CROSS-WISE: Apathy and Ambition

by Pearson Cross

With each passing election cycle, fewer and fewer citizens are throwing their name in the electoral hat.

State Sen. Jonathan Perry
Photo by Robin May

The recent qualifying period ended with a whimper rather than a bang: Nearly half of Louisiana’s state legislators “won” re-election solely because no one had signed up to run against them. The numbers are stark: only 19 of Louisiana’s 39 senators and 56 of its 105 representatives face competition. The rest get a pass.

This shocking reality was not limited to legislative offices. Secretary of State Tom Schedler confirms that 43 percent of the 1,150 offices across Louisiana are going uncontested in this election cycle. In sum, 2,095 candidates are running for 1,150 offices, a total that included “769 Republicans, 951 Democrats and 375 with other party affiliations.” Here in Acadiana, a number of incumbents found themselves relaxing as qualifying passed. Those spared the pain of campaigning for their seats include Acadiana Sens. Eric LaFleur, Fred Mills, Dan “Blade” Morrish, Jonathan Perry and Bret Allain, along with Reps. Jack Montoucet, Stuart Bishop, Mike Huval, “Bob” Hensgens, Bernard LeBas, Taylor Barras and Sam Jones. Other local stalwarts like Page Cortez, Nancy Landry and Vincent Pierre face only token opposition.

Schedler describes the absence of challengers for these hundreds of offices as “astounding,” ascribing the lack to voter “apathy,” although a lack of interest hardly seems likely. Since when does voter apathy affect an individual’s political ambition? The vast majority of registered voters will never run for office because government service is structured in a way that permits only those who possess independent means, are retired or who have flexible job arrangements to serve. As a result, most civic-minded people are left out of the loop, unable to serve even if they wanted to. Imagine a school teacher telling her principal that she will be gone from March to June or a poor single mother jumpstarting a legislative career. In the best of times, candidates for office constitute a very small and select subset of those eligible to run. Consider the numbers: There are roughly 2.9 million registered voters in Louisiana, of those, 2,095 are running for office in 2015. This amounts to something less than 1/10th of 1 percent, which prompts the question: What circumstances or conditions encourage some individuals to seek office while discouraging others? With such a small pool of potential candidates, only a slight change in the structure of incentive and motivation may dramatically limit or expand those who choose to run, which may be what is happening this cycle.

State Rep. Jack Montoucet
Photo by Robin May

Leaving aside the more permanent determinants like job flexibility and affluence, are there other factors in this electoral cycle that could discourage challengers? In my view, there are six such factors: term limits, changes in party politics, declining trust in government, partisan gerrymandering, Jindal’s policy legacy and the media’s preoccupation with the presidential race.

Legislative term limits, which in Louisiana limit continuous office-holding to 12 consecutive years, first had a major effect in 2007. In that year, over half of all legislators then serving were forced to leave office or find another position of service. Given that the Legislature changes 20 to 25 percent of its members during any four-year period anyway, term limits merely added

its separate weight to the long-established practice of waiting until a seat opens up before running, because no one wants to run against an incumbent who has already proved his or her popularity with voters.

A second factor is a change in party affi liation. Between 1995 and 2007, Louisianans increasingly forsook the Democratic Party for the Republican Party. Today, in many non majorityminority districts across the state, potential Democratic challengers decline to compete in races they have very little chance of winning. This multigenerational cross-party transit of the electorate has been accompanied by an overheated rhetoric, which paints members of the opposite party as low and despicable, and government service as something to be avoided rather than sought. The general attack on government and government servants, borrowed in part from contentious national campaigns, has steadily seeped into even the most local of Louisiana races, adding to the distaste with which many view public service.

Adding to the unassailability of incumbents is the increasing precision brought to redistricting, through which safe districts have been crafted for both Republicans and Democrats, following the rule of incumbents “uber alles.” Thirty years of “safe” redistricting has also contributed to the “us against them” approach to governing that limits the extent to which even agreeable politicians can cooperate with politicians from the other party.

State Sen. Fred Mills
Photo by Robin May

Further diminishing the ambition of public-minded citizens has been the legacy of the Jindal administration. In its fervent attempts to remake Louisiana government, the Jindal administration has spawned a multi-year budget nightmare that haunts those returning to Baton Rouge and creates tangible disincentives for would-be legislators. Jindal’s attempts to rein in the size and reach of state government may have been wellintended, but the adventitious and selfjustifying reality of his administration’s machinations have disgusted and repelled even those who believed such efforts necessary and important. Nearly as appalling as Jindal’s budgetary legacy has been his ill-considered attempt to leverage these “achievements” into a legacy on which to launch a national campaign for president. As Jindal campaigns in Iowa and elsewhere, Louisiana teeters on the edge of a midyear budget crash, which will inevitably become the urgent focus of the person unlucky enough to become governor.

Meanwhile, the previously mentioned “apathetic” electorate seems much more taken by Republican presidential politics, which features a large and compelling cast of characters. Sated with the nightly drama of Donald Trump, the electorate has, by and large, ignored the more prosaic amusements offered by state and local elections. Although Louisiana elections were purposely set in odd years in order to escape the pull of national politics, no one at that time ever considered the possibility that presidential politics would spread across the calendar, rendering the softer voices of state politics unintelligible. Sadly for the state that produced Huey Long and Edwin Edwards, no longer do we find state and local elections compelling; rather, they are now offered as an aperitif to be consumed before the main course, the flavor set by the pervading atmosphere of national politics.

Struggling to be heard, to raise money, to campaign in the face of all these factors, the 2,095 candidates for office in Louisiana push on, marching against the current wave of events that grants them little incentive to offer the public their service. To the extent that they do, in the face of these disincentives, they are to be applauded.

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]