A Louisiana ‘Liberal’

The author, on election day, wearing the final campaign t-shirt of Edwin Edwards's final campaign

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.