Earlier this month, Jeremy Alford, who, in my opinion, is one of the best and most thorough journalists in Louisiana, published an article for The Independently Weekly titled “Donkey Desperation.” I have shamelessly co-opted his headline; I’m also a fan of alliterations. Mr. Alford’s article detailed the recent history and the plight of the Louisiana Democratic Party; it’s a great primer for anyone interested in Louisiana politics, whether you’re conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between.
A couple of days after Mr. Alford’s article was published, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell announced that he was switching to the Republican Party. As a result of Caldwell’s defection, there is only one Democrat holding a statewide elected office, United States Senator Mary Landrieu, and, of course, there’s only one Louisiana Democrat serving in Congress, Cedric Richmond of LA-02.
During the last couple of months, the Louisiana Republican Party has been the beneficiary of a number of other high-profile defections, including Noble Ellington and John Alario. During his race for Louisiana Senate in 2007, John Alario told The Times-Picayune that Roger Villere, the Chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, was “more interested in bigotry than he is with issues in the election and getting votes.” Villere and his party attempted to discredit and defeat Mr. Alario by painting him as some sort of Italian mafioso; they even launched a website titled “The Alarios,” which mimicked the HBO show The Sopranos. Today, Mr. Alario is a member of the Republican Party, and the man he once claimed was “more interested in bigotry” is the chairman of his state party, proving, once again, that politics does make for strange bedfellows.
Yesterday, Jonathan Perry beat Nathan Granger in a special election for Louisiana Senate, after Nick Gautreaux, a Democrat, abandoned the seat in order to become Commissioner of Motor Vehicles. From the Associated Press (bold mine):
A Republican candidate late Saturday won a special election for a Louisiana state Senate seat, according to unofficial returns, a result that if certified would give the GOP control of the Senate for the first time since Reconstruction.
The Louisiana Secretary of State’s office reported on its website that Republican state Rep. Jonathan Perry narrowly defeated Democrat Nathan Granger in the race to fill a vacant state Senate seat. Unofficial returns show Perry receiving 52 percent of the vote to Granger’s 48 percent, with all 106 precincts reporting.
Perry’s victory is yet another setback for the Louisiana Democratic Party, though it is largely symbolic.
Still, despite what some pundits may say, these recent events may offer the Louisiana Democratic Party the first opportunity in at least a decade to truly define itself, its mission, and its priorities. More importantly, it can provide Louisiana Democrats with the ability to finally become the cohesive voice of the opposition, staking out clear distinctions in policies and priorities from the Republican-controlled legislature and the Republican Governor.
If they seek to survive, they should embrace the role and the responsibilities of the vocal minority.
The recent defections of high-profile elected officials from the Democratic Party and to the Republican Party have very little to do with a real ideological shift: They were all calculated moves, decisions based on politics and elections and not policy or governance. Ultimately, these defections do not reflect a fundamental change in state government, however it may be framed against the backdrop of history; it’s just a campaign strategy: If you can’t beat them, join them.
And for those elected officials, right now, that may be true. They probably like their jobs, and they probably felt as if they could, potentially, face the might of an organized and well-funded Republican Party and a Republican Governor with nearly $10 million in the bank, months before he even officially launches a re-election campaign in full-force.
Ironically, that’s why, in many ways, these defections may actually be good for the Louisiana Democratic Party. On a very basic level, the defections have purged the party of elected officials who never actually supported it. That’s a good thing.
The truth is this:
The Louisiana Democratic Party has been in decline since at least 2000, the year Edwin Edwards was convicted and sentenced to prison. Edwards, the four-term Democratic Governor, had been the standard-bearer of the party, and his conviction not only undermined his own legacy as Governor, it also undermined and fractured the Louisiana Democratic Party. Regardless of whether or not Edwards’s sentence was fair or whether or not the prosecution and the judge were overly zealous, the conviction of Edwin Edwards was a massive blow to Louisiana Democrats. Nearly every single prominent politician in Louisiana was, in some way, connected to the four-term governor, but for those who also shared Edwards’s party affiliation, it was all-too-easy for Republicans to imply some sort of guilt by association.
And it was difficult for Louisiana Democrats to respond, particularly those whose political resumes were tied to Edwards.
So, in response, Louisiana Democrats attempted to market themselves “John Breaux Democrats.” John Breaux, the Democratic U.S. Senator from Crowley, would become the new standard-bearer for the party. They sought to shy away from the populism of Edwards and attempted to identify their party with a particular breed of so-called “conservative Democrats.” Yellow dogs became blue dogs.
But eventually, Democratic candidates became somewhat indistinguishable from Republican candidates, and for many voters in Louisiana, the decision was between voting for the amorphous “conservative Democrat” and the actual Republican conservative. Ain’t nothing like the real thing, right?
Today, the Louisiana Democratic Party is, once again, having to confront an identity crisis. They would be making a huge mistake if they continued to build their party around “conservative Democrats,” and an even bigger mistake if they focus too heavily on retelling the story of the newly-released Edwin Edwards.
Instead, they need to borrow a page from the Louisiana Republican’s playbook: They need to become a unified opposition. They also need to exclusively focus on the biggest and most pressing challenges in the State, and they need to be willing and able to publicly challenge Republicans on the issues. Louisiana Democrats need to work together. They need to become more diverse and more reflective of the people of Louisiana. They need to set and enforce the strongest ethical standards; they need to self-impose a series of campaign finance reforms among elected members of their party. And they must rely on our young leaders across the state, because more than any other group, they will set the tone and the agenda for the next twenty years.
I’ll let you all in on a little secret: There are young Democratic leaders on all corners and pockets of our State. Most of them don’t make the news, and the vast majority of them don’t hold an elected office. But to anyone who suggests that Louisiana Democrats lack a “bench,” you should probably scratch beneath the surface a little. You may be surprised by the quality and the caliber of these young men and women, and you’d probably be more surprised to know that, despite the fact that most are not involved in government on any level, these young Louisianans are already remarkably organized and connected. For them, I believe, it’s not a question of if but a question of when.