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NEW ORLEANS – When Mary Matalin heard a baby cry during a Super Bowl news conference this week, she paused midsentence, peered in the direction of the fussing child and asked: "Is that my husband?"
Matalin, the noted Republican political pundit, isn't shy about making jokes at the expense of Democratic strategist James Carville, who went from being her professional counterpart to her partner in life when they were married — in New Orleans — two decades ago.
This week, though, and for much of the past few years, the famous political odd couple have been working in lockstep for a bipartisan cause — the resurgence of their adopted hometown.
Their passion for the Big Easy and its recovery from Hurricane Katrina was why Carville and Matalin were appointed co-chairs of New Orleans' Super Bowl host committee, positions that made them the face of the city's effort to prove it's ready to be back in the regular rotation for the NFL's biggest game.
"Their commitment to New Orleans and their rise to prominence here locally as citizens made them a natural choice," said Jay Cicero, president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, which handles the city's Super Bowl bids. "It's about promoting New Orleans, and their being in love with this city, they're the perfect co-chairs."
Carville, a Louisiana native, and Matalin moved from Washington, D.C., to historic "Uptown" New Orleans in the summer of 2008, a little less than three years after Katrina had laid waste to vast swaths of the city. There was not only heavy wind damage but flooding that surged through crumbling levees and at one point submerged about 80 percent of the city.
The couple had long loved New Orleans, and felt even more of a pull to set down roots here, with their two school-age daughters, at a time when the community was in need.
"The storm just weighed heavy," Carville said. "We were thinking about it. We'd been in Washington for a long time. The more that we thought about it, the more sense that it made. We just came down here (to look for a house) in late 2007 and said we're just going to do this and never looked back."
Matalin said she and Carville also wanted to raise their daughters in a place where people were willing to struggle to preserve a vibrant and unique culture.
"It's authentically creative, organically eccentric, bounded by beauty of all kinds," she said. "People pull for each other, people pull together. ... Seven years ago we were 15 feet under water. ... This is unparalleled what the people here did and that's what you want your kids to grow up with: Hope and a sense of place, resolve and perseverance."
Carville has been an avid sports fan all his life, and Matalin jokes that he now schedules his life around Saints and LSU football.
An LSU graduate, Carville has been a regular sight in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, often wearing a purple and gold rugby-style shirt.
In New Orleans, he and Matalin have lent their names not just to the Super Bowl host committee, but to efforts to prevent the NBA's Hornets from leaving when the ownership situation was in flux.
"I was scared to death they would leave the city," said Carville of the Hornets, who were purchased by the NBA in December of 2010 when club founder George Shinn wanted to sell and struggled to find a local buyer. "We were starting to do better (as a community). It would have been a terrible story to lose an NBA franchise at that time."
Saints owner Tom Benson has since bought the NBA club and signed a long-term lease at New Orleans Arena, ending speculation about a possible move.
Carville and Matalin also have taken part in a range of environmental, educational, economic and cultural projects in the area. Matalin is on the board of the Water Institute of the Gulf, which aims to preserve fragile coastal wetlands that have been eroding, leaving south Louisiana ecosystems and communities increasingly vulnerable to destruction. They have supported the Institute of Politics at Loyola University and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
Carville teaches a current events class at Tulane University and he looks forward to getting involved in the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans in 2015 and New Orleans' tercentennial celebrations in 2018, when the city also hopes to host its next Super Bowl, if the NFL sees fit.
Leading a Super Bowl host committee, the couple said, has similarities to running a major national political campaign, but takes even more work.
"This has been going on for three years and it's huge," Matalin said. "It's bigger, it's harder, it's more complex — even though it's cheaper."
The host committee spent about $13 million in private and public funds to put on this Super Bowl, and the payoff could be enormous in terms of providing a momentum boost to the metro area's growth, Carville said.
"For us — New Orleans — I think this is going to be much more than a football game Sunday," Carville said of the championship matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers. "We'll know how we feel about it on Monday. It's a big event, it helps a lot of people, but I think we have a chance if it goes the way we hope it does, it'll go beyond economic impact. It'll go beyond who won the game. I think there's something significant that's coming to a point here in the city."
So there's a bit of anxiety involved, to go along with the long hours. But Carville and Matalin say they've loved having a role in what they see as New Orleans' renaissance.
"I always say I'm so humbled by everyone's gratitude," Matalin said. "We get up every day and say, 'Thank you, God. Thank you, God.' It's a blessing for us to be able to be here, to live here."