ended, Guin's service time was still considered "wartime" in nature.
In 1950, Guin wed the former Nancy Beale (also born 1927) of Franklin, Virginia, in the tidewater area near Norfolk, whom he met while he was attending VMI. Meanwhile, he had been activated into the U.S. Army for service in the Korean War. The couple spent part of their honeymoon at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas (near Fort Smith), which was then being reactivated. On September 19, 1951, their son was born at then Camp Polk (later Fort Polk Army base) near Leesville, Louisiana, the seat of Vernon Parish in western Louisiana.
After his Korean service, Guin remained in the Army Reserve for some thirty years. On his return to Shreveport, he became affiliated with E.M. Freeman and Associates and United Gas before he formed the B. J. Guin Engineering Co.
Bessie Reeves Guin Fitch, meanwhile, in 1940, had opened what is believed to have been the first maternity clothing store in Louisiana. Over the years, the family-owned business was switched to specialize in uniforms. Billy and Nancy Guin finally sold The Uniform Place in 2001.
Joining the GOP
Guin was originally a Democrat, but when he became politically active, he determined that his philosophy was in line with the GOP. In 1960, Guin had worked in the "Democrats for Nixon" presidential organization in Shreveport; thereafter, he decided to switch parties to support the budding congressional campaign of the man who turned out to be his political mentor, Charlton Havard Lyons, Sr. (1894-1973), the Shreveport oilman who ran a strong but losing race for the Fourth Congressional District seat in the United States House of Representatives in a special election in 1961. Lyons lost to the conservative Democrat Joe Waggonner.
On March 3, 1964, Guin was one of five Republican candidates running at-large (before single-member districting) for the Louisiana House of Representatives. He was defeated, but two members of the Republican slate, Morley A. Hudson and Taylor W. O'Hearn, both of Shreveport, were victorious. In fact, Hudson (1917-2002) and O'Hearn (1908-1997) were the first two Republicans to have served in the legislature since Reconstruction. They were elected while Lyons made his unsuccessful race for governor.
In addition to his service on the Republican State Central Committee and the Caddo Parish Republican Executive Committee, Guin was in 1972 the Northwest Louisiana campaign manager for the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign of David C. Treen, then of Metairie in Jefferson Parish, who would win a single term as governor in 1979.
School board service, 1964-1970
On November 3, 1964, Guin was elected to an at-large seat on the Caddo Parish School Board. He was assisted by the presidential coattails provided in Louisiana by the GOP nominee, then U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Joining Guin on the school board were (1) E.L. "Ed" McGuire (1914-1983), a native New Englander who ran a roofing contracting business, and (2) the late Joel B. Brown. The trio served six-year terms; the then 18-member board has since been reduced to twelve members and converted to four-year terms.
Guin served on the board during the desegregation crises of the latter 1960s and the winter of 1970. Guin said that the three Republican members "tended to represent a very conservative outlook, but we were outvoted by the other members, who would be described as moderate Democrats." Guin at the time opposed the receipt of federal funds for public schools: "I saw it as an inordinate amount of control for a minimum amount of money." Decades later, federal funds to school districts, while universally accepted, constitute little more than 10 percent of a district's operating funds.
Guin said that Shreveport required minimal cross-town busing for desegregation because the city was already inherently integrated. There was not a large black inner-city district and surrounding white suburbs, as in many other communities across the nation. "The city was already salt-and-pepper" [when it came to racial assignments for public schools] . . . My goal was to maintain neighborhood schools and gain the confidence of the public," Guin added.
Early in 1970, the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ordered Caddo Parish to change the 75 percent white/25 percent black teacher ratio then in use to 60/40. The change was nearly impossible to implement, Guin said. Many teachers were transferred at mid-term to other schools in an effort to comply with the court order. Some teachers were forced to teach outside their disciplines to meet the racial quota. Guin said the court "ruined" the 1969-1970 school session by requiring such numbers crunching in the middle of the academic year.
Even before the Brown v. the Board of Education case (May 17, 1954), Shreveport had constructed new black schools, including Booker T. Washington High School and Valencia High School (later Caddo Magnet High School), in an effort to stress the "equal" component of the "separate-but-equal" policy that the high court had originally sanctioned in 1896.
Guin said that school boards also play a major role in regard to taxation and political theory. Bankers, he explained, pressured the taxing bodies to allow high assessment and low tax rates. As a result, Caddo Parish had the highest appraisal rate, some 40 percent, in the state.
Guin disagreed with those, such as board president Donald Wayne "Don" Williamson, who wanted the size of the board reduced to make it easier to handle from the standpoint of parliamentary procedure. According to Guin, the at-large boards with 18 members, while prone to lengthy sessions, tended to reduce the impact of special interests. The earlier boards were more likely to view the interests of the parish as a whole, whereas the more recent board members look at their individual district needs, no matter how those interests might conflict with the overall system, Guin said.
Guin earned $80 a month (the amount allowed for two meetings) for his school board service. When there were multiple special meetings and court appearances, there was no additional compensation, he said.
Running for utilities commissioner
In 1970, Guin did not seek reelection to the school board. Instead he ran for the Shreveport municipal utilities commissioner post that was being vacated by the successful mayoral candidate, Littleberry Calhoun Allen, Jr., (1921-1991). Guin's opponent was the Democrat William "Bill" Collins, who had handled Allen's public relations while Allen was the commissioner. Guin polled 36 percent of the vote. Allen, meanwhile, defeated Guin's school board colleague, Ed McGuire, in the general election for mayor. At the time, the Shreveport mayor was actually defined as the "commissioner of administration."
In 1974, Guin again opposed Collins, and in a heavily Democratic year, still managed to increase his support level to 43 percent. Meanwhile, in 1971, the first Republican was elected to a position in the Shreveport municipal government. George Aubrey Burton, Jr. (born 1926), a Certified Public Accountant, won a special election for finance commissioner. In the 1974 campaign, Burton was a runaway winner for a full term and had the tacit support of the Democrat Allen, a former Republican, who was reelected to a second term as mayor. Guin hence improved on his showing against Collins but still fell short of victory.
The special election of 1977
In 1977, Collins resigned the position after seven years because of public outcry over various irregularities in the Utilities Department. Guin then easily won a special election held on June 18, 1977, for the remaining eighteen months of Collins' second term. He defeated two opponents with 51 percent of the vote in the jungle primary. He proceeded to reform the department and may well have been a strong candidate for a full term. In the two days between his election and taking office, Guin stopped a budding attempt at unionization by Utilities Department employees.
At the time, the utilities commissioner duties including (1) operating the municipal water department, (2) the Cross Lake Patrol, (3) the city transit system, (4) the supervision of natural gas, electric, and cable television contracts, and (5) the maintenance of four city-owned cemeteries.
Guin said that the success he had as commissioner came largely because he treated the employees fairly, recognized their often difficult responsibilities, and promoted them whenever he could. One of the problems Guin unexpectedly encountered was friction in the Utilities Deparment between the white-collar laboratory personnel and the blue-collar laborers. Guin said he tried to treat both with respect but went out of his way to recognize laborers who earned their living by the sweat of their brow.
Guin did not always side with the employees in disputes, however. In the spring of 1978, he refused to restore Alfred Joseph Petrus (born 1920) to his position as a city superintendent in the Utilities Department. Petrus had been suspended by Commissioner Collins shortly before Collins left office, pending an investigation of Petrus' alleged theft of city materials and improper use of municipal employees. A jury found Petrus not guilty of felony theft, and he applied to Guin to be reinstated. Guin, however, changed Petrus' suspension to dismissal on the grounds that Petrus had used public employees and materials to perform work at his private residence and had failed to uphold public integrity. Guin made the dismissal stick despite the jury's exoneration and Petrus' lawsuit of appeal.
Guin said that he managed to save Shreveport homeowners collectively $30,000 to $40,000 per month when he successfully blocked an attempt by a cable television company to add $1 per month per customer to the originally-agreed payment schedule. Guin said that he found evidence that the company was providing the same level of service in Jackson, Mississippi, for which it was seeking the additional amount for in Shreveport.
Shreveport scrapped its longstanding commission form of government and established an executive mayor and single-member city council district plan. Under the commission system, there could be no single-member district: only at-large elections, which then worked against the chances of blacks gaining city office. In effect, Guin's utilities commissioner post was abolished, and he was the last person to have held that position in Shreveport city government. Similarly, Burton was the last to have been the city finance commissioner.
The fluoridation fight
Guin is remembered as the commissioner who started the process of fluoridation of Shreveport's municipal water supply. For decades, opponents , including many dentists, had raised doubts about whether the adding of fluoride would improve dental hygiene or even impair good health practices. The issue was a "political hot potato" in many areas, not just Shreveport. Some opponents raised the specter that fluoridation was communist-inspired because the former Soviet Union had adopted the practice. Others said fluoride in the water would cause bone decay in the elderly. Some said that it was a "capitalist" plot to sell the element. The natural food industry stood in opposition too.
Guin, however, needed no convincing, he having had childhood dental problems when drinking water was not fluoridated. New on the job, he proposed an engineering study to proceed with fluoridation. In the fluoridation fight Guin picked up the editorial backing of Charles T. Beaird, the liberal Republican publisher of the now defunct Shreveport Journal. Ultimately, a referendum was held, and the supporters of fluoridation prevailed. The fluoridation process was completed in 1979. Guin maintains that he has been fully vindicated on the issue in that far fewer children now have cavities than in the previous generation.
Campaigning for mayor, 1978
Guin therefore ran as a Republican candidate for mayor in the jungle primary in 1978. However, he was not a serious factor in the race. Two Democrats, Public Works Commissioner Donald Edgar "Don" Hathaway (born 1928) and the popular automobile dealer William Thomas "Bill" Hanna (born 1930), emerged as the major candidates. Even Republicans refused to support Guin for mayor though most had rallied to his cause 18 months earlier for the utilities commissioner position. Guin finished with 1,888 votes (3.4 percent) of the primary vote. He never again sought public office. He says that the fluoridation fight hurt him badly in the race, and he could not raise the funds that Hathaway and Hanna garnered.
Guin still believes that the change in the city charter was a mistake. The mayor-council plan, he argues, is "less responsive to the public because the system has increased bureaucracy."
Hanna went on to defeat Don Hathaway for mayor, but Hathaway rebounded with a victory as the Caddo Parish sheriff in the 1979 general election. Hanna served only a single term as mayor -- the first under the new charter. Guin attributed Hanna's election to the perception that Hanna was the "reformer" in the race, whereas Hathaway, as an outgoing commissioner, was viewed as part of the "old system," rightly or wrongly.
Guin in retirement
Guin still works parttime as a Realtor. He and his wife are members of the First Baptist Church of Shreveport. He is also a member of the South Shreveport Rotary Club and the North Louisiana Civil War Round Table, which meets monthly in Bossier City. He has a keen interest in history and is a reservoir of knowledge about many subjects.
Guin's son, Billy James Guin, Jr., is a prominent Shreveport attorney. He began his law practice in 1978, the same year that his father's political career ended. He practices in the areas of insurance defense litigation, criminal defense law, civil practice, and mediation in his firm Rountree and Guin.
The Guins also have four daughters: Nancy Guin Austin (born 1952) of Baton Rouge, Alice Guin Lind (born 1955) of Alexandria, Elizabeth Anne Leonard (born 1957) of Metairie, and Mary Virginia Reynolds (born 1962) of Shreveport.
Billy Hathorn, interviews with Billy and Nancy Guin, December 16, 2006
Billy Hathorn, "The Republican Party in Louisiana, 1920-1980", Master's thesis at Northwestern State University at Natchitoches
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