- Associated Press - Saturday, May 17, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Bob Odom, who served seven terms as Louisiana’s agriculture commissioner and was a top Democratic powerbroker in his heyday, died Saturday, his long-time aide said. He was 78.

Randal Johnson said the former commissioner died shortly after 7 a.m. at a Zachary hospital, after Odom’s wife Millie took him there because he was having difficulty breathing. Odom had suffered from an array of health problems for several years.

“The commissioner still had a great mind, but he had a weak body,” said Johnson, who served as deputy commissioner when Odom was in office.

Louisiana’s longest-serving agriculture commissioner, Odom was in the job from 1980 until 2008. For years, he was one of Louisiana’s most powerful elected officials, carrying hefty influence in Democratic Party affairs and in the Louisiana Legislature.

“He had a machine. Everybody wanted Bob Odom’s support,” said Sen. Francis Thompson, a long-time Odom ally and current chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “He had tentacles in every hamlet in Louisiana.”

Odom gave up his bid for an eighth term when he was forced into a runoff against Republican Mike Strain, who campaigned as a reformer while Odom was fighting a yearslong criminal corruption case that was dismissed the year after he left office.

When he announced his decision, Odom said: “I retire knowing I’ve done the best job possible for the agriculture industry for Louisiana.”

His departure from the race marked the end of a long career and the shift away from Democratic dominance in statewide offices.

“He’s certainly a Louisiana legend. He was ‘Mr. Agriculture’ for so, so many years,” Thompson said. “He took on tough issues and has a legacy to back up those many years of fighting for farmers.”

Among a list of accomplishments, Thompson credited Odom with starting the state’s program that eradicated boll weevils, a pest that threatened cotton crops.

Strain on Saturday called Odom “a giant in the agriculture industry,” and credited him modernizing and improving efficiency at the department.

Before being elected commissioner, Odom worked for the Department of Agriculture and Forestry since 1960, serving as chief of the pesticide division and executive assistant to the commissioner.

“He’s someone who gave his entire work life, so much of his life, to government service,” Johnson said.

Odom generated sharply diverging views among people. He won praise from supporters as a champion of farmers. Critics said he ran the Department of Agriculture and Forestry like his own kingdom, with little accountability and much cronyism.

A 21-count indictment filed against Odom in 2002 accused him of bribery, extortion and theft, but the case never went to trial. It was dismissed in 2009, and the judge who presided over the case called it “diseased from the very start.”

Odom enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from high school and continued in the Marine reserves after he started working for the agriculture department. Johnson said Odom retired from the reserves as a lieutenant colonel when he was elected commissioner.

Funeral services were set for 2 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Zachary.

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