Cover Story

Stomping Grounds

by Nathan Stubbs

The Seventh Congressional District of southwest Louisiana used to be considered one of the Democrats' safest seats. This year, the party barely found a candidate.

Down a gravel cul-de-sac in a small trailer park site on the outskirts of Duson, two small sky-blue signs advertising "Mike Stagg for Congress" lean up against a gray vinyl-siding trailer. In the driveway, an old crooked basketball goal is planted in front of three camper trailers. Across the road in a fenced field, three horses graze around a row of haystacks. Skip Picou flicks another Liggett Select cigarette butt onto the ground and squints his eyes into the sunlight.

"That's why we can win," Picou explains. "Because Boustany doesn't take us seriously. He doesn't see what we're doing."

Picou, a balding man with a shaggy beard, is the campaign manager for Mike Stagg, the sole Democratic candidate and challenger to Republican incumbent Rep. Charles Boustany. The trailer he's standing in front of is, by default, campaign headquarters.

"It's unconventional for this area for sure, the way we're going about it," Picou continues. "But I think it's the most honest and efficient way."

Picou and Stagg have been friends for nearly 50 years, growing up together in Eunice. When Stagg began contemplating a run for Congress earlier this year, Picou was one of the first supporters to line up behind him. A longtime commercial painter with no political experience, Picou works out of an office that isn't much bigger than a storage closet, and there's barely room for his desk. "I had to get an e-mail address," Picou says, "and learn how to use the Internet."

"People who know me swear that's a sign that the world's coming to an end," he adds with a laugh.

He also got his first cell phone. "It drives me crazy. I can hardly hear on it."

Picou admits there are some obvious challenges facing the Stagg campaign. Stagg isn't well known, has never held public office before and has virtually no big money backing him in the race. "He's not your typical candidate," Picou says, something that has made garnering donations, endorsements and general support more difficult. The campaign won't be able to do much, if any, TV advertising, and it just got its first stacks of color push cards.

This year, the Democratic Party almost went without a candidate in the 7th District before Stagg entered the race in July. By all accounts, the impoverished yet determined Stagg campaign faces a huge uphill struggle. The situation only underscores the recent woes of a party that just three years ago was considered to have a stronghold on public offices throughout southwest Louisiana.

"Mike doesn't want to be handled," says Stephen Handwerk, a member of the Lafayette Parish Democratic Executive Committee. "He doesn't want to be staffed. It harkens back to the good old days. But is that going to be effective? Well, I guess we don't have an alternative without a million and a half dollars in the bank."

Last year, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began seriously looking at which races to focus on in the 2006 mid-term elections, the 7th Congressional District appeared ripe for the picking. Not only did the Democrats hold an almost two to one advantage over Republicans with the registered voters of the district (55 percent Democrat to 23 percent Republican) but it was also located in Louisiana, where discontent with the Bush administration and its response to two devastating hurricanes was still simmering. In addition, the national Republican Party had other fires to put out, namely lobbying scandals tied to Jack Abramoff, who had bilked a Louisiana Indian tribe Casino out of some $32 million.

And the 7th Congressional District had always been fertile ground for producing popular conservative Democratic Party candidates. Its list of past Congressmen reads like a who's who in Democratic Party politics over the past 30 years ' Edwin Edwards, John Breaux, Jimmy Hayes (who switched to Republican in his last term), and most recently, Chris John. When Boustany won office in 2004 in a hotly contested election to become the first Republican ever elected to the district seat, many people wrote off the victory as being more a result of state Democratic Party infighting rather than the district turning Republican.

As the 2006 elections approached, the Democratic Party had just one problem: No one wanted to run against Boustany.

The most logical choice for the DCCC was former Congressman Chris John, who two years ago gave up the 7th District seat to run for U.S. Senate, a race he lost to David Vitter. John has spent the past two years as a high-paid lobbyist in Washington and frequently mentioned making another run for office. But the lure of returning to his old job wasn't enough. "He told me he had made some long-term commitments with his firm in D.C., that they had made him an offer he couldn't refuse," says local attorney Glenn Armentor, who encouraged John to run.

The next big name to emerge for the Democrats was successful Lake Charles attorney Hunter Lundy, who lost a previous bid for the seat to John in the 1996 runoff.

Lundy says he had a desire to run and that DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel began calling him every week encouraging him to enter the race. But when it came time to make a decision at the beginning of the year, Lundy says he prayed about it a long time but "couldn't find peace with it." He adds that other work obligations required him to try cases in both Mississippi and Arkansas, which would have made running a heavy political race difficult.

"I think the Democratic Party assumed I was going to run and so maybe they waited to recruit somebody else," Lundy says. "I think that they were disappointed because they looked at this district as one that they could possibly get back."

With Lundy bowing out at the beginning of the year, the search became frantic. Former U.S. Attorney Mike Skinner, who had decided against running, was pressed to reconsider. (Skinner is widely rumored to be planning a bid for district attorney next year.)

With Skinner out, sources close to the search effort say the DCCC put in a few long-shot pleas, calling Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret and asking him to switch parties to run and also throwing out a line to Calcasieu Parish Clerk of Court Lynn Jones ' neither of whom had any interest in the proposition. Michael McHale, a Lake Charles attorney who serves as the state party's clerk, also turned down the opportunity. One big deterrent for potential candidates was seeing popular state Sen. Willie Mount spend $1.3 million in a losing effort two years ago.

"The sad thing about it," Lundy says. "[is] you could run a congressional race in the 7th Congressional District not too many years back for a half a million dollars. Now it's going to cost you a million to 2 million dollars to run a congressional race in this district. It's a lot of money."

Adding to the frustration, the state party went four months without any clear leadership. Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard, an ally of Gov. Kathleen Blanco, abruptly resigned as state party chairman less than a month after Hurricane Katrina, when conflicts of interest started to become unavoidable. (Shaw Group was already overseeing some $200 million worth of state recovery contracts.) Following Bernhard's departure, divisions within the party struggled over who to name as a suitable successor. At the end of January, the party elected Baton Rouge attorney Chris Whittington as its third party chairman in less than three years.

"The state party wasn't a help in this matter," admits Handwerk. "[The DCCC] basically said, 'Well, they can't get their act together.'"

Right around the time the DCCC began to write off the 7th District, state and local party officials made one more effort to recruit a candidate ' this time seeking out longtime Lafayette Parish School Board member David Thibodaux. In his four previous runs for the 7th District Congressional seat, Thibodaux, a Republican, had clashed with his own party leadership over their lack of support and was seen as a good candidate to switch parties and run as a Democrat. Thibodaux confirms he spoke to Whittington and state party Executive Director Danny Ford about the possibility but says the idea never took off.

Already feeling burned by the Republican Party, Thibodaux wanted firm commitments from the Democratic Party before he would even consider a switch.

"They were looking for people with name recognition, obviously, to mount a serious challenge," Thibodaux says. "The issue facing me was, OK, if I was going to do this, were they serious about it? I mean really serious. And serious at the Congressional level means money. I've been critical of the national [Republican] party. But rather than being a token Congressional candidate without the appropriate resources, I think I'm a more effective critic of those things as a lifelong Republican. If I'd switched parties, I would have been a conservative Democrat, and where would that leave me? A couple members of my family were just totally horrified that I would even consider such a thing," he says.

"The Democrats have an identity crisis," Thibodaux adds. "Because while there are people like me who are unhappy with things in the Republican Party right now, there's still some rather radical elements within the Democratic Party that we don't want to be associated with either. If [The Democratic Party] really wants to gain some ground, they've got to move to the middle, to the working middle class, who in my opinion right now are being squeezed from both sides."

In the end, Handwerk says Thibodaux "wasn't a good match" for what the Democratic Party was looking for. After the Thibodaux negotiations collapsed, the situation was dismal. "So here we were, it was Memorial Day," Handwerk recalls, "and we still didn't have a candidate declared. So I'm saying, 'We have to have somebody. Someone has to step up to the plate.'"

Enter Mike Stagg.

A local tech consultant with frizzy brown hair and wire-rim glasses, Stagg isn't your typical polished and primed politician. In 2003, he ran for governor using the campaign tactic of walking along the highway from city to city, and wound up garnering less than 1 percent of the vote.

However, Handwerk says in many ways Stagg, a firebrand Democrat, fits the bill perfectly by representing a clear contrast to Boustany. "While he might not look like your typical candidate, he's incredibly well versed on the issues and is a Democrat in the true sense of the word."

"We need someone who is unapologetically progressive, and, dare I say liberal, in their views," Handwerk adds. "Not Republican-lite. And Mike Stagg has never been one to mince words."

The travails of the Democratic Party go beyond the 7th Congressional District. In Lafayette, where Republicans have built a stronghold, the Democratic Party is struggling to find a candidate to mount a serious challenge next year to Republican incumbent City-Parish President Joey Durel. Multiple sources say the party has already approached former city-parish Chief Administrative Officer Glenn Weber, attorney Mike Skinner, Clerk of Court Louis Perret and Councilman Bruce Conque. None of them expressed any interest in running.

On the state level, the Democrats didn't put up a candidate in the recent insurance commissioner's election. And the lone Democratic candidate for secretary of state, Francis Heitmeier, recently dropped out of that race because of low, post-Katrina voter turnout from the New Orleans area.

Last week, Louisiana pollster Bernie Pinsonat told The Times-Picayune that recent election numbers signal more trouble ahead for Democrats. "If you're a Democrat, and you're not worried, you're obviously not paying attention."

Wayne Parent, chair of LSU's department of political science, cautions against putting too much stock in one election year. "I've been teaching Louisiana politics at LSU for 25 years, over the transition from dominant Democratic to competitive Democratic-Republican, to perhaps now leaning Republican for the state. And every year, someone writes a story about the end of the Democratic Party.

"There's a legitimate big picture trend in Louisiana," he continues. "Overall, you don't see the end of the Democratic Party, but you do see the next couple of years will probably be looking better for Republicans. I do see the trend moving their way."

Robbie Mahtook, a local attorney who was actively involved with the state Democratic Party in the mid-90s, says the surge of Republicans shouldn't be read as a shift in the region's ideology. Rather, he says, the more popular middle-of-the road candidates are now tending to crop up more in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party.

"And I think that's what you find in Congressman Boustany and in Joey Durel," Mahtook says. "The more moderate Republicans are those that have picked up what used to be the older Democratic mantras as far as working class people and small businesses. The Democratic Party used to be the voice of small business, and I think you're finding that more and more, small businesses are tending to look to the moderate Republican for support."

For many Republicans, the recent struggles of the Democratic Party serve as a confirmation of their own success. In the 7th District, they say the reason several potential candidates decided not to run against Boustany was because they recognized how strong a candidate he is.

"There was a handful of well-funded potential candidates that checked the water," says Mark Gremillion, treasurer of the Republican Parish Executive Committee. "They found out how strong Charles' numbers were and said, 'I'm not spending my $2 million I've got in the bank.'"

While Boustany is viewed as somewhat stilted, and not the best public speaker, he's nonetheless an intimidating political opponent. In his first run for public office in 2004, he amassed an enormous war chest, and his net campaign expenditures ended up totaling an unprecedented $2.5 million. He also enjoys extensive support from Democratic voters, due to both his deep family ties and his years as a local heart surgeon. Boustany's father is the coroner in Lafayette Parish, and his wife Bridget is the niece of former Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards, a family that maintains a strong political presence in both Lafayette and Acadia parishes.

In 2004, longtime Acadia Parish Clerk of Court and lifelong Democrat Andy Barousse filmed a testimonial for the Boustany campaign, noting how the former heart surgeon had saved his life. Barousse's father served as clerk of court in Acadia Parish before him, and his son, Robby, the current clerk, also supports Boustany. This year, the Boustany campaign is airing an endorsement from another venerable Acadia Parish Democrat, Sheriff Wayne Melancon.

Because of these advantages, few Republicans are taking the Stagg campaign as a serious threat.

Denice Skinner, chairwoman of the Lafayette Parish Republican Executive Committee, says, "You see in Mike Stagg's campaign kind of a grass roots revolt of 'How dare you not put up someone against a Republican freshman Congressman?' It's almost a given you're supposed to put somebody up against him. And they didn't."

Boustany also has ignored Stagg's repeated calls for forums or debates on the issues facing the district. (At press time, the Greater Southwest Black Chamber of Commerce was trying to finalize a forum with both candidates). "There is not enough pressure [on Boustany]," says Anthony Fazzio, a local attorney and member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee who insists the public should be entitled to a debate, regardless of the candidates.

Fazzio says some people may be surprised to find out where Boustany stands on issues. When he went to one of the congressman's town hall meetings, Fazzio says a woman in the audience dependent on a minimum wage income asked Boustany why there hadn't been an increase in minimum wage over the past decade.

"He would not answer the question, so I got up and I rephrased it for her, and he still avoided the question. Then he said he did not believe there should be a minimum wage at all and proceeded to use Ireland as an example of a country that had progressed without one," Fazzio recalls. "Ireland," he says incredulously, "which has a minimum wage of something like $10 an hour."

For his part, Stagg has been unrelenting in criticizing Boustany for not debating him. "He's a freshman congressman for God's sake," Stagg says. "It's not like he's been held accountable and answered to every question. In fact, he hasn't been visible in the district. He's in a bubble."

Adds Stagg, "If he's afraid to debate me, little old me, with no money and supposedly an inconsequential candidate, what does that say about his ability to argue for the interests of the district on the floor of the house and in the corridors of bureaucracies like FEMA? If he's afraid to take on me, what does he do when he faces real power?"

Stagg says Boustany's overconfidence plays into his plan as underdog candidate. Stagg, like many other Democrats, believes Boustany's election in 2004 was the Democratic Party's own making. In that election, the state Democratic Party sent out fliers prior to the primary election endorsing state Sen. Willie Mount of Lake Charles, a close friend of Gov. Blanco's, over fellow Democratic state Sen. Don Cravins of Opelousas. After Mount narrowly edged out Cravins in the primary, Cravins publicly refused to support her in the runoff, and Boustany ended up carrying St. Landry Parish, an area where 67 percent of registered voters are Democrats.

"It's still a very Democratic district," says state Sen. Don Cravins, who's just been elected mayor of Opelousas. "You can look at the demographics. The Democratic Party gave that district to the Republicans because of their shenanigans quite frankly. Because of the discontent and the dissatisfaction with the actions of the Democratic Party. Now, have they tried to make amends? Have they tried to come back and involve themselves in appealing to the voters in this district? Up to this point, I would have to tell you no. Because I don't see any real resources being poured into that race. And just from a very practical standpoint I think they're making a huge mistake. As I see it today, there's a lot of discontent, and almost dislocation, within the district where people, if given a choice, you might be quite surprised how they vote."

Back at Skip Picou's Duson trailer, a TV blaring in the background carries the latest CNN report on the Mark Foley scandal. Picou leans forward in his chair. "The Republican Party has done a masterful job of convincing people it's the party of moral values," he says, dismissing the notion as patently false.

"This is a Democratic district, always has been," he continues. "What happened in the last election was a lot of Democrats stayed home. The majority of the people of this district are working poor and middle class. The main thing is to bring them past the sound bite and say, 'This is how this impacts you.' The Republicans are out of touch with these people."

That's a familiar Democratic refrain, but the Stagg campaign's longshot candidacy hasn't done much to inspire a splintered state Democratic party.

"We're the only Democrat in the race," Picou adds, throwing up his hands. "So, we're starting to go to other Democratic officials and say, 'Would it hurt to say, I'm with the Democrat?'"