Requiem for a Heavyweight Election

by Pearson Cross

Forecasting political races is a dicey proposition, but there is much to be learned from an analysis of getting it wrong.

Photos by Robin May

As regular readers of “Cross-Wise” will perhaps remember, in the March issue of The Independent I predicted that Lafayette Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley would defeat state Rep. Joel Robideaux for city-parish president. I made this prediction based on my sense that Joey Durel had been a popular leader with a strong record of accomplishment that would incline people to look favorably on his CAO, Stanley. I also pointed to the likelihood that Stanley, through years of interaction with Northside businesses, churches and power brokers in his position as CAO, would win a large share of the black vote. In contrast, Robideaux, I opined, was not as well-known as Stanley outside state House District 45 and had been damaged by his role in passing a number of tax bills in the last legislative session which, while balancing the budget and saving higher education from further cuts, had raised taxes on businesses. This later action had earned him the enmity of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which gave him and 93 of his colleagues a well-publicized “F” for their efforts. Thus, I predicted that the two relatively well-known and well-funded Republicans would split the vote in the white precincts of Lafayette with Stanley winning big in the black precincts, propelling him into his boss’s seat. This, of course, is not what happened. In fact, Robideaux defeated Stanley handily by 12 points, 56-44 percent, with a turnout of 40.4 percent. In doing so, he won an impressive majority in 109 of Lafayette’s 128 precincts, leaving Stanley the winner in only 18 (Precinct 084 tied 272-272), and reminding me — once again — that forecasting political races is a dicey and unrewarding business. Mea culpa aside, what were the factors that led to Robideaux’s convincing win? How could I have so misread the outcome of the Stanley-Robideaux race for city-parish president?

“When incumbents step down, voters rarely opt for a replica of what they have, even when that outgoing leader is popular. They almost always choose change over the status quo. They want successors whose strengths address the perceived weaknesses in the departing leader.”
— David Axelrod, from his book Believer: My Forty Years in Politics

Looking back, I overestimated Stanley’s strength in the black community. Recently, a longtime observer of Lafayette politics shared with me a list of nine precincts he regularly consults to determine which candidate will be supported by the black community. These precincts are Northside High (015), Alice Boucher (017, 018, and 019), Sheriff’s Training Center (022, 023), J. Wallace James (024), Sheriff’s Training Center, St. Antoine, (051) and W.A. Lerosen Alternative School (058). I had predicted that these majority-black precincts (boxes) would support Stanley by a considerable margin. In fact, they did not, splitting their votes much like the rest of the parish, even giving a slight majority to Robideaux. Seven of the nine precincts went to Robideaux by an average of 52-47 percent. In the two precincts that voted for Stanley, the combined winning percentage was only 54-45 percent. Based on the aforementioned evidence, black residents of Lafayette split their votes relatively evenly between Stanley and Robideaux and may have even given the edge to the latter. Lest it be said that these nine precincts are unrepresentative of the black community as a whole, it should be noted that in the runoff election they supported Democrat John Bel Edwards over Republican David Vitter by an average percentage of 97.06, led by Alice Boucher (018) which gave Edwards 400 votes to Vitter’s six.

My prediction was also based on the Stanley campaign’s enlisting the help of the well-known political influence group, United Ballot, in getting out the vote in north and east Lafayette. I have since been told by a credible source that he did, in fact, make an arrangement with this group to bolster his support in the black community. While I counted this as a net gain for Stanley, this arrangement may have backfired, as it now appears that United Ballot has largely lost its ability to “deliver” any portion of the black vote and may, in fact, alienate more than persuade. One piece of evidence to support this conclusion is that Councilman Brandon Shelvin, one of the principals of United Ballot along with former Councilman Chris Williams, was defeated handily by newcomer Pat Lewis in District 3. The inability of Shelvin to save himself in a district race that should have been an easy win is an indication of the declining “stroke” of United Ballot and, by extension, the ineffectiveness of Stanley’s outreach efforts in northeast Lafayette.

Another presupposition of my prediction was that Durel’s popularity would transfer to Stanley. This may have been true among some sectors, but it was not enough to overcome several other factors that combined to help Robideaux. The first might be called the “I need a change factor” and accounts for voters choosing to go in another direction even when things seem to be going pretty well. Voters often seem predisposed to make a change just for that reason. Instructively, the same thing happened at the end of City-Parish President Walter Comeaux’s term. Comeaux’s CAO, Glenn Weber, ran to succeed his boss and was defeated by the “change candidate,” Joey Durel, much as Stanley was defeated by Robideaux. A Democrat, Weber was defeated in a runoff against Republican Durel by a 52-48 margin that paralleled Bobby Jindal’s mark against Kathleen Blanco 52-48 in Lafayette Parish the same year. This outcome suggests that 2003 may have been the year Republicans decisively gained control of Lafayette Parish. Showing how long memories of injury can linger in politics, powerful members of Comeaux’s circle have never forgotten their ouster following Durel’s election and hence supported Robideaux as the anti-Durel.

A further development of this theme suggests that over Durel’s 12-year run he had conflictual relations with a number of power holders and constituencies across Lafayette Parish, most pointedly with Broussard Mayor Charles Langlinais. While those at logger-heads with Durel may not have enthusiastically supported a challenge against him while he continued in office, their true sentiments were shown in their support for Robideaux, which denied what might be seen as a fourth term for Durel. This point is made looking at the vote totals from that area. In the six precincts I examined, Robideaux was preferred 61-39 percent over Stanley, far exceeding the parish-wide margin. This indicates that Durel’s quarrels influenced voters’ perception of Stanley’s candidacy, while Durel’s accomplishments seem to have been solely his own. In light of this point, it now seems that Durel’s endorsement of Stanley, once thought to be strongly supportive of Stanley’s candidacy, may have, in actuality, been the reverse, alerting those who had chafed under Durel that a Stanley regime promised more of the same.

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 pearson. [email protected].