Louisiana insurance commissioner's race|
Wooley turns temporary job into a mission
/ Louisiana Gannett News/Baton Rouge
Posted on November 7, 2003
Gannett Capital Bureau
BATON ROUGE - When Robert Wooley left his legal practice and political consulting firm in December 1999 to help his law partner, Jim Brown, run the Louisiana Department of Insurance while Brown handled a legal problem, he thought it was going to be a short-term stay.
After doing the commissioner of insurance's job for almost four years while Brown fought and eventually lost his battle with the federal government, Wooley, 49, is campaigning to be elected to the position.
"I took this job fully thinking that I'd be gone in six months," Wooley said in an interview in his campaign office this week.
Brown's conviction on charges that he lied to the FBI in an investigation into the closure of an insurance company landed him in federal prison for six months but his appeals dragged on for years.
Wooley said that when Brown asked him to take over the department, "I knew something about insurance," but he's learned much more in the past four years.
The demands of the office, however, have forced him to give up his favorite pastime, sailing.
"I'm between boats," he said. He has a 100-ton Coast Guard master's license and besides sailing for fun, he's raced sailboats across the Caribbean. He also once owned a trawler.
"Sailing is one of the most relaxing things there is," he said. "When you get out there about 200 miles from shore and it's midnight with a full moon, the stars are brighter than they ever are on land. You're crashing through waves of phosphorescence that sprays light and when the dolphins come along side you, they look like ghosts."
Giving up the 31-foot sailboat wasn't easy, he said, but he doesn't have the time it takes to keep one fit. He has fond memories with his wedding on the bow of his boat topping them.
Golf is his primary form of relaxation now, though he's yet to master the game.
"I play at it," he said. "I'm not very good but I enjoy doing it."
Wooley's golf score will improve if he has the time because "anything he endeavors to do, he's passionate about it," said St. Landry Parish Clerk of Court Charles Jagneaux, who's known Wooley since he went to work for an Opelousas law firm in the late 1970s.
"He's probably one of the most laid-back people I know," Jagneaux said. "At first I didn't believe he should run for this, but he honestly believes he can save the insurance industry in this state. This is a chance for him to prove himself."
Wooley says it's hard to pinpoint where he'd call home because his family moved several times when he was growing up and he's moved several times as an adult. His parents drove from Alexandria to Natchitoches "in a driving rain storm" so he could be born in the same clinic where his brother was born, "so I had to learn how to spell Natchitoches even though I never lived there a day in my life."
His father was principal of a state school in Alexandria for disabled children, now called the Louisiana Special Education Center. When Wooley was high school age, his family moved to Monroe where his father headed a similar school.
Since his family lived on the grounds of the residential schools, "I grew up playing with those kids. It gives you a different aspect of life because whenever I thought I had it bad, all I had to do was look at what those kids had to deal with."
Wooley graduated from Ouachita Parish High School in 1971 and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration at Northeast Louisiana University in three years, graduating magna cum laude. He finished law school at LSU in Baton Rouge in three years because "I was ready to get out of school."
After working six months with an accounting firm in Shreveport, Wooley got an offer to put his law degree to work. For a while, he worked in Opelousas but then moved to Vidalia where he started practicing law with a young state senator named Jim Brown. Wooley later helped Brown win election as secretary of state. Wooley became Brown's executive counsel and first assistant, but in 1987 when Brown lost a race for governor, both went back into private practice - Brown as a lawyer until elected insurance commissioner and Wooley as a political consultant.
If he doesn't win the election, Wooley said he will resume his law practice and have "a low-overhead office - my cell phone."