He soon returned to the subject of the Superdome. Working his gum more furiously, he lit into State Senator John Schwegmann, a candidate for governor and the Superdome's prime opponent. "That man's an opportunist, you follow me?" said McKeithen, shaking his head. "He votes agin' everything. Why he even votes 'no' when they call roll." He laughed, pleased with his own joke. It was time to leave for his office and McKeithen strode from the room, pausing momentarily at the mansion's front door to remove the tags—$85, 46 long—from the sleeve of his new white linen suit.
Five minutes later the governor arrived at the remarkable state capitol, an ornate 34-story office tower put up during the Depression—as a monument to himself, Louisianians agreed—by Huey Long, who in his eagerness to serve the people once occupied the offices of U.S. Senator and governor simultaneously for 14 months before reluctantly surrendering the latter. Passing near the spot where Long was fatally wounded by an assassin in 1935, McKeithen rode an elevator marked FOR GOVERNOR ONLY to his fourth-floor office. Inside, he found a box of cigars on his desk, a gift from John Schwegmann.
This was no peace offering, for Schwegmann has a reputation of being a most stubborn adversary. Owner of a chain of nine suburban New Orleans supermarkets, Schwegmann opposed the domed stadium from the start, even though it was originally supposed to cost the state nothing. Under the measure approved by voters in 1966, the Superdome was to be financed by a 4% hotel-motel tax in New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish, with the state explicitly prohibited from putting its credit on the line. Then two years ago, when rising cost estimates made it clear that the hotel tax would no longer be sufficient, McKeithen sidestepped that prohibition by signing a lease between the state and the stadium—an agreement with himself, in effect, since he is also chairman of the stadium commission. It provided that the state's "rental" would take the form of making up any deficits that the stadium might incur.
Although conceding that the lease was probably legal, Schwegmann notes that its effect was to put the state's credit squarely behind the Superdome and fumes that "it's plain morally wrong." Schwegmann is a rumpled little man, an improbable gubernatorial entry, but in a field almost as crowded as this year's Kentucky Derby, he is given a long-shot chance, shades of Canonero II, to ride the stadium issue to victory. The Democratic primary is five months off, but he has been driving around for weeks in his Coupe de Ville with foot-high lettering, SCHWEGMANN FOR GOVERNOR, SAVE LOUISIANA, telling anybody who will listen that the Superdome is "a clear case of fraud and deception."
Not at all reluctant to mix business and politics, Schwegmann has thrown his supermarkets into the fray, to the extent of including in his full-page grocery ads, cheek by jowl with notices of 49�-a-pound fresh river catfish, campaign pitches warning voters that the domed stadium is being (strange imagery for a grocery ad) "railroaded and ramrodded down their throats." Seated the other day in his office, a glass-enclosed aerie overlooking the check-out counters of one of his stores—where clerks heap groceries into shopping bags identifying him as THE MAN WHO FIGHTS FOR YOUR INTERESTS—Schwegmann predicted that the stadium controversy would end in scandal.
"There's somethin' stinkin' in Denmark," he said, banging his fist on his desk. Across the room his secretary, Miss White, a handsome, middle-aged woman who wears her hair in a chignon, freely joined in the discussion. "It'll all come out in the wash," Schwegmann said, and Miss White added, "Fraud and deception, that's what it is."
Already there have been reports of attempts to solicit kickbacks from construction companies. Anti-Superdome forces accuse McKeithen of using state deposits as a weapon to blackjack a group of Louisiana banks into buying the $16.5 million worth of bonds that were used to purchase and raze the stadium site. They also point out, accurately enough, that relatives of Dave Dixon own property directly across from the site, while stadium supporters counter that Schwegmann wants the stadium built adjacent to real estate he owns in Jefferson Parish.
As this last suggests, stadium opponents are coming in for blows, too. In its January 1971 issue,
magazine reported at great length that John Joseph Watermeier Jr., president of an anti-dome group with the unfortunate name of HONEST, Inc., had been convicted in 1952 on nine counts of falsifying federal job applications. And, as if to mock Schwegmann's own practice of mixing business with politics, circulars appeared on the Senate floor a couple of weeks ago recounting the time that federal agents caught his supermarkets punching holes in blocks of cheese and selling it as Swiss.
As the crossfire grew more intense, the man most often caught in the middle appeared to be Dixon. His detractors could not resist commenting—if only to talk about a different dome for a change—on a dramatic reversal of his once-receding hairline. The new growth is waggishly referred to as "Astro-hair." Dixon gives the impression of a man helpless before an onslaught of ideas that keep occurring to him. He had a hand in bringing pro football to New Orleans and in starting World Championship Tennis (SI, Feb. 12, 1968), but wound up on the outside in both deals. The Superdome is the creation of Dixon at his most imaginative. Besides having most of the features of the Houston Astrodome, such as air conditioning, plush skyboxes and a stadium club, the projected stadium will have novel touches such as giant overhead TV screens, which will show spectators instant replays and locker-room interviews just as if they were back in their living rooms. The Superdome will also be more flexible, with grandstands that move on rails embedded beneath rollback artificial turf. This will make it possible to set up cozy arenalike configurations of 25,000 seats or less for sports like professional tennis and basketball.
But mostly the stadium will be just plain bigger. Where the Astrodome boasts that an 18-story building would fit under its roof, the New Orleans stadium could fit the Astrodome under its roof. Awesome as it sounds, Dixon has to persuade everyone that it makes economic sense. Just to break even, to meet the interest on the bonds and pay operating expenses, the stadium will have to take in rental revenues of at least $35,000 each and every day of the year, roughly equivalent to the rental paid for a Super Bowl game.