Three weeks ago, along with my friend Jason Brad Berry of The American Zombie, I broke a story about Bill Cassidy’s questionable dual employment with Louisiana State University while also serving in the United States Congress. The story was and still is sensational: Cassidy, who is now a Senator-elect, had received at least $100,000 in salary and thousands more in benefits from LSU during his five years in Congress  Nearly 75% of his time sheets are missing, and the documents that have been disclosed reveal that Cassidy apparently never worked the requisite hours and, more importantly, apparently violated ethical guidelines set by Congress. On 21 separate occasions, Cassidy billed LSU for work he conducted on the same days he cast votes and participated in committee meetings in Washington, D.C. When he was asked about it in his first and only debate in the run-off, Cassidy suggested that his supervisor at LSU had already defended him and his work to the media, but there was one big problem: The man he identified as his supervisor stopped supervising Cassidy in 2009, the same year Cassidy became a member of Congress.

There are legitimate questions that have yet to be answered by Cassidy, and as conservative columnist Quin Hillyer recently wrote in The Advocate, we deserve answers. Quoting from Hillyer (bold mine):

Louisiana taxpayers deserve an accounting. If Cassidy didn’t even come close to the amount of state hospital work he promised to do, then he should make restitution, just as Landrieu’s campaign made restitution for her mis-billed plane trips.

Here, though, is where specific time sheets are less important than the public record. Whether or not he produces the right paperwork, Cassidy darn well ought to produce people who can vouch for his work. He says he counseled students. OK, who are they? Why can’t he get them to speak up? He says he reviewed lab reports. OK, for which medical personnel did he do so? Asking Cassidy to give some sort of specific accounting for the scope of his work, if not for every minute thereof, is perfectly reasonable.

If and only if he can’t find several people to vouch for specific types of work he did, with several specific examples, then the ethical violation might be serious — and actionable.

For the most part, I agree with Mr. Hillyer. But if, in fact, it is true that Cassidy “didn’t even come close to the amount of state hospital work he promised to do,” I’m afraid it won’t be as simple as merely paying “restitution” and moving on, and I’m afraid that ethical violations, as serious as they may be, would be the least of the Senator-elect’s concerns. LSU is a public institution, and overcharging them for medical services, in addition to potential charges of payroll fraud, would likely be actionable under the False Claims Act. The penalties are severe. Until Senator-elect Cassidy can properly account for his work, he should remain under a cloud of suspicion.

All of that said, as a result of helping to break this story, I’ve received some attention from the Louisiana media, almost all of which has been fair and even-handed. Just as I’ve referred to Mr. Hillyer as a “conservative columnist,” his newspaper, The Advocate, as well as the Associated Press and The Times-Picayune have referred to me as a “liberal.” And that’s accurate: I am a liberal, at least according to the conventional definition of the term.

But I’m also acutely aware that in the American South and particularly in Louisiana, “liberal” is often used as a pejorative. In a state as deep red as Louisiana has become, “liberal” is often thrown around dismissively, as a quick way of discrediting someone else’s opinions and integrity. There’s no analog on the political right: “Conservative” has never been a bad word; there are plenty of Democrats in this country who claim to be “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” “Radical” can be used against people of all political stripes, just like “nut job.”

In recent years, the term “liberal” has fallen out of favor among those on the left, largely because of the successful rhetorical assault by those on the right. Today, most people who would have called themselves “liberal” fifteen years ago are more likely to self-identify as “progressive.” Historically, “progressive” and “liberal” haven’t necessarily been interchangeable. After all, Teddy Roosevelt considered himself to be a progressive, and despite the fact that he defected at the end of his life, he’s generally regarded as a father of the modern Republican Party.

As a result of Senator Landrieu’s defeat, there has been a lot of soul-searching among state and national Democrats: How can the party possibly endure and thrive in an area of the country that has turned so strongly against them? Some have argued in favor of the Democratic Party writing the South off completely, suggesting that resources would be better spent in competitive elections in other parts of the country. Others, like Stephen Waguespack of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and a former Chief of Staff for Governor Bobby Jindal, believe that Louisiana Democrats should basically adopt the Republican platform: Denouncing programs intended to “elevate the poor and working class” in favor of tax cuts for big business, opposing regulation designed to protect the public health and environmental sustainability in favor of short-term gains for Big Oil, opposing the Affordable Care Act and the minimum wage, and preventing employees who were injured or harmed as a result of their employer’s negligence from seeking justice in the courts, among other things. Both Mr. Waguespack and his former boss, Gov. Jindal, earnestly believe that this was the message delivered by Louisiana voters in the last election; perhaps they’re right, but they seem to be disingenuously ignoring one thing: Republicans didn’t win unanimously. Hundreds of thousands of Louisianians- 561,210, to be precise- voted for the Democratic candidate for Senate, in a low turn-out, mid-term, run-off election that featured only one debate and in which 97 cents of every dollar spent was in support of Cassidy.

In total, Bill Cassidy won 151,169 more votes than Senator Landrieu. But he lost Orleans Parish, the most economically important place in the entire state, by a staggering 84%-16% margin. He lost Caddo Parish and Shreveport; he lost Alexandria and Monroe, and perhaps most notably, he lost East Baton Rouge Parish and the City of Baton Rouge, his own home town. East Baton Rouge Parish voters favored Mary Landrieu over Bill Cassidy by nearly six points, yet at the same time, they also favored the Republican candidate for Congress, Garret Graves, over the Democratic candidate, Edwin Edwards, by more than 17 points.

Obviously, Cassidy made up for these losses with tremendous gains in rural parishes and in cities like Lafayette and Lake Charles. But nonetheless, Cassidy’s lack of support in Louisiana’s three largest cities is still a silver lining for Louisiana Democrats seeking to rebuild after more than a decade of losses. While it is indisputable that urban areas in Louisiana have always favored Democrats, it is also indisputable that these cities represent the economic engines that drive the entire state.

Democrats can and should be faulted for not competing in rural parishes. Vernon Parish, for example, the home of Ft. Polk, an army base that Senator Landrieu spent much of her career repeatedly attempting to save from closure and cutbacks, supported Cassidy over Landrieu, 80.33% to 19.67%. Even though Senator Landrieu narrowly won Alexandria, she lost Rapides Parish, and according to sources who worked on the ground, her campaign never seriously attempted to turnout voters outside of Alexandria. Obviously, there were missed opportunities, as there are in any campaign.

But just as Democrats should be faulted for their abysmal performance in rural areas and, particularly, in cities like Lafayette and Lake Charles, Republicans in Louisiana probably should caution themselves against gloating too much. In a state in which 31% of the population is African-American, Republicans are lucky if they can receive only 6% of African-American voters. A political party that is constructed, primarily, around turning out rural white voters and a party that believes it can essentially concede the three largest cities in the entire state and nearly a third of the electorate will never be sustainable or credible. You can’t claim that Louisiana voters provided Republicans with a true mandate to govern when 94% of African-American men and 96% of African-American women voted for the Democrat, particularly in a state as diverse as Louisiana. “Demographics is political destiny,” environmental activist and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Stagg recently told me.

There is another silver lining worth mentioning: Even in parishes and cities in which Cassidy received the majority of votes, down-ticket Democrats were elected as District Attorneys, Judges, and City Councilmen. Democrats desperately need to cultivate and nurture a base, and they need to look beyond New Orleans to do so. “Population continues to shift away from New Orleans, but the party leadership is increasingly concentrated there,” Mr. Stagg says. That’s a problem, because although New Orleans will always remain a critical base for the Louisiana Democratic Party, as the most recent election proves, a Democrat can win more than 80% of the vote in Orleans Parish and still lose statewide by 12 points.

Mr. Stagg, who once worked as the Louisiana Democratic Party’s communications director, points to another problem. “The idea that only whites can represent whites and only blacks can represent blacks is destroying the Democratic Party in Louisiana,” he says. “Legislative bodies drawn from racially packed and blanched districts — that includes the Legislature, but also city councils, parish government and school boards — produce a form of political apartheid.” It may be uncomfortable for some, but it’s true: The system is currently designed to marginalize the already marginalized. “We must make a huge leap of faith in order to abandon this race-specific representation cancer. The Louisiana Democratic Party must be about this work for the next 7 years before the next redistricting in 2021. We are the only party that proclaims its racial diversity. We can only succeed if we live up to that claim.”

I agree with Mike Stagg, because I’ve seen personally the ways in which race-based gerrymandering has been used as a tool by both white Republicans and African-American Democrats in the legislature to consolidate their own power, even if it means undermining their own communities and undercutting their own constituents.

But still, no matter what changes are made during the redistricting process 7 years from now, there’s a bigger problem facing Democrats: What is their message? What do they intend to sell voters?

What does being a “Louisiana liberal” really mean?

Well, first, I think we can dispense with Stephen Waguespack’s unsolicited advice: Our political process works better and is more honest, responsive, and reflective of the people it serves when we engage in a serious, civil, and robust discussion of the issues. Suggesting that Democrats in Louisiana should essentially rebrand themselves as Republicans and sever all ties with national leadership isn’t serious or respectful of the legitimate differences of opinion that hundreds of thousands of Louisianians have with Mr. Waguespack’s political party and his former boss. Frankly, it is a little alarming Mr. Waguespack, as the director of the nonprofit organization Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (or LABI), which for so many years managed to maintain its credibility as nonpartisan, would ever turn to a conservative political website best known for calling people “cripples” and photoshopping the President of the United States and the Senate Majority leader in order to make it appear as if they were having anal sex. It’s unprofessional of Mr. Waguespack to associate with this particular website, and it should embarrass any and everyone associated with LABI.

Pardon the brief digression. Here’s what I would do:

1. Champion the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Instead of running away from Obamacare, Louisiana Democrats need to vigorously support the Medicaid expansion as a matter of fundamental moral and economic necessity. Every year we refuse, we are sending away billions of our tax dollars to prop up, fund, and provide coverage for thousands of people in California and New York and even Arkansas. We are continuing to deny nearly $17 billion in federal dollars that would help ensure more than 253,000 working-class citizens can access the full panoply of medical care, and as a result of this refusal, premiums for almost everyone else have gone up. Again, this is not just about the morality of caring for our neighbors; it’s about reducing costs for those whose insurance pays for uncompensated, emergency room care for those left in the gap. The Affordable Care Act polls well in Louisiana. Laws that prohibit insurance providers from denying coverage on the basis of a preexisting condition poll extremely well, as do provisions that allow children to remain on their family plans until the age of 26, and as does Medicaid expansion. Only the term “Obamacare” polls poorly. If Democrats intend to win, they must retake the narrative on the Affordable Care Act.

2. Louisiana Democrats must support, as a part of its party platform, marriage equality and laws prohibiting workplace and housing discrimination against the LGBT community. We elect leaders to lead, and on this issue, Louisiana Democrats must be willing to stand up for equal rights for those who have continuously been victimized and marginalized. This is not about being brave; it’s about being inclusive, accepting, decent, and loving. It’s about parents having their relationship recognized, and children having their families recognized. It’s about decency.

3. Louisiana Democrats must become unified in their support for coastal restoration. They must support the SLFPAE’s historic lawsuit.

4. Louisiana Democrats must criticize an unaccountable school voucher program. They must promote targeted and specialized charter schools. But most importantly, they must demand investments in our public school system, particularly in schools that have struggled. They must commit ourselves to never abandoning our most important neighborhood institutions. They must re-double, instead of running away.

5. They must ensure that protections for the working class are more of a priority than welfare for big business.

6. They must vehemently oppose the privatization of prisons and hospitals.

7. They must listen to teachers and to science.

8. They must promote the construction of infrastructure.

9. They must champion community-based policing.

10. They must relentlessly defend our civic institutions.

11. They must demand equal justice under the law.

12. They must fiercely defend our history, our culture, our food, and our music,

13. They must demand accountability and transparency.

14. And finally, they must develop their bench.

If that makes me a Louisiana liberal, so be it. I voted for Senator Landrieu, and because of that, many folks would consider me a conservative.

But I am who I am, a Louisiana boy.

 

 

12 thoughts

  1. Super column, Lamar, one of your very best.

    The division between liberals and conservatives in our country and state has never been wider. There is nothing “radical” in the things you propose, but our failure to effectively promote them could have disastrous effect. If, as some suggest, the GOP writes off the “tepid” south as insignificant and if it continues its truly radical policies, civil unrest, if not an outright revolution, are no more unimaginable than they were 153 years ago. We cannot allow our party to continue to roll over and play dead. We must stand up for what is right if we have any hope of avoiding a much larger rift with far greater consequences.

    As I told Tom Aswell of Louisiana Voice, members of the emerging GOP may not believe in evolution, but but they seem happy to accept social Darwinism as a valid policy. This is truly frightening.

    Reasoning with conservatives is becoming increasingly impossible in my experience. Liberals are often considered entrenched in their beliefs and unwilling to listen to conservative views. I find the EXACT opposite to be the case. Many conservatives I know would dismiss every word in your column as hogwash simply because you wrote it. There was a time when I would have put Quin Hillyer in that category but, in recent columns, he has become the voice of conservative reason and I take some hope from that.

  2. Correction to my original post: Please substitute “”fetid” for “tepid” south (The reference is to comments made by Michael Tomasky in The Daily Beast: ““Forget about the whole fetid place. Write it off. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise.”)

  3. This is all well and good – but can someone win in Louisiana with such a platform? Mike Stagg’s assessment is fair – that demographics matter. What’s missing here is the analysis (polling, focus groups, etc.) that the laundry list of issues provided will actually move the needle. Many of the issues provided don’t really translate at the local/parish level politics (Affordable Care Act), others don’t translate at the federal level (prison privatization), and others are pretty broad values without much firmness (“They must promote the construction of infrastructure.” – Keystone XL or I-49?).

    It’s important to remember that the soul searching of the democratic party isn’t unique to Louisiana – D’s lost throughout the south this round. When D’s do win here, they’re quite conservative compared to the national platform, democrats in name only, with minor differences from republican competition. Keep in mind, D’s like Landrieu, Pryor and Hagan last won in 2008 – a strong democratic coattails year. My point is this: there were quite a few factors running against democrats in this cycle. I’m not so sure that drawing a harder line would have helped Landrieu.

  4. Lamar White, thank you for this in-depth analysis. I hope that all Democrats in the state of Louisiana will read your analysis. It is time for Democrats in this state to come together and develop a platform that we can all be proud of and that we are prepared to fight to defend. We cannot wait. The time is now. We need to move forward!

    1. It’s really difficult not to, Fredster. But, if we let it totally bum us out of the picture, they’ve won for sure.

  5. Lamar- outstanding observations and insights, as ever, and your clearly thought out solutions to the pervasive issues that hold our people down are sensible and workable. Poor education of the masses (as opposed to the excellent private education provided to the privileged few) perpetuates an underclass that votes in ignorance, if at all due to apathy – further perpetuating a plutocracy that is beyond their understanding. It is interesting that the Jindal voucher program exacerbates the problem, as the majority of schools that “voucher kids” attend are the worst of the worst, as evidenced by recently released standardized test scores.

    Your analysis of the ACA polling data clearly shows that ignorance drives people to vote against their own best interest, Education is the key. The Democrat Party must also become the party that promotes and fosters good education for all children. Educated voters will make well-reasoned choices – the conservatives’ worst nightmare. They have a vested interest in keeping people ignorant – and down.

    A teacher once asked students if they knew the difference between ignorance and apathy. Answer: We don’t know and we don’t care.

    The political party that comes together with good intentions and clear goals that will promote the common good, social and economic justice and policies that raise all boats, will prevail. That is surely not the Republican Party.

    Thanks for your brilliant post. The comments are also important observations – it is comforting and encouraging to recognize that not all Louisiana men and women are ignorant and apathetic.

    1. Your analysis of the ACA polling data clearly shows that ignorance drives people to vote against their own best interest

      And it’s what makes you want to go pound your head against the wall earthmother.

      1. Fredster – after you stop pounding your head against the wall you pick yourself up and decide to speak truth to power.

        See Louisiana Voice: “A group of state employees and retirees is attempting to raise funds to finance a lawsuit against Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Division of Administration over the pirating of nearly a quarter-billion dollars of the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) reserve fund. LA VERITE (French for Truth, but also an acronym for Louisiana Voices of Employees and Retirees for Insurance Truth and Equity) is soliciting donations to help pay the legal fees required to file and to pursue the litigation to prevent Jindal from dipping further into what once was a reserve fund of more than $500 million in order to balance his perpetually out-of-kilter state budget.”

  6. I’ve greatly enjoyed all of the news reports about the doings and misdoings of the current state administration and urge all of those who are doing this much-needed reporting to keep it up.

    Now, as regards what to do if you want the good guys be winners at the polls in statewide elections, that’s a tough question.

    Honestly, it’s a rough situation.

    The problem is the anti-tax, anti-spend (unless the spending is on military/defense or perhaps law enforcement) hysteria that’s sweeping through much of the country. Maybe not the whole country but still very much of it.

    The right wingers, to be frank, do have it easy. Their anti-tax/anti-government/anti-welfare message is very simple and enormously appealing to the broad mass of white working class and middle class voters. “Liberal” is of course a pejorative while “hard line conservative” is not. “Welfare” and “government give-away” and “Obama-care” are related pejoratives. How do the “rest of us” respond to that? I really don’t know. Nonetheless, the “rest of us” have to acknowledge the situation. Plus, as regards this kind of “laundry list” message as delineated in the post above, well, to be frank, is very unlikely to catch on with the average white voter. Sadly, it must be said that very many voters just want to believe in what they want to believe and reject the rest, no matter what the actual facts. Forget that the majority of federal spending is on defense, social security and medicare and that Congress passed welfare reform back in the 1990s and that “Obama-care” is essentially a conservative’s approach to health care reform.

    Do Democrats just need to start adopting the exact right wing message, as, as was pointed out, some people have suggested, in order to win statewide elections in a state such as Louisiana? I don’t know, but I do think that it can be easily said that the “laundry list” message is not going to be a winner and liberal in the south need to recognize that. Our American society, except for populated urbanized areas on the east cost and west coast, does happen to be a fairly conservative one.

    Democrats are most likely to be able win elections at the statewide level in southern or midwestern states, excepting possibly Illinois, and thus overcome that whole state of affairs, with candidates who have enormous personal appeal running against GOP candidates who lack such personal appeal. That may also apply to national elections though there the situation is not quite as desperate. FDRoosevelt won mainly because of who he was and how he was as a person, not because of a specific laundry list of proposals that he was selling to the voters during the campaign. If anything, FDR kept vague on his specific ideas until after he was inaugurated. Kennedy also won more because of personality than anything else, though he was a hawk in many ways, and then Truman and then Johnson, respectively, more or less rode their predecessors’ coattails.

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