Why Louisiana Democrats Should Stand Up Instead Of Selling Out

On May 19th, The Times-Picayune and New Orleans’s WVUE Fox News 8 will receive one of the nation’s most prestigious prizes in American journalism, the Peabody Award. They are being honored, rightfully, for their collaboration on a series titled “Louisiana Purchased,” which meticulously detailed the outsized role of money in Louisiana politics and government and the ways in which elected officials and their most generous donors seemingly take advantage of large gaps in the state’s campaign finance laws. As a result of The Times-Picayune and WVUE’s exhaustive reporting, several elected officials, from both political parties, were asked to account for a litany of questionable and problematic donations and expenditures, but truth be told, the overwhelming majority of these officials have yet to provide an adequate explanation.

Several elected officials blatantly broke the law on donations from political action committees. Many were caught spending campaign funds for things that could hardly qualify as campaign activities: suites at Saints and LSU football games, extravagant dinners at some of the state’s most expensive fine dining restaurants, concert tickets, and high-priced hotel rooms. Others seemed to be earning a living from their campaign donations, spending hundreds of dollars a week on gasoline, groceries, and even their daily cup of coffee. Though he was not specifically profiled as a part of the “Louisiana Purchased” series, I know of a State Representative in Central Louisiana, a Democrat, who has disclosed spending tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, every year, on things most of us would consider basic necessities; according to his campaign finance reports, an enormous sum of that money was spent in one place, a small, inner-city convenience store less than a mile away from the Representative’s home.

Every single person in the state of Louisiana who receives campaign contributions also earns a salary that is paid for by taxpayers. So, this begs the question: If these officials actually live off of their campaigns, what is the public really paying them for? And more importantly, who do these officials actually work for, the citizens who elected them and who pay their salaries or the wealthy donors and PACs who contributed to them and subsidize their lifestyles?

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I know several of the “top 400 campaign donors” listed in the “Louisiana Purchased” series. A few of them, I’ve known for my entire life, and of those, I consider some to be personal family friends. Louisiana is a small state, after all. The population of Dallas and Houston, combined, is nearly four times the entire state of Louisiana. With all due respect to those I know on that top 400 list, they aren’t policy experts; for the most part, they’re just self-interested businessmen looking for a handout or a tax break or a few useful idiots they can convince to look the other way when it comes to regulatory enforcement. They don’t give money to Republicans because they care about Medicaid expansion or marriage equality or school vouchers or gun safety laws or any of the issues that animate the modern Democratic Party; they give money, disproportionately, to Republicans because, first, Republicans are in charge, and, second, because Republican candidates and officials have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to prioritize corporate welfare over social welfare.

It’d be easy enough for Louisiana Democrats to blame an elite group of campaign contributors for their problems at the polls and for hijacking the political process and turning Louisiana into a veritable oligarchy. And to be fair, I absolutely do not discount the pernicious ways in which government, on all levels, is increasingly controlled by the few and for the few, instead of by the people and for the people.

But Louisiana Democrats, ultimately, can only blame themselves for their electoral troubles, particularly in statewide elections. Before I get too far into it, I want to make this abundantly clear: While I think there are many things the Louisiana Democratic Party, as an official organization, could be doing more effectively, I am and have always been a supporter of the party’s executive director, Stephen Handwerk, and its chairwoman, Senator Karen Carter-Peterson. I know them both to be extremely competent and deeply dedicated public servants, people who are “in it” for all of the right reasons. Neither of them are to blame for what ails the Louisiana Democratic Party, but if the illness is to be treated, it must first be diagnosed.

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Republicans control a supermajority of the Louisiana legislature; with the exception of Senator Mary Landrieu, Republicans hold every single statewide office. They’re the beneficiaries of the largesse of campaign contributions. They’ve been able to recruit a deep bench of candidates, ensuring that they can remain competitive for at least the next three or four election cycles. And, crucially, the Louisiana Republican Party, to the greatest extent possible, stays on message.

Most political pundits look at these facts and conclude that Louisiana is and will remain, at least in the foreseeable future, a deep red state. This is ridiculous. With the exception of Joey Durel, the Mayor of Lafayette, every major city in the State of Louisiana is led by a Democrat. Mayor Glover in Shreveport in the northwest, Mayor Mayo in Monroe in the northeast, Mayor Roy in Alexandria in the center of the state, Mayor Roach in Lake Charles in the southwest, Mayor Holden in Baton Rouge, and Mayor Landrieu in New Orleans. Republicans may be in charge of the State Capitol, but Democrats, from all corners of the state, control City Hall. And unlike the people in charge of the House that Huey Built, these Democratic Mayors are all popular and, more importantly, they’re all effective. With mad respect to the great men and women who serve in the Louisiana State House and the State Senate, I think it would be complete and utter disaster to let those dysfunctional lunatics define the future of the party.

A few quick examples:

More than 2 out of every 3 voters thinks marriage equality will eventually become law. More than half already approve civil unions.

So what happened, last Tuesday, when the legislature considered a bill that had absolutely nothing to do with marriage equality but would instead have repealed language from an old law that had already been struck down by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas? This wasn’t about legalizing gay marriage, and only a complete idiot would really believe the Louisiana Family Fourm. It required only that Louisiana follow the United States Supreme Court and stop pretending it has the authority to criminalize private, consensual sex between adults. The bill actually advanced out of committee, but then, of course, it was killed.

Ordinarily, I’d blame Republicans; their votes killed the bill, after all, but let’s consider what Louisiana Democrats did and how they voted (bold mine):

IN FAVOR of getting rid of the law that criminalizes sodomy:

Reps. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans; Austin Badon, D-New Orleans; Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; Jared Brossett, D-New Orleans; Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport; Herbert Dixon, D-Alexandria; John Bel Edwards D-Amite; Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge; A B Franklin, D-Lake Charles; Randal Gaines, D- LaPlace; Lowell (Chris) Hazel, R-Pineville; Dalton Honore, D-Baton Rouge; Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe; Edward “Ted” James, D-Baton Rouge; Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer; Nancy Landry R-Lafayette; Terry Landry D-New Iberia; Walt Leger, D-New Orleans; Jack Mountoucet, D-Crowley; Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans; Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette; Edward Price, D-Gonzales; Patricia Haynes Smith, D-Baton Rouge, Karen St. Germain, D-Plaquemines; Ledricka Thierry, D-Opelousas; Patrick Willams, D-Shreveport; Ebony Woodruff, D-Harvey

AGAINST getting rid of the law criminalizes sodomy:

Bryan Adams, R-Gretna; John “Andy” Anders, D-Vidalia; James Armes, D-Leeville; Taylor Barras R-New Iberia; John Berthelot, R-Gonzales; Robert Billiot, R-Westwego; Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette; Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond; Terry Brown R-Colfax; Terry Burns, R-Haughton; Timothy Burns, R-Mandeville;Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport; Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge; Simone Champagne, R-Erath; Charles Chaney, R-Rayville; Patrick Connick, R-Marrero; Gregory Cromer, R-Slidell; Michael Danahay, D-Sulphur; Gordon Dove, R-Houma; Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro; Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette; Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles; Jerry Gisclair, D-Larose; Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge; Mickey Guillory, D-Eunice; John Guinn, R-Jennings; Lance Harris, R-Alexandria; Joe Harrison, R-Gray; Kenneth Havard, R-Jackson; Cameron Henry, R-Metairie; Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville; Dorothy Sue Hill, D-Dry Creek; Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs; Frank Hoffman, R-West Monroe; Paul Hollis, R-Covington; Frank Howard, R-Many; Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge; Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge; Robert Johnson, D-Marksville; Sam Jones, D-Franklin; Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales; Bernard LeBas, D-Ville Platte; Christopher Leopold, R-Belle Chase; Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie; Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans; Sherman Mack, R-Livingston; Gregory Miller, R-Norco; Jay Morris, R-Monroe; Jim Morris, R-Oil City; Kevin Pearson, R-Slidell; Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge; Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs; Stephen Pugh, R-Ponchatoula; Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro; Eugene Reynolds, D-Minden; Jerome Richard, I-Thibodaux; Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa ; Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales; John Schroder, R-Covington; Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport; Robert Shadoin, R-Ruston; Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs; Julia Stokes, R-Kenner; Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge; Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City; Lenar Whitney, R-Houma; Thomas Willmott, R-Kenner

Interestingly, Chris Hazel is one of only two Republicans who switched from the party line and voted to repeal the unconstitutional law. Although Hazel has most recently signaled his intention to run for District Attorney against his former colleague Chris Roy, Jr., just yesterday, someone began polling for the 5th Congressional  District, a seat that, presumably, became much more competitive given the so-called “Kissing Scandal.” Meanwhile, Democratic Representative Robert Johnson, who is also considering a race for the 5th, voted to keep Louisiana’s unconstitutional statute on the books. In others, the Republican took a stand on equality and fairness under the law, and the Democrat capitulated to ignorant fear.

If the Louisiana Democratic Party is to reestablish itself and, once again, become competitive statewide, it first must invest in its local leaders. But it cannot do so haphazardly. Investment does not necessarily mean “money;” all of the state’s Democratic Mayors and most of its Democratic councilpersons and police jurors are more than capable of raising their own money and running their own campaigns.

Too often, candidates confuse the mission and the purpose of the Louisiana Democratic Party; it should not concern itself with running campaigns. Candidates should run campaigns. “Investment” means coherent messaging and marketing; it means demonstrating that the party’s reach is much greater than inner cities; it means listening to elected officials who know how to win in majority-Republican and majority-Democratic precincts and developing a platform based on those issues: innovative crime prevention strategies, reinvestment in parks and recreation, building back roads and sidewalks and bike paths and, if possible, commuter rail, policies that promote sustainability and energy efficiency, developing partnerships with private entities to transform certified blighted properties to improve quality of life.

I’m sure I’m missing a few things in my initial assessment. For good measure, although Mayor Durel is a Republican, it is worth noting that every other municipality in the State of Louisiana would have followed his lead on providing Fiber To The Home had it not been for the collusion between entrenched business interests and Republicans in the Louisiana House and Senate that effectively denies other cities from providing broadband Internet as a public utility, fifty-times faster and fifteen percent cheaper. This was a promise denied to the rest of Louisianans, most of whom still suffer from the “digital divide.”

There are other examples: State Representative Katrina Jackson, a Democrat, spearheaded legislation that would create draconian and superfluous regulations against abortion providers, closing three of the state’s five clinics.

And Representative Stephen Ortego, a Democrat, voted to make the Bible the state’s official book.

Louisiana Democrats should stand tall, instead of selling out.

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Ghosts of David Duke Past
Ghosts of David Duke Past

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The Louisiana Republican Party is led by Roger Villere, a florist who only became known because, when he was forty, he lost an election to David Duke. That is, when given the choice between the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and the current chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, Villere’s neighbors and fellow Republicans chose the klansman. In 2011, Villere, as chairman of the Republican Party, ran for public office again; this time, for Lt. Governor. Villere received 6.7% of the vote; three times as many people voted for another Republican, Sammy Kershaw, a former country music star running a vanity campaign.

Maybe it seems unfair to reach all the way back, 25 years ago, to Villere’s first election, but the truth is, David Duke has his fingerprints on the modern Louisiana Republican Party much more than they could ever possibly admit: Not only did that State House election for District 81 introduce Roger Villere to the Louisiana Republican Party, but Republicans, including former Louisiana Governor Mike Foster, former Congressman Woody Jenkins, and former State Representative Tony Perkins (who is now head of the Family Research Council), paid Duke nearly $100,000 for his mailing list; to get elected, they needed David Duke’s help.

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Of course, the Louisiana Democratic Party has long been beleaguered by systemic, institutional problems, including, most importantly, the perception that elections for local delegates are rigged. Two years ago, one of the delegates elected to attend the Democratic National Conference in Charlotte allegedly earned her seat after telling local party members that she was already an elected official, specifically the Mayor of a small Louisiana city. Whether these specific allegations are true or not, they speak to a larger problem: The party- on a local, grassroots level- suffers from a lack of credibility.

And that is the first diagnosis: To reestablish integrity and credibility, the Louisiana Democratic Party should aggressively recruit a new roster of qualified delegates. On the local level, delegates should be assist in identifying successful policy and elected Democrat’s most important achievements. These titles should no longer be meaningless honorifics entitling you to a couple of subsidized hotel rooms every few years. Job titles carry important social cache; they must be given judiciously.

The Louisiana Democratic Party should deemphasize its political work at the State Capitol. The party’s state representatives, instead, should focus on building a vastly more robust, more trustworthy, and more integrated social and professional network.

Of course, it’s not simple, but one of the party’s weaknesses is the extent to which they have focused on national issues while ceding ground on issues that more directly affect state policy. The state party would be wise to re-embrace its populist past: Supporting public schools and higher education, holding oil and gas companies responsible for the environmental damage they have inflicted (while, at the same time, advocating a responsible domestic energy production), repealing all of the bad laws that make Louisiana a laughingstock of the nation, enacting meaningful campaign finance reform, demanding accountability and transparency in the Governor’s office, ensuring civil rights for all people– all of these things are poll-tested and voter-approved. And these issues don’t mean the party becomes “the party of the past;” these issues also reflect the priorities of Louisiana’s young progressives.

To be sure, again, I am not suggesting that Democratic candidates should be subsidized by the party; that’s a bad, top-down approach. I’m merely suggesting that the party should adopt a more Louisiana-centric platform, and it should be more willing to embarrass and call out Democrats like Katrina Jackson and others who undermine the party’s outreach and message.

The Louisiana Republican Party has done a great job rebranding itself and emerging from its sordid connection to David Duke, but they’ve done so by, more often that not, aligning themselves with conservative Christian “values” voters. They are the party of big business disguised as the party of traditional values. In recent years, this has meant electing and then re-electing a family values candidate who frequented prostitutes. Earlier this year, we learned another “family values” Republican official, Congressman Vance McAllister, was cheating on his wife with one of his employees, and according to the woman’s husband and McAllister’s former good friend, the Congressman, in his words, “is the most non-religious person I know.”

After McAllister’s affair was exposed, Louisiana Republicans wasted no time distancing themselves from him, even at the risk of looking like hypocrites . They didn’t care. Why? Because they knew, all along, the guy was as phony as a three dollar bill.

It’s about coherent, consistent messaging.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post has been edited. And then reedited.