Cross-wise: One to Watch

by Pearson Cross

Right now it’s Boudreaux vs. Thierry in District 24, but for real excitement don’t count incumbent Elbert Guillory out just yet.

A spectral presence looms over the race for Senate District 24: Elbert Guillory, the incumbent, whose long-standing rivalry with the Cravins family has created a ripple effect that colors and influences the contest to succeed him. Perhaps the most intriguing race in Acadiana this year, the contest features Ledricka Thierry, a representative from District 40, running against firsttime candidate Gerald Boudreaux, the longtime director of the Lafayette Parks and Recreation Department. The 2010 redistricting, which spread District 24 across Lafayette, St. Landry and St. Martin parishes, has set up a contest of regional favorites: Thierry in Opelousas and Boudreaux in Lafayette. And then there is Guillory, the incumbent, who may yet decide to enter the fray.

Guillory has been a charismatic and mercurial presence in recent Louisiana politics, having changed parties twice: once from Republican to Democrat (in order to get elected in the majority minority 24th); and the second from Democrat to Republican (in order to better run for state-wide office). Guillory has won in Opelousas. In 2007, he took the House District 40 seat vacated by Don Cravins Jr. (who left to occupy his father’s longtime Senate seat), besting, in the process, the current holder of the seat, Thierry, 55.9 percent to 20 percent. After serving two years, Guillory moved up to the Senate in a special election, once again replacing Cravins Jr. and in the process handily beating his mother Pat Cravins, who was seeking to fill the seat previously held by her son. In 2011, Guillory dispatched the patriarch of the Cravins clan, Don Sr., in a grudge match (55.6 percent to 44.3 percent). Support for Guillory came from those opposed to the dynastic Cravins family and also from white Republicans in the district, who preferred Guillory by a wide margin.

Despite his success in the solidly Democratic 24th District (62.3 percent), in 2013 Guillory switched parties, and later created a video titled “Why I am a Republican” that went viral on YouTube (1.25 million viewings). Guillory’s switch was heralded by Republicans nationwide, ever hopeful that African-Americans would reconsider their near-absolute fealty to the Democrats. Taken together, Guillory’s party-switch, viral video and prominent role as a spokesman for then-U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy’s successful campaign against Sen. Mary Landrieu were seen as dooming any chance he had of seeking re-election in the 24th — which, at the time, did not seem to matter much given the buzz Guillory had created as a potential candidate for lieutenant governor or even U.S. senator. Although hot for a while, talk surrounding Guillory’s statewide ambitions has diminished, leading Guillory to protest that “rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

Exaggerated or not, Guillory, sporting a negative campaign balance, cannot, at this late date, raise the money necessary to mount a serious run for lieutenant governor. While his finances are thread-bare, his continuing need to be a public figure has increased speculation that he may yet be inclined to defend his 24th District seat. If he does that, his entrance back into the state Senate race would have the largest effect on District 40 rep Thierry, whose base is Opelousas as well.

Attorney Thierry represents central St. Landry Parish including the towns of Washington, Opelousas, Sunset and Lawtell. Barely a victor in her first successful race — she placed second in a 10-person primary and squeaked past third place finisher George Bourgeois Jr. by only .67 percent of the vote — she crushed Anna Simmons in the runoff (61.8 percent to 38.3 percent). Her bid for re-election against Joseph Pitre in 2011 was rewarded with 78.6 percent of the vote in an overwhelmingly Democratic district (66.6 percent). Identified as a moderate Dem, she has received support from a number of business interests, including the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which contributed $5,000 to her campaign in 2011, along with a rating of 45 percent — not bad for a black Dem from a majority minority district. Guillory has been an outspoken proponent of Thierry’s candidacy, telling The Daily World in March that while “it’s time for [him] to move to another level,” [the district needs] “a good quality, experienced, polished, aggressive candidate who can continue [the work]. I believe Ledricka has those qualities.”

More than 78 percent of those living in Thierry’s current district (32,413) also reside in Senate District 24, where they make up 26.75 percent of the entire population, ensuring familiarity among at least a quarter of the district’s voters. Although Thierry is not running as a Republican, she will no doubt use her connections with Guillory and support from LABI to promote her candidacy with white voters, who make up 41.4 percent of her district, and who may hold the key to victory in an election between two black Dems.

Thierry’s opponent, Boudreaux, can lay claim to an electoral base in Lafayette that is slightly larger than her own St. Landry base, while he, too, has support among business and industry interests. The 24th District is split almost evenly between St. Landry and Lafayette parishes, with 39,640 registered voters in St. Landry compared to 40,836 registered voters in Lafayette. St. Martin has 2,799 registered voters representing the remaining 4 percent of the total. Thus, neither candidate can claim electoral supremacy based purely on voter statistics; both must campaign to turn out their home-base and seek to make inroads in their opponent’s community. In Boudreaux’s case, he will rely on his record as Lafayette’s parks director, his volunteer work at Miles Perret and Our Lady of Lourdes, and his leadership of the MLK Day committee, which he has chaired 23 times.

Boudreaux also has strong connections to Lafayette power holders, which include his brother Kenneth Boudreaux, who represents District 4 on the Lafayette City-Parish Council. During the campaign he should be able to count on help from United Ballot, a force in recent elections in North Lafayette. In a recent conversation, Boudreaux emphasized his “calling” to “work and serve” the people of District 24. Boudreaux emphasized that his decision to run would not be changed by the possible re-entry of Guillory: “If that happens, so be it. It will not change my position. I am in for the long haul.”

Even if Guillory remains on the sidelines, the race between Thierry and Boudreaux promises to be a hotly contested one. Voters in St. Landry Parish who supported Guillory against Cravins will likely support Thierry against Boudreaux. Lafayette Parish voters, some of whom will include former supporters of Cravins, will likely support favorite son Boudreaux. Thus, the race will be a contest for regional dominance, and, one hopes, the last chapter in the continuing rivalry between Cravins and Guillory.

Dr. Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, Southern and Louisiana politics. Contact him at [email protected].